Remembering September 11

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Remembering September 11

By John Lofstock - 10/06/2002
Over the past 12 months, the lives of Americans slowly returned to normal, and the convenience store industry played a role as people began to heal. In the days following Sept. 11, customers gathered at many local convenience stores, where the doors were almost always open, often just to see a friendly face. When customers panicked, it was convenience store sales associates who were out pumping gas and calming their fears.

Unfortunately, convenience stores were the scenes of further tragedy in the days and weeks following Sept. 11. There were at least three reported cases of clerks of Middle Eastern descent who were unjustly targeted and killed. A year later, the horror of those senseless deaths is fading, but the painful memories of the day terrorists attacked New York, Washington and Pennsyl-vania live on.

To commemorate that tragic day, Convenience Store News, whose headquarters are just a mile from the site of the World Trade Center, talked to four industry executives about their experiences on Sept. 11 and how it changed their lives and businesses. They are: Tariq Khan, chairman of the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees, Jeff Morris, CEO of Alon USA, Rick Lawlor, vice president of sales and marketing for Amerada Hess Corp., and Sonja Hubbard, president and CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc.

Barbara Grondin Francella, Mitch Morrison and Matthew Enis contributed to this report.

Tariq Khan, Chairman of the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Tariq Khan woke to news coverage of the World Trade Center attacks.

The chairman of the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees and franchisee of five stores, had returned to his Long Island, N.Y., home from a speaking engagement in Las Vegas at 1 a.m. and had slept in a bit, turning on the television in time to witness the second plane hit New York's tallest building. Greatly concerned about a family member and a close friend who work in the World Trade Center, Khan drove into his office 10 minutes from his home. He had meetings scheduled with a representative from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and wholesale industry pioneer Drayton McLane Jr.

"On the drive over, I was listening to the news coverage on the radio, when I heard the reporter scream "Oh my God! Oh my god! The World Trade Center has collapsed!" and the tears started streaming down my face," said Khan, who emigrated from Pakistan 30 years ago, and worked in the Wall Street area before starting a career in retail more than 20 years ago.

"I couldn't look at the face of the guy from Brown & Williamson I was meeting," Khan said. "I couldn't control myself emotionally. I still think of that day and it gives me a chill.

Immediately following the attacks, phone service into the New York area was virtually nonexistent and service out of the area was spotty. Still, emails poured in from franchisees and suppliers across the country, asking Khan if he was okay. Khan also reached Jim Keyes, president and CEO of 7-Eleven Inc., who had been trying to call him. Keyes too asked how he could help.

"Everyone was in total shock and wondering how we were," Khan said. "Franchisees from other parts of the country — foreign-born and American-born — were asking what they could do," he said. Half the membership of the franchise coalition is foreign-born.

As news reports began focusing on violence against foreign-born and Arab-American retailers, Khan's customers and others in the communities he serves came into the store inquiring about the employees' safety. "We did experience small incidents, but in our stores and in countless other franchise stores, customers asked us what they could do to help," Khan said. "Only a small percentage of people lashed out at my stores' employees and caused a temporary and unnecessary commotion."

Khan heard from other foreign-born franchisees, worried about the impact of the terrorist strike on their businesses and employees. In some cases, sales dropped off. In Philadelphia, an off-duty police officer entered the store, cursed at the employee and brandished a gun.

Tense Time
In the metropolitan New York area, emotions ran high. One of Khan's stores is in Rockville Centre, N.Y., which lost more than 70 residents in the attack. "I reminded my employees it was a trying time for all of us and to look the other way if anyone made a bad comment," Khan said.

"We all have some prejudice in us. I come from a country where there is only one race, a brown race, but there is still prejudice. Who has one dialect and who has another? Who has darker skin, who has fairer? We are human beings. Our job is to interact positively, not negatively."

Khan also experienced prejudice firsthand after the terrorist attacks. Flying to a conference in late September, he approached the employee behind the TWA counter, ticket in hand. "For 30 seconds, I could read her mind and sense what she was thinking, until I gave her my frequent flier card and my driver's license," he said. "Yes, I have had those experiences.

"Years ago, if someone delayed me at an airport, I'd get uptight. Today, they can take two and a half hours with me, asking me to take off my belt and show my shoes. It doesn't matter to me. I understand and sympathize and I'd rather have my safety, than take a chance."

