Portrait of a Leader

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Portrait of a Leader

By Mehgan Belanger - 09/08/2008
By Mehgan Belanger

Many people in the convenience industry know Sonja Hubbard as dutiful vice chairman and treasurer for the NACS Executive Committee and vivacious CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc., her family's business. But few in the industry have witnessed her artistic side, which influenced her early career aspirations, and now helps her as an artist.

"I really thought I wanted to be a dancer, which is hard to do in Texarkana," she said of her childhood dreams, her voice colored with a Southern inflection that gave away her homeland before she identified it. "In my senior year of high school, I reconciled with myself that it wasn't going to work. I'm too short to be a Rockette."

Today, the convenience store CEO is a member of her local arts council, and credits this involvement as a source of relief from her hectic schedule.

"I've always drawn and painted. It has been my therapy," Hubbard said, noting she has taken art classes with a group of friends for the past 22 years. "It's something I dabble in." Hubbard prefers oil paints and pastels, but has worked with the gamut of art mediums, including watercolor and acrylic paints.

Do not be fooled by her modesty, though. An art gallery recently featured Hubbard's works. "Someone found them worthy of looking at," she joked.

Hubbard was brought up with E-Z Mart, first working there at the age of 16. In high school, a teacher inspired her to go into business, and her father, the late Jim Yates, founder of the company and former NACS chairman, often told her when she was young that she would need a specialty. Hubbard chose accounting and attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. It was there she realized her calling was the family business.

"I was raised with [E-Z Mart]," she said when asked why she joined the company. "I remember [my father] picking the colors, using crayons to come up with the color scheme. He came up with the name from an exit ramp on the Interstate, and when we went on store checks, he'd have us [Hubbard and her younger sister, Stacy Yates, current CFO of E-Z Mart] check the gas prices at other stations when we drove down the road."

There was never pressure to join the business, Hubbard added, noting she "always had an interest" in the company and "once I got involved, it made sense."

Stacy Yates described their upbringing within E-Z Mart as "busy but fun," explaining the two sisters often traveled with their parents to industry events, forging friendships with many people who are still in the industry. It was Stacy Yates' "deep interest in the business" as it grew each year under her father's direction that influenced her to join.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Hubbard worked at two accounting firms and achieved her license before moving back to E-Z Mart, where she initially worked as assistant controller and then CFO. Stacy Yates followed a similar path, working at the office during the summer while she attended high school, later officially joining the company and following Sonja's lead as assistant controller, and then controller.

Ten years ago this December, both Hubbard and Stacy Yates assumed their current roles of CEO and CFO, respectively, upon the untimely death of their father, who passed away in a plane crash.

"There was always the intent we would run the business, and after his death, I assumed the role sooner than anticipated," Hubbard said.

It was at this tumultuous junction that Hubbard pulled the company together as a family, working toward a common goal, said the company's vice president of merchandising, Bubba Kirkland, who joined E-Z Mart in 1974, 24 years before Hubbard became CEO.

"When she was forced to take over the reins due to the tragic death of her dad, she wanted to learn from all her top management and get grounded in all aspects of the business," said Kirkland, noting that many people in her situation would have lead the company without being open to listening and learning the ropes first.

With Hubbard grounded at the helm, E-Z Mart began an evolution and took a strategic approach to store locations. During this time the chain closed many stores, particularly far-flung locations whose low volumes would not take the company "to the next level," Hubbard explained.

In 1998, she launched a significant overhaul of the E-Z Mart store brand, in an effort to refresh it and make one consistent offering across the chain. With a new logo that still incorporated Jim Yates' original color scheme, and a new store design, the brand was unified and a more visible player in its markets, Hubbard said.

"I wanted to evolve E-Z Mart to the convenience store chain of the future, not in a cutting edge type of way, but we had spent a lot of time on acquisitions and really had neglected older locations," she explained, noting at the time she took over, the industry was at a crossroads -- moving away from traditional c-store items and getting into food -- and she sought to discover what would lead the company's success, while still existing in the long term.

