Worst Case Scenario

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Worst Case Scenario

In the early evening of Dec. 16, 2004, a female employee working in a Muncie, Ind., Ricker's store, was fatally shot during a robbery. A second employee, in the back of the store, was unharmed. The gunman, who had been released from prison four months before, was in the store for just 17 seconds.

Both Quick Chek Food Stores Inc. and Ricker Oil Inc. are private, family-operated chains, which, until these tragedies, had few incidents of robbery. Still, although the companies' executives had little real-life experience with violent crime, they had planned for such a blow years earlier.

"A tragedy like this is the worst thing that can happen," said Mike Murphy, senior vice president for Quick Chek, a 106-store chain based in Whitehouse Station, N.J. "But not being prepared for it is even worse."

Quick Chek had created a plan for dealing with worst-case scenarios more than 15 years before the shooting. "I don't think anyone can say what is right or wrong, per se, but you do need a plan," Murphy said.

"I was away fishing when I got the call," Murphy continued. "Luckily, I had everyone's phone number in my car and was able to go down the list and get our plan in motion. Thank God. Little details like that make a big difference."

For 1,800-employee Quick Chek, being prepared meant clearly delineating responsibilities among corporate personnel. For example, chairman and president Dean Durling handled all media calls following the shooting. Durling, Murphy, vice president of human resources Bob Graczyk and Corporate Counsel Tony Napadano immediately went to the store. Every store employee was spoken to individually and offered counseling, which was set up through the company's insurance plan. The executive team also attended the victim's wake and funeral.

Next, they communicated to the rest of the company's employees exactly what happened and what they were doing in response, Murphy said. "We were very upfront."

That response included posting a $10,000 reward (the gunmen are still at large) and reopening the store the next morning with the help of employees from other sites. The chain's executives took turns working every shift for three weeks.

"We didn't just say to the store employees, 'Okay, we're open and you are on your own,' Murphy said. "We were in the store for whatever they needed.'"

The decision to quickly reopen, made by Murphy after speaking to law enforcement officials, was not an easy one to make and drew some criticism.

"One employee, in particular, was upset," Murphy said. "I personally talked to him and told him he had a right to be upset at the tragedy, but that we needed to get back to normal, if possible. If I hadn't been there to speak to him, those kinds of feelings could bubble over and the company could be seen as uncaring or all about money. Everyone grieves differently. Some wanted to go back to work right away. Others needed time off."

One employee asked to be transferred to another store and the company accommodated that request. None of the store's 12 employees left the company.

Customers, too, were affected by the shooting. To reach out to them, Quick Chek allowed the store to collect donations for the associate's family, who lived in Peru.

The company also took time to look for ways to improve the store's security and handling of the crisis. Although no major changes were made in policies or procedures, the chain took steps to keep its windows even more unobstructed than before. "Although, in this case, having more clear glass would not have stopped this tragedy," Murphy noted, adding the company invites law enforcement officials to tour every new location and solicits their thoughts on security. "The police said there was nothing we could have done to prevent this from happening. These were cold-blooded killers."

Disbelief, Then Grief

The same could be said of the gunman who victimized the Ricker's associate. "Our reaction as individuals and as a company were the same: disbelief, then grief, then, 'What can we do to help the survivor, the family of the victim and our other employees?'" said Jay Ricker, president of the 32-store chain based in Anderson, Ind.

After learning of the shooting, Ricker and his wife drove to the store. "Was there a lot we could do at that point? No. But we could show our concern."

The Rickers attended the funeral, "offering our sincere condolences. There was not a lot to say, except our genuine heartfelt feelings."

To help the associates at the area's four stores, Ricker called on counselors on contract from nearby Ball State University, who quickly set up at a local hotel. "Often employees fill in at other stores, so they all know each other," he noted. "Also we had follow-up counseling, especially for the other employee who was in the store during the shooting." (The shooter, a habitual criminal, was apprehended not long after the crime.)

Karen Mitchener, Ricker's human resource director, was responsible for speaking to law enforcement officials and keeping in close contact with the victim's family. Ricker spoke to the media, turning down no interview request. He did two print and two televised interviews.

"Saying nothing, I think, is the wrong move," Ricker commented. "It's important for people to know you are caring and compassionate. We design our stores with a lot of glass and have stringent cash handling policies. We do a number of things to discourage violence and we wanted to point that out. This guy had been released from prison way too early. If he had been sentenced properly, this would not have happened. He would not have been on the street."

The media interviews were done offsite, he added. "I didn't want to do them with our store sign in the background."

Still, Ricker believes the company's handling of the situation needed improvement. "Everyone on staff needs to know who the designated spokesperson is and direct all calls to that person. Though we had a person designated, we didn't do a great job communicating that to the rest of the employees."

One store employee allowed a local news organization to enter and film inside the store. "I wish we could have prevented that," the retailer said, "but I fault our lack of communication."

Since the tragedy, the company also has placed stickers on all surveillance videos, reminding employees not to release them to anyone in the media.

Ricker's crisis management plan had one other weakness: he was unable to find a professional cleaning company to remove the blood and help restore the location so that it could reopen. Two men from the maintenance department volunteered for the job.

Like Murphy, Ricker, on the advice of grief counselors, opened the store as soon as possible — in this case at noon the following day. Employees who were scheduled to work that day were given the option of not coming in and any employees who requested it were allowed to transfer permanently to another location. One recently hired employee quit after the shooting.

To reach out to the employees and customers, the company set up and matched funds collected at the store for the victim's surviving family, two grown daughters. Though the company served as the fund's trustee, the family was allowed to use the money in any way they wanted."You hope you never have a violent crime, but you need a plan in place," he added. "Many retailers don't."

Be Prepared

Despite its reputation, the c-store industry is not rife with robberies, assaults and shootings. However, they do occur. FBI statistics for 2005 show for the first time in a decade incidents of robbery rose by 4.5 percent over the year prior and murder rates were up 4.8 percent, according to Rosemary Erickson, Ph.D., a forensic sociologist and consultant to the c-store industry, who interviewed c-store robbers and analyzed their motivations. (See "Target Attractiveness,"page 38).

"There are more reasons now than ever to be prepared," she said. Yet, few operators are as well prepared as they should be.

"To some degree, every large chain has a head-in-the-sand mentality of, 'It won't, well, probably won't, maybe, I hope, happen to me,'" said retail security consultant Rollie Trayte, based in Phoenix. "They might have a crisis plan, a call chain, a good workers' comp policy and talented outside counsel to advise them in the event of a catastrophe. But none — or to be optimistic, darn few — are truly prepared to deal with the aftermath of a tragedy."

A retailer doesn't need to experience a heart-stopping, life-altering crisis to become adept at responding to the situation, Trayte noted. "Planning, discussion, rehearsal and the enlistment of capable counsel to guide the process and commit the best practices to paper is one sure way to avoid the dear-caught-in-the-headlights appearance when the chips are really down," he said.

Crime prevention and security consultant Chris E. McGooey, who operates the security consulting Web site, www.crimedoctor.com, agrees with Trayte's assessment of the industry's preparedness.

"Since the peak of c-store crime prevention in the early 1980s, operators have become complacent," he said. "I think crime prevention training and reinforcement has declined largely due to cut backs in corporate security and loss prevention staff over the years."

But even retailers who follow industry best practices remain vulnerable, he said. "The definition of 'doing everything right' has been watered down by many large operators. Applying a cookie-cutter security policy may not be doing everything right, if the standards are set too low for a particular store. I find the one-size-fits-all approach to security is inadequate in high-risk locations.

"There are some evil and intoxicated people out there who will ignore every deterrent and warning sign and commit serious crimes without a thought for who they injure in the process," he added.

Still, he noted, "Statistics have shown that 'doing everything right' is still the best approach to lessen the odds of becoming a victim."

This is Part III of Convenience Store News' exclusive three-part series on loss prevention, theft, crime and security in the convenience store channel. Part I, which appeared in the June 19 issue of CSNews, covered the societal factors that influence crime. Part II, in the July 17 issue, covered technology and procedures to reduce vulnerability to losses.