The Village People

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The Village People

By Mehgan Belanger

At the Village Pantry headquarters in Indianapolis, a team of seven men has joined for a common goal of making the chain the best in its market. Here, some of their candid responses are featured.

Mick Parker, president
Previous role:
Vice president for Circle K's Florida and Gulf Coast region.

Favorite thing about the new Village Pantry store design:
I love it all. I love our morning offer -- truly the best doughnuts and bacon in any c-store I've been in. I love our execution of "selection," cups, products, condiments, etc., and I love our clean, uncluttered, "cool" atmosphere.

What excited you about the Village Pantry chain?
These stores have had so little tender loving care for so long, that it's really easy to have a pretty dramatic effect really quickly.

What is the secret behind Village Pantry's popular breakfast items?
It is the best bacon in the world. It's a big thick piece of bacon that is just killer good. It's absolutely incredible. It's baked, not fried, but tastes like fried bacon. We bake it on-site. We make biscuits; an egg, bacon and cheese sandwich; and the big bacon sandwich. It's just a product that Village Pantry has sold for years. Really, when I first got here, I couldn't believe how good it was. Just killer good.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I'm probably too hands-on. Sometimes I'm a little stubborn, because I have it in my mind what I want already. I'm trying to get better at that. My style is pretty informal, I don't mind people trying stuff and it failing.

What lessons or experiences did you bring to this position?
The biggest thing is a focus on the customer. It doesn't matter what I want. Everyone is a frustrated convenience store merchandising guy. It may be great, but in reality, until people step back and say 'I really don't care what Mick Parker wants, it's what do the customers want,' and you answer those things, that's when I think you can be good. In this industry, sometimes we don't do that. Sometimes we let other things influence what we do, rather than listen to what the customer wants."

Steve May, CFO
One year with Village Pantry, prior to that, seven years with Marsh Supermarkets Inc.

Favorite thing about the new Village Pantry stores:
My favorite thing is the buzz. It's such a big difference between where we've been and where we're going. I think we've brought the stores forward a decade or two, literally, in terms of look.

How are gas margins in the Indianapolis area?
The biggest problem we face with gas margins is really the same problem that everyone faces -- credit card fees. The Midwest region doesn't enjoy the fuel margins that the c-stores on the coasts do, but it's a little more stable. We're having a good year with fuel margins -- we measure margins in pennies per gallon. It remains a relatively low-margin business.

Chris Noll, vice president of construction
Previous role:
Director of facilities for Circle K Arizona Region

Why did you choose to join Village Pantry?
I've known Mick for many, many years at Circle K. He presented me with this wonderful opportunity that I could not refuse. If it wasn't him, I wouldn't be out here.

Favorite thing about the new Village Pantry stores:
The black ceiling in store 401 [located in Fisher, Ind.]. I like that look. It's a very modern and contemporary look. My personal tastes are just that -- modern and contemporary. This is especially the case of nearly everything in my personal life. I am not traditional so I am excited about the architectural features we are employing within the remodel projects.

Have there been any challenges with the remodel plan?
With the initial three store remodels, we haven't run into any problems. The most difficult areas as I understand it is going to be Carmel, Noblesville and Zionsville, Ind., and the like. I have heard those are the more difficult cities to work with in regards to permitting, especially any exterior work. I think we can convince them by presenting before and after photographs of our accomplishments -- it is night and day. They should be impressed and equally excited.

Steve Larkin, vice president of real estate
Previous role:
Led the new store team for the mid-America region at what he called "a small company that didn't do much growth" -- Starbucks Corp.

Why did you choose to come to Village Pantry?
I was approached by Village Pantry just at the time we started doing strategic analysis for Starbucks for the next couple of years. I had some insight, but similar to all companies, there would be a little bit of curve downward. The more I checked into Sun Capital, and saw how much they take companies and grow them rapidly, that held my interest. And when I met with Mick, he's a dynamo, I knew I had a match.

Favorite thing about the new Village Pantry stores:
It's the dynamic velocity. For us, in a real estate/store acquisition mode, the velocity of what we're doing is shaking and quaking and there's a very high velocity of work going on.

What do you see in the local market?
There's a lot of quaking, as I call it, among the single or small-time operators. Everyone from one to 10 stores and some 20s, they are not as optimistic about the future, therefore, they really are giving consideration to selling. A number of them are good solid operators who just see their profits being squeezed, so it's hard for them to see a future.

