Skip to main content

Road Warrior

It's a pretty simple philosophy that James A. "Jimmy" Haslam adheres to in his role as the president and CEO of Pilot Travel Centers LLC. Lead by example is his mantra. "By that I mean that if I expect people to do the right thing, then it is important that I do the right thing," he said. "If I expect people to work hard, then I must do it. If I expect that they will treat people fairly, then I must treat people fairly."

Haslam never really had to look very far to find role models to help guide his own transformation. "I was continually exposed to good leadership and I could see firsthand how good leaders act and how they operate," he said.

His father, James Haslam II, had always been a leader. "He was captain of his college football team, he was a community leader and he was head of a business," Haslam explained. The elder Haslam led the University of Tennessee Volunteers in 1952, and later entered the military and served in Korea, his son said. In 1958, the family-owned company that would later be known as Pilot was born as a single gas station in Gate City, Va.

Leadership lessons occurred outside of work time, too. Jimmy Haslam said he absorbed from his father leadership traits in other ways: "Everything from a pickup basketball game on Sunday, my father being the guy who picks the team and organizes the game, to heading up community organizations such as the United Way," he said.

The people factor is the most difficult aspect of corporate leadership, Haslam said. "Running a business in today's environment is extremely competitive. If you are not continually changing and evolving, you're not going to be successful. Unfortunately, everybody in your organization is not able or willing to change as they need to.

"Having to terminate an employee that you have tried to save is certainly the most difficult challenge for any manager," he said.


Pilot leaves little to chance in identifying and cultivating its leaders. Haslam described "Pilot University," a program in which Pilot general managers, restaurant managers and those aspiring to management meet about every other week in Knoxville. They learn both technical skills to help them as well as leadership skills, and Pilot's top executives have dinner with them. One of the last nights of the class is always a casual pizza and beer session and is used to get attendees' feedback on what they believe the company is doing well and what needs improvement, Haslam said.

Haslam attends every one of these final pizza-and-beer sessions — a large commitment for a busy executive. Haslam insists that it's worth it. "It's a great opportunity. We'll have 20 to 30 people there, and it's a great opportunity to leverage our time with the future leaders of our company in a really relaxed setting and environment, much different from our stores, where the pace is really hectic. It's a place where we can really sit back and talk, and have a great exchange of information."

Just as the up-and-coming leaders attend to learn and grow, Pilot's top brass learns from the attendees. "I usually start out by asking them how their Pilot University week has been going," Haslam explained. "They will generally respond positively, and so I'll say, 'What was good about the week? What were your four or five key takeaways?' And then we'll say, 'What can we improve upon? What can we do better? What can we spend more time on? Less time on?'"

The result is that Haslam and his team garner valuable tips on improving Pilot University.

Then Haslam opens the floor to a general question, saying, "Let's talk about anything you all want to. That may run the gamut from 'Hey, I heard we are building a new location,' to questions about margins or gasoline and diesel prices, to 'When are you coming to my store next?'" he said.

"Then I'll ask the group in general what they think we can do better in Pilot Travel Centers." The answers range from suggestions for the support center or headquarters office to suggestions on how a new store's check-out queuing area can work better to take care of customers. "Some input is small and will barely move the needle, and other suggestions are large and will have a fairly significant impact on the company," Haslam said. "All the time in those sessions you are teaching and coaching."

Pilot keeps a constant eye on the new potential leaders. "We spend a tremendous amount of time talking about what we call 'future leaders,'" Haslam said. "We have quarterly financial reviews with these people so we can continually coach and mentor them into higher roles.

"We are constantly identifying people at various stages in the organization that have the potential to do more. Once we identify them, we put a development plan into play. People throughout the organization are involved in that development plan and they are 'touching' those future leaders to insure that they are ready to go to the next level."

These future leaders know they are being targeted. The development team involves their direct supervisor, several people higher up in their division, human resource leaders, the vice presidents of the company, and Haslam.

In addition, the top executives are constantly traveling around the country visiting stores weekly. Haslam said, "When we visit stores, we meet and spend time with all of our employees, thus allowing us to get an accurate assessment of their development."

