Retailer Executive of the Year Darren Rebelez Sees Endless Possibilities
ANKENY, Iowa — Convenience Store News’ 2020 Retailer Executive of the Year Darren Rebelez, president and CEO of Casey's General Stores Inc., acknowledges much has changed in the convenience channel since he began his career in the industry.
"If I think back 20-plus years ago, the competitive landscape looked very different," he said. "There wasn't as many large players, and now you have some really big players. Some of those competitors that have been around for a long time have gotten bigger.”
Technology has evolved as well. Twenty years ago, he pointed out, there wasn't the prevalence of mobile technology; there weren't loyalty programs; and there wasn't electronic payment.
At the center of it all, consumers have changed, too, and continue to do so.
"Guest preferences for particular products are always evolving and changing, so being able to be nimble enough to adapt the product assortment to meet the needs of guests today vs. what might have been even a few years ago has certainly changed," Rebelez said.
Changing consumer trends have also redefined “convenience” itself, he added. "As people become more and more time-pressed, there is a greater and greater need for convenience, but what used to be convenience 20 years ago isn't necessarily convenient today," he explained. "It's really incumbent on us to continue to evolve, stay close to the consumer and make sure we understand what it is they expect from us for a convenient experience."
Amidst all the changes, Rebelez also acknowledges that some things have stayed the same.
"This has always been, in my opinion, a people's business and it always will be a people's business. To the extent that we can attract and retain great talent and develop those people and reward those people, we will be successful in this business," he said. "That has been true everywhere I've been, and I expect that will continue to be the case in the future."
Convenience stores’ role in the community also holds steady, as does the need for convenience.
"No matter how the world evolves and how lifestyles change, people are always going to want to have some way of getting through the day just a little bit easier and to have that quick shopping trip to either fill in or satisfy a craving or immediate need. They rely on us to provide that service," he said. "That will always be there; it will just look a little different than it does today."
Striving for Greatness
With a strong team, a great financial plan and a solid balance sheet, Rebelez believes the possibilities are endless for Casey’s, where he took the reins as president and CEO in June 2019.
"We have a massive addressable market. We have 2,200 stores in 16 states, but of those, 2,000 are in nine states. We still have a lot of room to grow in our existing footprint, but if you step back and look at the entire U.S., there are small towns and communities in every state," he said.
"There really is no reason why our brand of convenience, our way of showing up in the community and our way of engaging with the community and providing our famous Casey's pizza and everything else that we do, can't resonate everywhere," he added.
At the same time, the CEO believes Casey's has the opportunity to do what it does better.
"I think our team has come to that realization: we are pretty good, but we can be great. We show up every day and try to be better than the day before and [are] continuing on that path," he said.
In fact, the Retailer Executive of the Year thinks they are just getting started.
“When I think about the team we put together, I think nine or 10 of our recent executives are still working on their first year at Casey's. We've been able to accomplish a lot in a short period of time,” he said. “I'm really excited to see what this team can do."
Casey’s got to work charting a new strategic roadmap in fall 2019 and, according to Rebelez, it’s been a great opportunity for the leadership team to work together and focus on the future of the business and where it can take the brand.
"We identified a lot of opportunities where we could build the business and grow the business," he told CSNews. "What's great about Casey's is that it's been such a great business for such a long time, but there's still an opportunity for us to be what I call a more contemporary and better version of ourselves. That's what the team rallied around — that opportunity to do what we do and be authentic to our brand, but still be able to unlock a lot of opportunity and accelerate our growth."
Casey's presented the strategic plan to its investors in January and began to bring on additional talent to help the company fill in some capabilities it didn't have.
"We've been very fortunate over the last year to bring in some terrific talent, expand the leadership team, and diversify the leadership team at the same time," Rebelez said. "Right now, we really have an ideal mix. About half of our extended leadership team — about 27 people — are people who have been at Casey's a long time and have all that institutional knowledge. The other half are people we brought in in the last 18 months to backfill people who were retiring or to add additional capabilities."
The blend of new people bringing different, diverse experiences and new perspectives balanced with a lot of institutional knowledge gives Casey's the best of both worlds, the chief executive noted.
For his role in leading Casey's through both its strategic roadmap and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as his 20-plus years in the foodservice and convenience retailing businesses, Rebelez was selected as the 2020 Retailer Executive of the Year. He will be celebrated at a virtual awards program on Dec. 10.
This annual award recognizes a retailer executive who exemplifies leadership, business acumen, dedication to the convenience industry, and commitment to community service.
Although this is an individual award, Rebelez credits his Casey's team for the honor.
"I am very appreciative of this recognition, but this really is a team sport here,” he said. “It is an award that I will happily accept on behalf of the entire team — all 38,000 of our team members, most of whom are working in our stores every day and supporting their communities in tough times and in good times. All the credit goes to the team and everything they have been able to accomplish."