The Sheetz family name and Sheetz Inc. have become synonymous with convenience retailing. What started in 1952 as a single convenience store has evolved into one of America’s fastest-growing family-owned and -operated c-store chains with more than 700 stores across a six-state footprint — and still expanding — and more than 25,000 associates.
Family leadership has been a hallmark of Sheetz Inc. since the company’s beginnings in Altoona, Pa., more than 70 years ago. Keeping a Sheetz family member at the helm is intentional, but there are fairly newer structures in place to ensure the company’s longevity should a Sheetz choose not to take over or cannot fulfill the role.
“We do feel that we keep our name on the building because our family name is our trade name. We don't have some generic name on the type of store we operate; it's Sheetz. In some ways, the family and the brand have become synonymous,” Joe Sheetz, who was appointed Sheetz Inc.’s chairman of the board of directors earlier this year, told Convenience Store News.
“We've built a pretty good brand, and it feels so much more comfortable for us to have somebody from the family leading the effort. However, we've taken steps to make sure this place could run very well if we don’t have somebody who’s willing or able to do it because we would never put somebody who’s not qualified to do it in a position just because they have the name,” he said.
At one point in time, Joe didn’t know he would take on any executive leadership role at the family business, let alone sit at the top one day, nor did he know the role he’d play in shoring up the family’s and Sheetz Inc.’s longevity in convenience retailing.
Joe, who was officially recruited to Sheetz Inc. in 1995, came aboard as director of personnel. After a year and a half, he was promoted to chief financial officer. As the years progressed, he took on increasing responsibilities, adding more and more departments to his oversight — from human resources to finance, accounting, IT, real estate, construction and store development. It had gotten to the point where he wasn’t even sure what his title should be.
All of these roles were preparation for his eventual rise to president and CEO in 2013, a position he held until 2018. He served solely as CEO until December 2021.
“Before I even took over, we had a sort of check-in meeting with the family to ask, what’s the long term here? Is this going to remain a family business? The answer to that ended up being a very emphatic yes,” Joe recalled. “I said, well, if that’s the case, we need to put a different structure together.”
With that, the then-CEO spearheaded one of the most important projects that would secure Sheetz Inc. for the future: the creation of a formal fiduciary board of directors.
Today, the Sheetz Inc. board of directors brings valuable and different perspectives to the company's strategy and long-term vision through a mix of inside and outside expert views. The board's goal is to hold senior leadership accountable to growing the company and operating with the company's shareholders' best interests in mind.
When it was established, the board was a sort of cultural change for the company, Joe acknowledged. “Everybody's got to go to the board for certain things and for certain feedback or for certain approvals. So, there was a transition that needed to happen, almost a cultural transition at the upper level that I needed to make sure went well so that this board would then perpetuate itself and it would just be the way things are hopefully forever,” he said.
To ensure future successors for the company, another important structure was set up with the intention of preparing future Sheetz family members for potential leadership across the organization. Rotational programs allow these potential leaders to gain exposure across multiple departments and “get a well-rounded view of what we do,” Joe explained.
“We had to get this family talent pool the development they deserve and the experiences they need, and set us up for the next generation or two,” he said.
A Family Affair
For his leadership, business acumen and dedication to the c-store industry, Joe Sheetz is this year’s retailer inductee into the 2023 Convenience Store News Hall of Fame. He was previously honored as the Retailer Executive of the Year by CSNews in 2018.
Joe is the third Sheetz family member to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. His uncle, Steve Sheetz, was inducted in 1995, followed by his cousin Stan Sheetz in 2013.
“I've spent a little more than half of my life working full-time here, and that doesn't even count every summer when I was in high school and when I was in college. To have some recognition for all those hours and all that hard work, it feels good because you're never doing it for those reasons. And in some ways, time flies and you don't even realize how long you've been doing it,” Joe said. “But it is definitely an honor — especially because it's happened before in my family. It's always nice to live up to your mentors; in my case, my cousin and my uncle who preceded me.”
As the new board chairman of Sheetz Inc., Joe also succeeds those two family members, filling the role previously held by Stan, who served from October 2013 to February 2023, and Steve, who served from October 1995 to October 2013. Stan will remain an active member of the board, while Steve will maintain a role as director emeriti.
Travis Sheetz, Joe’s brother, succeeded him as CEO in 2022. As board chairman, Joe will oversee the board's activities as they relate to corporate governance and risk, executive appointments and compensation, and long-term planning.
Something he learned as CEO that he plans to carry with him in his new role of chairman is the importance of delegating or, as he puts it, “Sit in the middle and direct the orchestra.”
“I spent a lot of time evaluating the CEO position when I was in it and tried to really look at the things that are necessary in a company our size, but are highly distracting to the CEO and take away from your ability to be as good as you can be running the operation. Things like government relations and interaction with shareholders,” Joe explained.
“I think we'll feel our way through the role for a couple of years and see what makes sense to keep under this role and maybe what makes sense to put somewhere else in the company. But at our size, you can't leave the CEO alone and say, ‘You're in charge of everything.’ We need a structure where that job is manageable and makes sense,” he added.
With the decision that Sheetz Inc. would remain a family-run business, reinvesting in its assets became another central tenent of Joe Sheetz’s tenure as CEO. Under his watch, Sheetz Inc. rebuilt and remodeled hundreds of stores “because if you’re making the commitment that we’re in this, then you’ve got to keep your assets fresh,” he stressed.
“We had done a great job of growing, but we really weren't going back enough to those stores that were 20 or 30 years old. We were doing some cosmetic stuff, but our model had changed so much. Food had grown so much and we needed space, and we needed space set up in a certain way,” Joe recounted. “So, you really had to do it if you were going to have longevity. We built around 175 stores in my eight years as president and CEO, but we rebuilt and remodeled even more than that.”
Fast forward to today and Sheetz Inc. is prepared for long-term growth. This past September, the chain marked a milestone with the opening of its 700th convenience store.
At the end of 2022, the company announced plans to expand into a new market, with the first Sheetz store in Michigan expected to open in Detroit at the end of 2024. Its move into the Great Lakes State marks the first time Sheetz Inc. has expanded into a new state in nearly two decades — when it opened its first store in North Carolina in 2004.
When asked if 1,000 stores is still the gameplan for Sheetz Inc., as he told CSNews back in 2015, Joe said the culmination of that journey is probably only five or six years away.
“We are absolutely in high-growth mode right now. We did 45 stores this past year and we’re going to do 55 stores next year, so it’s definitely going to happen,” he shared. “We feel good about our model and what we’ve been building. We feel good about the geography that we have in front of us because it doesn’t have anything like us.”
A Front-Row Seat to Change
When he reflects on how much the convenience store industry has changed during the course of his 30 years at Sheetz Inc., the newest Hall of Famer says he is most surprised by how complicated the business has gotten.
“It feels like our roots were that you found a location that was convenient to a neighborhood or highway, you built a building and you packed it full of products, and you sold stuff. If it didn’t sell, you replaced it. But if it sold a lot, you doubled your inventory. It was very much a merchant mentality of how to run the store,” he explained. “Now, you drive around here [Altoona] today and we’re running our own distribution centers and our own commissaries and bakeries. And we're delivering almost everything we sell to ourselves, and we're trucking our own fuel and we're buying our own fuel and we're trading fuel with people all over the country. And it has just gotten very complicated.”
These complications were born of necessity, Joe admits, noting the way the world has changed and consumers’ new definition of convenience. With this mindset, he and many other company leaders have often said that it is Sheetz Inc.’s mission to constantly reinvent itself and put the Sheetz as consumers know it today out of business.
“The beauty of that vision statement, and it's been around for a long time, is you can take it in a lot of different directions. I think what we really intended it to be was if we opened a new store that we're opening today next to one of our stores that had been there for 10 years, the new store would literally put the old one out of business,” the industry veteran said, citing multiple factors such as the physical look of the store, the flow, the offers, etc.
“We're going to do a whole lot of different things and we're going to attract people for different primary visit reasons. We're going to attract people that come to us on Tuesday and use us one way, and when they come to us on Thursday, they’re going to use us in a different way,” Joe said. “So, it’s about having the right offer, the products and services to do that. And then to make their life easy, have the technology, the payment systems, the payment options, the ordering options, the pickup or delivery options that just take that friction out of the whole experience. We've got an opportunity to fill in some needs customers have.”
The convenience store industry is “in good shape,” according to Joe. As long as the industry keeps evolving and has people who are committed to the continual change of upgrading their facilities and shaking up their offers. “Because there's no way the general public's going to stop changing. But it's been a crazy 30 years in my case,” he said.