What is a big difference between Starbucks retail and the c-store industry?
The biggest dynamic between the c-store industry and retail industry, whether it's Starbucks, Payless, EB Games or any of those bigger boxes, is that they thrive in what we call "retail gravity zones" where they like to feed off of each other, and some competition can be very good. Within the c-store business, you get two or three sitting on the corners, and you usually have one really great one, and another one doing healthy, but the other one is going to fall away, they just chew up on each other.

What kind of competition do you see for prime corners?
The banks are driving me crazy. For example, on the north side of Indianapolis, in Carmel, there's a lot of new retail development taking place in those areas. The cost of the land is very expensive and the banks are the ones that are making the biggest plays to be on those corners. Then you also have Walgreens and CVS being very active also, coupled with the fact that the zoning regulation always requires special use permits. Across the board, financial institutions have a completely different pro forma model that is allowing them to take down a lot of great retail space.

Mike Ross, vice president of merchandising and fuel
Previous role:
Operations director for 670 Circle K stores in the Florida and Gulf Coast region.

Why did you choose to join Village Pantry?
First was Mick. He's the best boss I've ever worked for, and I've worked for some very outstanding people. He is truly a visionary and has high expectations, but gives folks the freedom to go out and execute. Second, was the challenge and opportunity to really shape a company. To go in and basically revamp everything -- no sacred cows, nothing is untouchable.

Favorite thing about the new Village Pantry stores:
We have a new organization in an existing company that is very well-known in the Indiana market. We have the ability to reshape it into something that we believe is going to be very first-class. Also, the impact that we can have on the physical facilities. Seeing the reaction of our external customers, who go in to pay for our goods and services, just watching them and their reaction when they come into one of the remodeled stores. It's been very, very rewarding.

Mike Emmons, vice president of operations
Nearly 32 years with Village Pantry, before that, five years with Marsh.

Favorite thing about the new Village Pantry stores:
My favorite thing, after being employed with Village Pantry for the amount of years that I have, is the ownership that the people took in the remodel project.

What changes have you seen since Village Pantry separated from Marsh?
Marsh personnel supported us very well in many areas and helped us grow throughout the years. Towards the end, many ideas and needed projects were on the table and Village Pantry suffered potential growth and sales opportunities. The changes have all been positive, we are moving in the right direction -- investing in our stores and growing store count.

It goes back to the ownership. The employees, managers and district manager are taking the better care of the stores and putting more emphasis on the customer and more attention to detail.

What store-level procedures were put in place under the new leadership?
We are implementing new training procedures for our managers and customer service representatives. We have partnered with 'Total Sound Info Train' to develop effective training designed to meet our new expectations. We also implemented an inspection program focusing on service, in stock position, overall conditions and reward managers achieving our goal with additional bonus dollars. Our Division Directors complete the unannounced inspection with the manager and utilize it as a training session.

We've also tied store inspections back to the manager's bonus to place the emphasis on being in stock and customer service. It's very difficult to achieve the bonus -- they have to be doing things pretty good, it's not a gimmie.

What are employees' reactions to the remodeled stores?
We had some managers come over and as soon as they walked in the door they were like 'Wow, when can you start mine?' I probably will remember for the rest of my life, a customer came in and he called his buddy over and said, 'Hey, they've done a lot of this in the past two weeks,' and the other guy says, 'Yeah, who purchased this place, because this is not the Village Pantry I know.'

Paul Todd, vice president of human resources and training
Has 16 years with Village Pantry, and totals 40 years with the Marsh organization.

Favorite thing about the new Village Pantry store design:
My favorite thing is the store's elements -- the color scheme, ceilings, walls and the décor -- it's a bright, modern look.

What differences do you see at Village Pantry since it has split from Marsh?
Since Sun Capital came -- in both divisions, Village Pantry and Marsh -- the mood is much more optimistic about the future. That's basically because Sun Capital is allowing us to put money back into the company for growth. It produces an optimistic mood, simply because we can improve the stores. We really haven't been able to for a long time.

What is the culture of Village Pantry and how do you select employees to reflect that?
The general culture is that of a neighborly store. That's the mood most managers establish, and a lot of managers in general hire for what we see is the attitude of the applicant, how they react to people, whether they believe they can be a customer-service type person, along with honesty and their availability.