As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Smartt.
Kevin Smartt has served as CEO of Kwik Chek for more than 20 years, recently leading the rebrand to Texas Born (TXB). As a family of customer service-oriented convenience stores and quick food operations, the company offers 47 locations across Texas and Oklahoma.
Smartt is the 2021 chairman for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) and serves as chairman for Conexxus. He is a member of the Board of Directors for Oklahoma Petroleum and Convenience Store Association and the Texas Food & Fuel Association, where he assists with various committees. Smartt continues to widen his professional board involvement and is interested in serving on boards involved in the banking, technology and healthcare industries.
Smartt lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Shelly and their three children, Austin, Abby and Grace. When he’s not busy leading TXB/Kwik Chek or cooking for his family, Smartt enjoys traveling, hiking and snow skiing.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was 14 years old when I received my first payroll check from a convenience store, where I was hired to wash the parking lot, stock the shelves and do general things around the store. Later, I got a job with Frito-Lay, where I started out selling chips to c-stores before joining their team at the headquarters in Plano, Texas. There, I held various sales and marketing positions. It’s interesting because I never set out to be in the c-store industry, but I had jobs along the way that pointed me down this path.
When I left Frito-Lay in 1994, my father-in-law was the owner of Kwik Chek. I took the opportunity to work for him at the company’s wholesale fuel division and was clear with him that I wanted to earn my way within the company. He replied, “Kevin, that will not be a problem.” And it wasn’t. I worked in all areas of the wholesale fuel business, including the retail side, managing stores before taking over marketing, and finally becoming president of the company.
In 2001, my business partner and I bought out my father-in-law from Kwik Chek 100% through our parent company, Taylor-Smartt LLC. Since then, the chain has doubled in size and owns several diversified, integrated businesses. These include McCraw Oil Co., a fuel wholesale business and transportation company that delivers fuel to c-stores throughout Texas and Oklahoma, and a propane fuel business that sells to residential consumers. Also, Taylor-Smartt LLC owns a food product manufacturing company that makes and sells salsa to grocery stores such as Sprouts and Whole Foods.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
In the late ’90s, before I purchased the company, we had a store count in the low-to-mid 20s. I had received word that one of our major suppliers would have a price increase the following week. On average, we sold a good amount of their products in our stores. I sent word to our store managers to order heavy in the current week on the products that were going up in price. On average, our stores would have sold around 150 units of this product a week, and it was a relatively expensive product. I thought most managers would order an extra weeks’ worth of product. Store space is limited, and having a place to put an additional weeks’ worth of inventory could be challenging. After deliveries that week, I got a call from our District Manager who said we had a “situation” regarding the extra product. The store manager did order heavy; they actually ordered about six months’ worth of product instead of an extra week. The delivery truck could not fit all the product in the store. We had to rent two large storage units nearby and put product in those until we could disperse to other stores. It was one of many lessons over the years in good communication. What I think “order heavy” means, and what someone else thinks it means, obviously can be vastly different.
Be clear and concise in your communications! I will say, I think mistakes are part of the journey in building a good team of people. That store manager is still with us, and now in a senior role. We laugh today at that incident.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The first book that comes to mind is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t by James C. Collins. This book was published in 2001, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect or impactful in that critical year for my career and our business. While many of the ideas were new to me, much was reaffirming as I took on new responsibilities as Kwik Chek’s owner. What truly resonated with me was getting “the right people on the bus,” i.e., gathering a team of talented individuals and building a deeper bench. I have used this book for years as a reference point in team meetings, and I highly recommend it to any business owner.
Another book that inspires me still is Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson. It’s a simple anecdotal book about three mice, highlighting those that were the most adaptable to change to survive when the “cheese” moved. It references the changing of the times and technology and ties to the metaphor that those who can find the cheese when it moves tend to win.
Often, when I read business books, I look at them for mental food, but also from the angle of, “Does this help my company, my team? Are these good talking points for us?”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Usually, when there is a business transaction within a family, the buyer is given some help, but that was not the case for me. When I bought the company in full at 33 years old, I was, of course, eager to grow the business, but it was an interesting acquisition in that I felt I was also acquiring a family within the company. It was nice to work for a family business, but at the same time, buying the family out and continuing with a new generation of the family was special to me. My purpose since the beginning is to grow the business mindfully in a way that puts our employees first.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Do the right thing in any given situation. Whether it’s a personal issue or a business transaction with another company, doing the right thing doesn’t always lend itself to the problem, and you have to make tough decisions. Sometimes doing the right thing is beneficial to your company and employees, but other times you might find it advantageous to the person on the other side of the transaction. I tell myself all the time: if you tell the truth, you’ll find yourself in a much more easily navigated situation. When the truth is your core foundation, you don’t have to worry about being on the right side of the fence.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like many families, my family made the tough decision not to get together for Christmas during the pandemic. This was the first time in my kids’ lifetime we didn’t spend the holidays together, and the first time in my wife’s lifetime we didn’t see her parents for Christmas. We decided as an entire family where we agreed it wasn’t wise to gather during such an uncertain time, in the spirit of keeping us all healthy and safe.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
One of Kwik Chek’s most significant challenges has been the unclear COVID-19 guidelines. The external instruction on keeping our employees and customers safe at the beginning of the pandemic was a moving target. To remain healthy and protect everyone, my team held daily crisis meetings to review information from the CDC and WHO and federal, state, local, and county agencies. The mandates on any of those levels varied for each.
Now, in March 2021, we find ourselves in the same spot. For example, governors are lifting mask mandates, but cities are not. As an essential business, our people on the ground level are in the crosshairs, and it seems we can’t win with customers if there is not a clear, united government protocol for how we move forward.
Another challenge we faced was gathering the proper supplies we needed for protection in a time of crisis. We experienced numerous delivery cancellations of masks and sanitizers, and essential items were in short supply everywhere. It didn’t matter if you were a c-store, mom-and-pop shop or a major grocery store — this was a challenge that affected many. During our daily crisis meetings, we addressed the problems we could. Our food supplier came up with creative solutions, like supplying commercial cases of products and breaking them down to sell in-store, so we could get scrappy regarding how we made products available to our customers.
Finally, this challenge ties into my principle, “Do the right thing.” We experienced a potential COVID-19 case with an employee at one of our locations. We immediately closed the store, hired a professional cleaning company and communicated our decision to close on social media. We know many customers in this particular local community relied on our store for essential items, and we could have kept the store open. But, our decision allowed us to be 100% sure the store would be safe for our customers moving forward in such an uncertain time.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
With our employees, we shared from the beginning of the pandemic if someone is uncomfortable with the risk of coming into work, tell us, and we will offer them flexibility. We weren’t sure what the sentiment would be amongst our 700 employees, so we wanted to be forthright about letting them know we understand their concerns. Some employees had high-risk loved ones who could be easily compromised, and we told those who chose to stay home from work that their job would be there for them when they felt comfortable to return.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I see a lot of opportunities both in our company and for the c-store industry in general. The pandemic has pushed us further and faster in the world of digital technology, like fitting mobile apps with the ability to pay and complete transactions from your car. There has been a higher acceptance rate of contactless interaction at all purchase points during COVID, and it’s still increasing. We are looking into ways to deliver products in the different ways people want it, from home delivery to curbside pickup. We see this as a growing piece for our business and the c-store industry as a whole.
There is also opportunity for physical enhancements to our stores, like walk-up windows instead of a drive-thru. We see walk-up windows as an excellent post-pandemic alternative for c-stores. In the new TXB stores we are building, we are adding large climate-controlled patios with plenty of outdoor seating for our guests available year-round. We are also adding custom hand-washing stations outside of the restrooms for guests to use before they start shopping for fruit, using the fountain drink station, and more.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I don’t think all the effects of COVID have been realized and may not be for some time. Retailers must continue to enforce federal, state and local mandates and be diligent on sanitation and distancing inside their stores. As an industry, we must be nimble and react to future outbreaks or pandemics with a preparedness plan to demonstrate to customers our store environments are safe. We will continue to utilize sneeze guards, social distancing and sanitation efforts, which are all still in play for us every day. I do not want to be the first retailer to stop doing any of these things to save a little money.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Kwik Chek is currently undergoing a rebrand to TXB, short for Texas Born, and we have several brand new stores opening this year with new methods in place for the post-COVID economy.
With the rebrand and experiencing what we did during COVID, we will be slightly more focused on the core, staple food items that we have migrated away from a bit. Due to the proximity of communities who live around our locations, we realized this past year they still need essential items like milk, eggs and toilet paper. The c-store industry tended to scale back those items as grocery and dollar stores dominated larger cities, but c-stores are still a needed source for those items for those who live in smaller communities. We want people to know we are there for them 365 days a year and that our pricing will be competitive on those items.
As we think about the future, our new TXB stores will also feature electric vehicle charging stations. I like to think of the c-store industry as “energy agnostic,” meaning our primary goal is to provide our communities with any type of energy they need.
And finally, as I mentioned, we’ll continue to invest and lean in on digital technology as it’s truly the future for consumers.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage our industry to lean into technology and think about how customers want to interact with your store coming out of the pandemic. Self check-out? Online ordering? These are options that need to be heavily explored for c-stores.
We have to strive for fundamental things, like keeping strategies as simple as we can for operations teams to execute. For example, one challenge that comes with setting up third-party delivery services through our stores is keeping track of those new orders and integrating them into our own POS systems. There are solutions out there for just about anything, so putting in the time to research these solutions will only make your team’s life easier in the long run.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“All knowledge is spendable currency, depending on the market.” — Maya Angelou.
I think this is so important in a fast-changing world. Some people I have looked up to the most in life are people who always had a thirst to keep learning and recognized the importance of always expanding one’s knowledge. I have seen the inverse when people gain status, wealth, or just age and stop striving to gain knowledge. I have always said to myself, that is not who I want to be.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow my work and what’s coming up for the TXB business (and fun things, like my favorite cocktail recipes) on my LinkedIn page or Twitter account. You can also follow my company over on Facebook and Instagram.