New NACS Chairman Kevin Smartt Hopes the Convenience Channel Will Continue to 'Lean Forward'
SPICEWOOD, Texas — New NACS Chairman Kevin Smartt didn't intentionally set out to be a part of the convenience store industry, but little jobs along the way pointed him down the path.
In a recent interview, Smartt — who is CEO of Bonham, Texas-based Kwik Chek, operator of more than 47 c-stores across Texas and Oklahoma — sat down to talk to Convenience Store News and reflect on his journey in the industry, as well as the road ahead.
At age 14, Smartt received his first payroll check from a c-store operator, where he was hired to wash the parking lot, stock shelves and do general tasks around the store. Fast forward a few years and a stint with Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay positioned Smartt to work on a route selling potato chips to convenience stores.
"It's funny how little things in life happen or get put in your path and direct you in certain ways," he recounted.
While at Frito-Lay, the Texas-born-and-raised Smartt was propositioned by his father-in-law, who then owned Kwik Chek, to come work for the family business. Smartt didn’t have an interest in leaving his job at Frito-Lay, and he and his wife enjoyed their life in Plano. But when the couple welcomed their first child, they wanted a change of direction, so Smartt took the opportunity to work for his father-in-law at Kwik Chek, starting in the company’s fuel wholesale business, McCraw Oil Co.
"I told my father-in-law I wanted to earn my way within the company. He put his hand on his desk, looked at me and said, 'Kevin, that will not be a problem.' And it wasn't," Smartt chuckled.
Over the course of more than 25 years, he worked in all facets of the wholesale fuel business and when he finally worked his way through, he made the transition to the retail side of the company, managing stores before taking over marketing, and ultimately becoming president. In 2001, he and a partner bought out his father-in-law 100 percent.
"It was nice to work for a family business but, at the same time, buying the family out and continuing on with a new generation of family was special to me," said the now-CEO, who today oversees all operations and resources for the company.
In addition to Kwik Chek, parent company Taylor-Smart LLC owns several other diversified yet integrated businesses, including: McCraw Oil, which sells to about 140 other c-stores in Texas and Oklahoma; a transportation company that delivers fuel to c-stores throughout Texas and Oklahoma; a fuel propane business that sells to residential consumers in Texas and Oklahoma; a food product manufacturing company that makes and sells salsa to grocery stores such as Sprouts, Whole Foods and Kroger; and a real estate company.
Becoming an Industry Leader
Working for Kwik Chek, Smartt got his first exposure to trade association NACS. His father-in-law began taking the newcomer to the annual NACS Show to gain exposure to the industry and help develop his knowledge and connections within the channel.
After several years, Smartt joined an industry study group. One of the members, Greg Parker of Savannah, Ga.-based Parker’s, who was vice chair of the NACS Research Committee, encouraged him to get involved by joining the committee as an advisor. From there, Smartt became a board member and eventually became chairman of the Research Committee, chairman of the Legislative Committee, and chairman of Conexxus.
"It's evolved from one committee to the next. Along the way, the people and retailers involved in mentoring me and guiding me throughout the years have been tremendous. When it comes to mentorship, one can see the level of commitment throughout our industry, as well as those same retailers' involvement and commitment to NACS," Smartt said, naming Parker, Jay Ricker and Joe Sheetz as some colleagues who have influenced him over the years.
"It didn't just happen with me, and it's exciting to see new-to-the-board retailers going through the same process today," he added. "It's one of the great things we do. We share, we reach out, we mentor and allow those kinds of relationships to happen."
Now, Smartt is taking over the torch as NACS chairman for 2020-2021 during one of the most interesting times for the convenience and fuel retailing industry as it continues to adapt to and combat the novel coronavirus.
"Several people called and expressed their condolences on the cancelled NACS Show this year because I won’t have the traditional inauguration of accepting the title, and I laughed and said, 'Hey, I'm the first virtual chairman,'" he joked. "I'm looking forward to this year ahead because the industry has shown complete resilience during the pandemic, being deemed essential and being there day in and day out servicing communities. Companies are leaning forward and learning how to advance."
Smartt got a taste of what's ahead of him in his new role when he testified before the U.S. Senate in May on behalf of NACS in support of liability protections for essential businesses, such as convenience stores, that have remained open to serve local communities amidst COVID-19.
Although Congress and the Senate have not passed another stimulus bill, which is where the liability protections would be initiated, Smartt found it interesting that there was no confrontation or argument from either party during his Senate hearing.
"It was easy to go and talk about the experiences of the c-store industry during the pandemic in stating the case for the need for liability protection for all essential businesses operating during the pandemic," he said. "I felt that we had support and acknowledgment of what we had done in our industry and what essential workers had done to keep customers and employees safe. It was enlightening and I enjoyed going through that experience."
The Year Ahead
Smartt wants to use his platform as NACS chairman to promote the industry’s efforts surrounding technology, noting that while the channel has done a tremendous job in advancing in this field, there is still a ways to go.
He encourages c-store operators who have the capabilities and resources to expand their digital technology base to do so because it’s vital to the future of their businesses and to the industry at large — both from a competitive perspective as retailers such as goPuff continue to encroach on the convenience landscape and from a COVID-19 perspective, which has forced many operators into new areas of business, such as mobile ordering and contactless payment.
"We are going to have to hit the accelerator on technology, but do it in a smart way," he said. "Our industry has always managed to stay relevant by making the necessary adjustments at any given time, and I truly believe that my peers who are running convenience store companies throughout the country today have the best leadership, along with the most advanced c-store chains than ever before."
2020 has forced the convenience channel to navigate a rocky road, with the experience of COVID-19 altering nearly every aspect of the business — from hiring practices, labor and insurance costs to implementing new technology, all while maintaining a positive customer experience. But there are some bright spots the incoming chairman points to.
"We have to be consistent in how we move forward. If we focus on technology, people and food, and be willing to spend the money to get better in all these areas, I have no doubt our industry will go far," Smartt told CSNews. "I'm excited to watch all of my essential peers in the industry continue to prove their relevance in the retail world. I feel like the c-store industry's future is bright and I'm excited to be chairman of NACS this year."