Twelve months later, Khan said his customers and employees, and those in the other 230 stores in the New York City area, have become much more conscience of their relationship and the roles they have in each other's lives.

"The New York area franchisees have all banded together, foreign-born and American-born alike.

"It was an interesting and tough year. But the majority of the franchise community is very strong and has faith in the system, and in the 7-Eleven system. The company has done a fabulous job to make us know there is no difference between any of us. I would not trade places with anyone. Retailing is in my blood and the 7-Eleven franchisees, employees and suppliers are like my extended family."

Rick Lawlor, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Amerada Hess Corp.
On the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, Rick Lawlor looked forward to his daily gazes at the World Trade Center, its twin towers visible in the distance from Amerada Hess Corp.'s Woodbridge, N.J., office.

It was not just proximity that brought Lawlor and Amerada Hess close to the tragedy of Sept. 11. He and his wife lost four close friends, including Jim Berger, the senior vice president at Aon, a human resources consulting firm. Berger's heroics, placing the lives of his employees ahead of his, are well recorded. He was on the 101st floor of the second World Trade Center tower.

He also left behind three children about the same age as Lawlor's.

"I remember the day like it was yesterday," Lawlor said. "I was in the office when the phone rang. We already knew something was happening at the Trade Center, we knew a plane had crashed into the building. My wife said my good friend was in there. My kids were in school with Jim's kids. They played ball together . . . .

"I lost four people that we knew. This hit me hard. These are people like you and me who go to work in a suit and go home to their families after a hard day. And they died.

"In addition to Jim, one of our building guys went there to run the building, a friend of my wife was in there and one of our Hess guys lost two of his cousins, who were firemen," Lawlor said.

"A lot of people in our building were affected. You have to remember we're a New York company. We have more than 100 stations in the five boroughs of New York City and many were shut down for days because there was a ban on gas trucks in the city."

Inside the Hess high-rise in Woodbridge, Lawlor was among the front line of managers alerting employees as to what was happening just miles away. "I remember vividly going up some floors and asking people if they wanted to stay or go," he recalled. "In 15 minutes, the building was a ghost town. This building was very tense because we knew a lot of people."

What is perhaps less known is the quiet role Hess played in the ensuing weeks and months. In addition to donating $5 million for the relief effort, the Hess corporate store adjacent to its New Jersey headquarters prepared and donated more than 1,000 sandwiches and drinks a day to the FBI task force that was holing up in Newark, N.J., while investigating the terrorist attacks.

"We purposely took no pictures of what we were doing. We didn't think it would be right to seek publicity."

Today, from the plaza level (comparable to a sixth or seventh floor), Lawlor finds himself looking out staring at a skyline that has forever changed. Even now, he said, "It's very strange — big time. It's always in the back of your mind that it could happen again."

Sonja Hubbard, President and CEO, E-Z Mart Stores Inc.
Like many American executives, Sonja Hubbard, president and CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc. watched the tragic events of September 11 unfold on a TV set that she pulled into her office.

"I tried to do some work; send a few e-mails, but it was hard not to feel guilty," she said. "How could anyone pretend that life was still normal, that it was a normal day?"

Though more than a thousand miles from ground zero, shockwaves from the disaster were soon felt at the company's Texarkana, Texas headquarters and throughout its network of more than 450 stores. Nervous customers, fearing renewed attacks, lined up in their cars to buy fuel, completely emptying the tanks at more than a quarter of E-Z Mart's stores.

"I was in our petroleum director's office when one manager called in crying, saying that she didn't know what to do — there were people lined up down the street [to get gasoline] and two men had just gotten into a fight in her parking lot," said Hubbard. "Much of what our managers did that day amounted to crowd control."

Hubbard spent the ensuing hours and days responding to such crises while reassuring employees. A supervisor of Middle Eastern descent bought flags and put them in store windows, and as regional racks reopened, the company quickly put together its "Fueling the Cause" fundraiser, which donated 2 cents per gallon sold at each of the chain's stores to the Red Cross.

"Our customers and especially our employees responded very well to the fundraiser," said Hubbard, who personally pumped gas for customers during the event. "I think everybody was thankful to have some way to help."

Hubbard has since sought ways to blunt the impact of potential future disasters by assembling a crisis committee at her company. The committee will establish protocols for employees to follow in the event of emergencies, and Hubbard explained that one of its primary goals was to calm employees and help them through the crisis.

"We're definitely being more proactive, but you can never really fully prepare," she said. "After all, we have tornado drills, but if one ever happened, the result would still be chaotic.

"We have a responsibility to comfort and reassure our employees in a crisis. That was something that was needed [on Sept. 11], and with the anniversary of the attacks approaching, I don't want that to be taken for granted."

Jeff Morris, President and CEO, Alon USA
Jeff Morris has traveled from the Dallas headquarters of Alon USA to the company's west Texas retail assets dozens of times, maybe even hundreds. But when he boarded a plane for the same trip in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, he had no idea that by the time he landed, the world would change forever.

"It was another ordinary flight for us, but it became a surreal experience," said Morris, who was flying to visit the company's 7-Eleven convenience stores in Lubbock with Alon's managing director David Wiessman.

Morris was one of the fortunate ones. His plane — the last one to touch down that day in Lubbock — landed without incident. "Looking back, I'm not sure if I really comprehended the magnitude of what was happening. It just didn't seem possible," Morris said.

What he does recall is calling home upon landing. "It was extremely emotional," he said. "My wife and family had been watching the events unfold right before them on TV. Hearing their description of what was going on really put things in perspective."

Morris didn't have much time to reflect on what was going on in the world around him. The chief executive of a major oil company rarely has time to relax. In fact, it would be more than 12 hours — 1 a.m. Sept. 12 to be exact — before he was able to get in front of a TV and actually see the destruction everyone was talking about.

In the hours after the attacks, Morris continued with the tour of his convenience stores in west Texas, partly to reach out to employees and customers at the stores. "There was a lot of confusion that morning so I think being out there in the field helped ease some of the tension."

From a retailing standpoint, Morris admits he too was confused in the hours following the attacks. Rumors were running rampant throughout radio call-in shows and on the Internet that Middle Easterners were responsible for the attacks and the nation's fuel supply was in jeopardy. Customers began lining up at convenience stores, with some lines reportedly growing to two miles long.

"I received several calls from my office telling me the majors were raising the price of fuel. What are you going to do?" Morris recalled.

Price Panic
For a short time he raised prices five cents per gallon, as well, but only at the wholesale level. Street prices were untouched. "People were panicking because they feared there was going to be a gasoline shortage, and we reacted," Morris said. "But as a refiner we took a step back and looked at our supplies and knew there wasn't going to be a shortage. About an hour later we lowered our wholesale prices back to normal and issued refunds to wholesalers that were affected."

Then he put the ball in motion to let panicked customers know the same. "We instructed our stores not to turn anyone away and let them know we could meet their demand, no matter how high it was."

Wiessman and Morris decided to drive back to Dallas. It would be days before planes began leaving Lubbock again. The long trip home finally gave Morris a chance to think about what happened that day.

"I was listening to hundreds of callers on several radio shows and there were three central themes: the broken hearts of Americans and how devastating these attacks really were. For many, it was much worse than even a death in the family. The anger and resolve of Americans to bring the perpetrators of the heinous crimes to justice was evident; and the price of gasoline," Morris said. "That last one shocked me.

"I was really surprised by the reaction of people, who on the most tragic day in our nation's history, were concerned about getting gas for their cars."

That concern lasted more than two days. "That's how long it took for people to realize we weren't going to run out of fuel," Morris said.

Some retailers used the events of Sept. 11 to raise prices and keep them up. "There were reports of price gouging throughout the country. I'm sure companies did gouge customers; I hope they have gone to jail. The vast majority of companies in our industry did the right thing and held prices steady. That often gets overlooked because of the criminal acts of a few companies."

Arriving home, Morris sank down in front of the TV and began the painful task of viewing the destruction in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania for the first time.

"Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw," Morris said. "Hearing about the attacks and listening to people describe them in detail still didn't compare to the images I saw on TV. I remember seeing the pain on people's faces and trying to somehow understand the pure evil that had occurred. It was a long night, one that we all are going to relive for a very long time."