Currently, the chain is undergoing a second image refresh under Hubbard's leadership. While the color scheme in the logo remains the same, it has been modernized, with more simple fonts and a circular logo.

"This one is more capsulated, with a circle and E-Z Mart," she said. "It's organic, the way the circle rides over the fascias. It's much more visible, it pops and is a much cleaner look."

Several E-Z Mart locations feature the latest look, and the new logo is rolling out to other elements of the store, including on cups and new products, according to Hubbard.

But she has yet to discover a silver bullet. When asked if her original vision had come to fruition, she said it had not. "What I hoped for 10 years ago, a lot of that has been reached. But now, things have changed, and we have to do even more."

In the last 10 years, E-Z Mart has progressed at an accelerated pace, said Hubbard's husband, Bob Hubbard, who is also E-Z Mart president and COO, and has worked at the company for nearly 22 years. "Part of the reason is that our industry has dictated we change to remain competitive, but the major reason we have changed is Sonja has pushed us and led us to improve our company," he explained.

Due to the industry's evolution and the many simultaneous projects the chain undertakes, Sonja Hubbard claims she is never bored. "It keeps us going. Why else would someone work so hard for such little margins?" she joked.

Stacy Yates viewed this as her sister's incredible work ethic. "She works harder than anyone in the company, so all of her peers have a great deal of respect for her," she said.

Bob Hubbard echoed the sentiment. "She is a very dedicated, hard worker. She sets a high standard for us all," he said. "Very few have the drive to succeed that Sonja has."

Yet with all the changes she brought, Sonja Hubbard acknowledged it does not get easier with time. "One of the big lessons I've learned is how difficult change is," she said. "Even when closing a store, like the early ones, it's personal. I can remember when my dad built them. But you have to make business decisions."

Despite this, Hubbard said she "thrives" on change. Husband Bob Hubbard attested to that. "When I leave home for a few days, I never know what I will find when I return," he said. "It could be a new piece of furniture, or it could be all of the furniture has been rearranged. She may have painted one or more rooms a different color. Nothing surprises me anymore."

At E-Z Mart, Sonja Hubbard uses change as a tool to push for progress. "We should question everything, question every established rule," she said.

All in the Family
Being a family-operated business sets E-Z Mart apart from large corporations in the industry.

"Those bigger entities aren't running all their stores. Neither am I, but the personality changes. Their stores all look alike with the same product mix," she said, explaining large corporations can be successful, but approach the industry in a different manner than her family-focused company. For example, Hubbard's family stretches beyond bloodlines.

"I think E-Z Mart is our baby and our family, and I don't mean just [my family]. My management team -- these guys have given us their lives. Some have grown up with the business. I care about them, and I value that they were willing to make such a commitment," she said.

Her caring nature is one of her best qualities as a leader, according to Kirkland. "She truly cares about and stands behind her people," he said.

Hubbard hopes this feeling is then reciprocated to the chain's customers.

"It's not just numbers and bottom lines. There is nothing better than meeting people in the field. They are the ones who make a difference," she said, adding the company recognizes tenured staff with service awards, and the highest performing stores are rewarded with vacations. "Our people are the most important asset. We can have the fastest registers and pumps, but if the clerk isn't cordial, it doesn't matter. None of it matters."

As the convenience industry continues to consolidate, however, Hubbard is certain family-owned businesses such as hers will diminish as the next generation sees opportunities outside of the industry, and lucrative offers are presented to family-run businesses by large, acquisition-hungry firms.

"It's a tough business," she said. The next generation of her family is nephew Yates, 9, niece Kenzie, 14, and daughter Lauren Leigh, 21. "[Lauren] says 'Mom, you work too hard. Why would I want to do that?' The next round may think there are other things that are easier to do."

Following Footsteps
After the death of the legendary Jim Yates, the culture at E-Z Mart did not change, but the leadership style at the top evolved -- fostering an environment of teamwork and mutual responsibility.

"Everyone knew where the buck stopped," Hubbard said of her father's leadership style. "He didn't rule everything. People had more of their own turf and had their own leeway to independently make decisions."

Conversely, Hubbard said she has "broken down territorial walls and barriers" by making all parties accountable. "I don't care if you are the director of merchandise. If you see a problem with security, it's your responsibility too," she explained.

Under her leadership, E-Z Mart has become "a more open and flexible organization," said Bob Hubbard, noting Sonja's desire of change has brought major exterior and interior image upgrades and a focus on improved technology, which ultimately, has given the chain much better information and allows it to make better and quicker decisions, he said.

When making decisions, the executive team works together to come to conclusions, and both Stacy Yates and Bob Hubbard described the process as democratic.

"Sonja is a good listener and values others' opinions," he said. "She encourages people to think and bring new and different ideas to the table."

Sonja Hubbard, meanwhile, credited her team for their efforts.

Despite her admitted tendency to be "strong-willed and stubborn," she said all of her ideas are discussed with E-Z Mart's team. "I'm a pretty strong believer that team ideas are better than individual ideas," she said.

The management team has also taken a broader view of the business under her leadership, said Kirkland. There's "more focus within the management team on what is happening not only in the c-store industry, but things that have an opportunity to affect the c-store industry."

As for being a woman in an industry that has historically focused on male customers, Hubbard said it helps being female. She is able to take a different perspective on women's wants from convenience stores.

"There's the management team, who think 'there's coffee, its fresh,' but women are more aesthetic," she said. "I ask how the lid is going to work and what are the creamer options. It's those little things that I tend to focus on."

And although Hubbard will make c-store industry history when she becomes the first female NACS chairman come October, she is honored, yet modest, about the position.

"Just being NACS' chairman is a huge honor. It says others within the industry feel I'm knowledgeable, can represent them and am worthy [of the position]. There is no higher pinnacle you can achieve than for others who know the business to say you are worthy. I didn't want this because I'm a woman, I wanted to earn it."

The position also has a personal significance for Hubbard. "My dad wanted me to get involved in the industry and become active. He would be proud, which makes it a little more special," she said.

As NACS chairman, Hubbard plans to continue the positive steps the association is taking on various fronts.

"I'll focus on what we are already doing: continue to expand NACS' presence on Capitol Hill, do a great job of marketing the industry and what we stand for, improve perceptions and open the doors to more people," she said, adding the industry must unite and become active in NACS and its various committees, in an effort to be involved in regulations impacting the industry.

Among Hubbard's top-of-mind concerns for the industry are the economy, high gas prices, competition and consumer trends.

"People [are] transitioning to high gas mileage vehicles. Does that impact us? Certainly. The overall competition of the industry puts pressure on a lot of people, and credit card fees provide a small tolerance for problems and blips," she said, noting in her business, store locations in more rural areas are allowing the chain to weather the tough economy better than those in urban markets.

"We have stores in small areas and more rural towns and within these, we didn't have the escalation in real estate values that was seen in more urban markets. Then there was the bust, and here, there wasn't anywhere to go down [in value]," she said.

And high gas prices are a double-edged sword for the company. "That hits everyone's pocket," she said, adding there is little public transportation in her markets and many people own pickups. However, as consumers consolidate trips, she anticipates her chain and the convenience industry will stand to benefit.

"I haven't seen any inside sales deterioration," said Hubbard. "I have been cautiously optimistic about our current operations."

Her long-term concerns center around regulation of the industry. "We continue to see the government try to control more facets. People don't realize we are one of the most highly regulated industries in the world. I fret over where the tobacco category is going and what will happen with motor fuels."

Despite this uncertain future, the dynamic CEO maintains a strong passion for the industry and her company, which is always evident when she speaks.

"The definition of convenience has changed, but still holds true. And we can provide that. The product may be different, but we're still selling convenience. We will always have a purpose and niche within society if we sell convenience."