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From Small Town to Center Stage


Dave Riser exemplifies loyalty with a three-decade career at R.J. Reynolds

Dave Riser’s journey has taken him from a typical upbringing in small-town USA to the good life in North Carolina. But he has not made that journey alone. With his wife and children by his side, and with the guidance of friends and colleagues, Riser has found a permanent home at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and given new meaning to the word “loyalty.”

It is his loyalty and dedication to the industry that places Riser, vice president of external relations, trade marketing for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., in the supplier wing of the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame as the 2013 inductee.

Growing up in an Indiana town with a population of 5,000 residents, Riser could have been considered an all-American boy. He played sports, was active in school organizations and involved with his community. After high school, he moved on to Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., where he earned a degree in marketing.

It wasn’t all work and no play at Ball State University, though. At the age of 17, Riser began playing in rock bands. It is a passion he still pursues today as lead singer and guitarist in 12m Case, a five-guy band that includes three of his R.J. Reynolds colleagues.

Riser’s love for rock ‘n roll kept him occupied as he hit the job market after graduation. With his degree in hand, he did a lot of different things, from playing music to student teaching. Then in 1983, he landed a job as a sales representative in R.J. Reynolds’ Indianapolis division covering rural Indiana, and he hasn’t looked back.

“It’s been a great ride ever since,” Riser noted.

Taking the sales rep position changed his life in more ways than one. It was during this time that he met his wife, Mary. The couple has been together nearly 28 years and has five children — four sons and one daughter. “All were born in different states because, like many in this industry, we all move around,” he said.

The sales department of R.J. Reynolds, which is now called trade marketing, has been the core of Riser’s career. He worked in marketing on the Camel brand for one year, spent some time in personnel in Winston-Salem, N.C., and then returned to the field in various roles. He served as area vice president covering the West and then the Midwest for approximately five and a half years.

“A little over seven years ago, my boss Rob Stowe, who is the best leader and coach I ever worked for, came to me and said we have a missing piece to our external relations — between our trade partners and our trade organizations, wholesale and retail partners, and elected officials — and that I had the business experience and knew a lot of people and customers around the country. He wanted me to build this position,” Riser recalled. “You never know where your career will take you, when you go from sales to HR to marketing, and then to legislative and regulatory areas. I have been very fortunate to work for a great company that identifies skills and tries to put the right person in the right role.”

Additionally, he said the training, coaching and support he has received at R.J. Reynolds over the past 30 years is what other people spend a lot of money in an MBA program to gain. “I have been very fortunate [to be] with a company that really cares about their people and developing them to their highest level. That has been since Day 1,” he said.

While Riser admits the promotions and recognitions are nice, he said the highlights of his career have been the people he has met along the way. At R.J. Reynolds, he has found the time to form friendships that move beyond the colleague relationship — something he considers a reward for working in this industry.

“From a business standpoint, it’s not really promotions and things like that. Those are great, but it’s more about individuals that have really taught me about leadership and how to handle my own development, and also the people that I have had a hand in their development,” he said. “I look around over 30 years and I can point to several individuals that really well-rounded me, and I can point to people who are very successful in the company that used to work for me. A lot of people helped me and I just try to do the same.”

Looking outside R.J. Reynolds and its parent company Reynolds American Inc., Riser also feels lucky to be part of not only the convenience industry, but the retail/wholesale industry overall.

“I have some great friends in this industry: wholesale, retail, trade associations, other supplier/manufacturer companies. They are dear friends,” he explained. “Over the years, you meet and become friends with them, you learn from them. The friendships are long-lasting. It’s a big deal. They know my wife and family; I know their families. I don’t know if it is unique to this industry, but I think it is.”


Over the course of 30 years, Riser has had a front-row seat to changes in the industry and is proud of how all parties involved have come together to handle them.

“For everyone in this industry — retail, wholesale and manufacturers — we are all responsible marketers. Think about retail: they age verify; they check IDs; the compliance rate on that particular piece, youth tobacco prevention, is at 95 percent-plus of all [Food and Drug Administration] inspections done in store,” he stated. “If you think about that and think about the compliance [that] manufacturers uphold to, we are a responsible industry. You may never change the view of some outside this industry, but we really are.”

And in that way, all factions of the convenience community are very similar.

“I look at our trade partners. They are not different than us. They are responsible. They care about doing the right thing. They train their store associates on the responsible selling of all products, especially those that need to be age verified,” Riser said. “I think people outside of this industry tend to forget that all these businesses have great people working for them; people that coach Little League and teach Sunday school. They care about the community. That’s one constant. The supply chain in this industry has always done that — tried to do the right thing for the community and for individuals.”

What’s more, the industry has done this in the face of an uphill battle. Tobacco retailing has become increasingly more complicated as new regulations take hold. Still, the industry not only perseveres, but also evolves.

“When I started and called on stores 30 years ago, they were stores that you could go in and buy the stuff you need in a general sense. But now, these stores are destinations,” Riser said. “Take Sheetz [Inc.], for example. It’s a destination where you can go and get a made-to-order sandwich. My kids and I will go to Sheetz to grab food like we would at a restaurant. When you look around the country, you see the stores have developed based upon consumer behaviors, and needs and wants.”

Relationships within the industry also have undergone a metamorphosis of sort, Riser noted. Unlike other lines of business, there is no “every man for themselves” mentality.

“I think the relationships have just gotten stronger over time. We all need each other. It is not just about selling products. It’s about working together on collaborative relationships for the betterment of the business,” Riser said, adding that when relationships with wholesalers and retailers are working, everyone along the supply chain benefits.

“Our partners are very involved in their business and in the legislative process. They know their elected officials. They have them visit their places of business. They put faces with names and let them see they employ all these people, pay taxes and are responsible marketers,” he continued. “I think that’s great because there is another side of the story that needs to be told, whether it’s issues on fuel, wages or tobacco. That active involvement is a real strength of this industry.”

Riser adds to that strength by serving on the Supplier Board of NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, as well as the boards of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO), the Southern Association of Wholesale Distributors (SAWD) and the We Card Advisory Council.


Looking back at his career, Riser said he never thought about moving on to a different industry. For three decades, he has traveled the country, lived in different states and different markets, learned from each one and left his mark on each one, as evidenced by his induction into the CSNews Hall of Fame.

“When I got the note and the call from Michael [Hatherill, CSNews’ publisher], I was more than humbled and honored. I was honored that peers in this industry thought enough to have my name on the ballot. Then, to be recognized because those individuals voted for me to be in this Hall of Fame was humbling. And to be honored with Stan Sheetz, this great company and all the Sheetz team members, that one made me sit back and say, ‘Wow,’” he said. “Something like this makes you say, ‘Maybe I had a little bit of an impact.”

Such recognition is not what you work for, according to Riser, who said he’s just tried to do the best he can. “It’s like I tell my kids, the only thing I ask of them is to do the right thing and try to have some fun along the way. If you can do that, life’s pretty good.”

After 30 years, many people would be setting their sights on retirement, but don’t expect Riser to take to the stage full-time, microphone in hand, any time soon.

“I love working for R.J. Reynolds and the leadership of this company, from the chairman down. They are innovative leaders and treat people well. I just hope they think enough of me to keep me around a little longer,” he said.

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