Haslam said the two most critical components of his job are allocation of capital and evaluation of talent. "We obviously need capital to grow our business and have a continual need for good people."

He cited one employee as a good example of how the steady eye on talent at entry level can yield good leaders for the corporate office. "One who comes immediately to mind is Jerry Beets," Haslam said. "He started with Pilot in the mailroom. Today he is manager of accounts receivable. In that job, he is in charge of our entire credit operation where he is responsible for over $100 million of receivables."

He added, "We are a people company on both sides of the checkout counter. When you have good people taking care of customers, you obviously create a win-win situation."

Also at the Helm

Each ship has only one captain, but it takes a well-trained crew working together to keep a vessel seaworthy and on course. Leadership in convenience store organizations, too, is always a matter of team work. We asked members of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Travel Center's top management team to discuss their roles in leading the company. They also described the view of the industry from their perspective.

Mitch Steenrod, vice president and CFO, takes pride in financing Pilot Travel Centers with the lowest cost capital possible in order to make the company more competitive and a formidable foe in the industry, he said.

“First and foremost, though, is the interesting and challenging aspect of a finance organization playing a role in generating profitability for the company and generating ideas relating to the operations of the company,” he said, adding that being involved in modifying and implementing those programs that are rolled out to generate profitability for the company are also at the top of his list.

The people factor, not surprisingly, is also an important challenge, he said. The company must have the ability to “attract people and develop people and enhance the careers of people that are key contributors to the organization. We want them to develop a sense of ownership in the company to be committed to helping drive results and drive performance.”

Steenwood said high-quality grab-and-go food is a key priority as c-stores and travel centers seek to replace shrinking sales or profits in the cigarette and gasoline categories. However, he highlighted other offerings: “Replacement dollars also will come from the advent of more and more service-type activities in the travel centers whether it be bill payment through electronic means or self-service kiosks where we can generate incremental revenue without taxing the labor or resources of the store. And we must continue to make sure we are efficient.”

Mark A. Hazelwood, executive vice president, sales and development said the most challenging aspect of his job as a leader at Pilot is “dealing with the competitive nature of our business and the changing environment -- and finding the people who can adapt to that.”

His twelve-hour days include meetings and conference calls on Mondays and Fridays, but the rest of the week finds him on the road search for new real estate, meeting with trucking customers, traveling with the sales force, visiting locations and working on facility revenue - “other income” such as scales, check-cashing, lottery and new and creative ideas that contribute to the bottom line, he said.

Hazelwood said a search for new leadership in a role like his would focus on “someone who is inspiring and has a tremendous amount of energy.”

The c-store and travel center industry in general demands that new, young leaders have “have tremendous dedication. If they are dedicated and will work hard, they will succeed.”

He added, “This isn't rocket science, it's just hard work. We are trying to simplify some of our jobs, to make the jobs easier. That should help with recruitment.

The bottom line is this is an extremely tough business. No other company should get into it!”

Ken Parent, senior vice president, operations and marketing named three key challenges that keep him on his toes at work: “Number one: finding and developing talent that is able and willing to be extremely hands-on and dig deeply into the details while still adding value from a broad strategic perspective. Number two: ensuring that I spend most of my time in the areas where I can make the most impact. And number three, pushing downward through the company the cultural changes that are needed as we grow and evolve as an organization.

He described one aspect of that evolution: the development of Pilot's food programs. “We continue to selectively expand our offerings whether that's our custom-made sandwich program that we've added or our expanding bakery goods such as cookies and brownies. We recently added the Icee brand from a frozen carbonated beverage perspective.”

He said the names chosen for the food and beverage brands reflect the need for speed. “'Pilot: Good to Go' is an example of that. We also have “Crazy about Coffee.'”

Pilot Travel Center billboards beckon travelers with the slogan, “The best coffee on the interstate.”

Hazelwood described himself as “an extremely competitive person” who thrives on continually making Pilot a better company. His inspiration comes from both inside and outside the c-store industry: big-box retailers, grocery chains, best-in-class c-store chains. When he seeks information on key industry happenings, where does he turn? “Vendors,” he said, “are good sources of information about trends within the marketplace.”
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds