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A New Industry View


Over the past 10 years, Tom Robinson, president of Robinson Oil Corp. in San Jose, Calif., increased his involvement in NACS by attending more events and joining the board of directors. Heavily involved with government relations on the executive committee, he was looking forward to exploring more of the industry and the association as 2012 NACS chairman.

Now, almost a year later, he tells Convenience Store News that he has had the opportunity to attend events hosted by NACS and other associations that he had not attended in the past, while meeting new people and expanding existing relationships.

"As chairman, you have an opportunity to travel a lot and in some instances, managing your calendar is as big of a challenge as anything else," Robinson said, citing NACStech as one of the shows he attended for the first time as chairman.

CSNews recently caught up with Robinson to see what big issues NACS tackled this year, and what he learned from his experience as chairman.

CSNews What has the past year as NACS chairman been like for you?
It's been a very fast year. Personally, it's been a great year for me in the sense that I've met many more members, both retailers and suppliers, and I've actually gone to more NACS events than I would typically go to. It's interesting to go as an observer and look at our offering. I've also had the opportunity to go to some other types of events, like state associations and other industry groups, so I was able to see the industry more broadly.

CSNews: What has been your favorite part?
My favorite part has been making connections and meeting people. It's an opportunity to see what other people are doing, talk to people I know and meet new people. That has been the most fun, and it occurs in all different venues. It might occur when we are doing our Day on the Hill, NACStech or our Leadership Forum, and it might occur during some other group visits. It's great to meet people you know to maintain connections, as well as make new connections.

CSNews: What industry issues did NACS tackle this year, and what has been the outcome?
I believe NACS does a good job in identifying issues early. For example, swipe fees have been an ongoing battle for many years. We had the debit card Durbin victory last year, and now there is actually a proposed settlement that is the fruits of the labor started a long time ago. It's not a settlement that retailers or associations are happy with because it's a significant amount of money but it doesn't change behavior.

We are also dealing with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on a couple of different issues. Menu labeling passed as part of the health care bill and the FDA is putting together the regulations. NACS is involved with making sure they fit practically with the association and industry. FDA and tobacco is another issue NACS is participating in regarding putting together requirements, and that is an ongoing activity.

In terms of PCI [Payment Card Industry] compliance, the credit card companies and banks put together the rules and regulations and NACS is trying to be involved with the process and have a seat at the table. NACS is concerned about security, but also about technologies that are cost effective.

For roll-your-own tobacco, there was an unlevel playing field with self-service machines as far as taxes go. Now, they are considered manufacturers and required to pay taxes, so that issue was leveled.

Issues around fuel liability continue as we deal with the requirement of blended fuels. With the current system, it is very difficult for retailers to sell legal fuels legally. It's really important there be a mechanism to certify existing equipment, so as each new fuel comes into the market people don't have to put in new pipes, dispensers and more. Also, in terms of letting consumers know certain fuels should not go into certain vehicles, in a self-serve environment, retailers should be shielded from responsibility if in five years somebody decides the fuel isn't good for whatever reason.

CSNews: What are you leaving behind for the new chairman to take over?
All of the above in the sense that I wouldn't claim any one of these issues are things I brought to the table, or that I had the responsibility to complete. Over the last few years, NACS has worked harder and harder to improve its grassroots efforts. NACS continues to push initiatives in a variety of areas around making sure we are providing value to the member. So, (incoming chairman) Dave Carpenter has to continue to monitor this and question whether we are continuing to provide that value to the industry -- both to retailers and suppliers.

I look at the job of chairman, and I believe we have a fiduciary responsibility to oversee finances so the money is being spent prudently and wisely, and being an ambassador to the association and industry. So, Dave will have the opportunity to do that.

CSNews: What have you learned in the past year that you didn't know before starting this journey?
I've always done a lot of government relations work, and I continue to have a significant involvement in that, but I wanted to broaden it. This year, I had the opportunity to speak at the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, and it was very interesting to see how one state has established really strong relationships with its elected officials.

I also went to NACStech this year, and I had never been before. We always had people go, and I always assumed it was more tech centric than I might be, but I thought it was great. I thought the sessions this year were more about marketing than about technology. The trade show was such a nice size. It was manageable and focused, so in a couple of hours you had the opportunity to wander and focus on vendors. It was a good experience for me.

CSNews: What surprised you about your role as NACS chairman?
I don't know that I was particularly surprised. I think I was more impressed. If I came away with anything, I think No. 1, I came away with a feeling NACS is on the right track because I had the opportunity to look more broadly at the offering. No. 2, I was able to really see that the industry is amazingly healthy, resilient and optimistic in a period that, at best, has not been good economically.

There are a lot of positive things going on in our industry, and I was very impressed with that. Not necessarily surprised because I have been around the industry a while, but it was just impressive to see how well we are doing.

CSNews: What are you most proud of?
I have a great deal of respect for the people that play a volunteer leadership role in NACS and in other associations. I think the group of past chairmen is a very impressive and distinguished group. The opportunity I've had to participate and be involved in this role over the last year is something I will always appreciate and cherish.

With that said, I think my overall responsibilities were to provide feedback as a regular member and be an ambassador for the association and participate both for the association and for the industry where I could. To the extent that I was able to provide value, I would consider that an accomplishment.

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