By John Lofstock, Editor
Growing up in the convenience store industry is tough. It’s even tougher when the chain is growing and the pressure is on to produce positive results. Welcome to life in the family business.
For Mike Clifford, a third-generation executive at Clifford Fuel Co., the ride has been a great experience, save for some sleepless nights as he learns how to navigate the competitive c-store landscape. The stakes are high, as they are in any family business, and the pressure is real.
Clifford Fuel was founded by Mike’s grandfather Jack Clifford in 1961 and nurtured into a competitive force over the past four decades by Mike’s father, Jim Clifford, a former executive board member for the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS).
Now it’s up to Mike, category manager, and his brother Jimmy, who handles fuel operations for the 21-store chain based in Utica, N.Y., to get up to speed to lead the chain into a new era. The retail industry is changing, costs are higher and customers’ demands are constantly evolving. Still Clifford is ready for the challenge.
“Convenience stores have become a complex business,” Clifford said. “Stores are always busy, customers want their immediate needs met and we are under constant pressure to improve.
The result is that we have become a mature industry with a heavy emphasis on food and retail technology.”
Clifford started working at the family business about five years ago after college. Like countless others in his situation, he wasn’t sure c-stores were in his future. “I grew up around the industry, but didn’t start working in stores until I was in college,” he said. “Then when you see how the industry has been transformed over the past 10 years and hear about the great things other chains are doing, you find that the bar has been raised for all of us and this is a great industry with unlimited opportunities.”
Among the opportunities Clifford Fuel continues to explore is its partnership with Nice N Easy, which was forged some 35 years ago with founder John McDougall. Clifford is the largest Nice N Easy franchisee. Though CST Brands—and subsequently Alimentation Couche-Tard—acquired Nice N Easy following MacDougall’s death in 2014, Clifford Fuel continues to fly the brand. There is, however, some talk internally of developing its own c-store brand.
The chain’s newest store is a 5,000-square-foot site in Oriskany, N.Y., which is a raze and rebuild of an older site. The company celebrated a grand re-opening in November 2016. The spacious store includes Nice N Easy’s world-class foodservice program, more than a dozen seats, free WiFi service and a beer cave featuring a vast assortment of micro-brews from New York-based breweries.
The new store, branded with Citgo fuel, promotes convenience for its many time-starved customers. On the foodservice side, the unit features Nice N Easy’s menu of made-to-order subs, wraps, salads and sandwich melts. The Mama Mia brand offers freshly-made pizzas and stromboli.
For those looking for healthy grab-and-go snacks, a chilled front-end gondola markets a variety of fresh fruit cups and parfaits.
While the in-store offering is loaded with amenities, the forecourt is equally stocked. The fuel island features six fueling positions. Additionally, customers can take advantage of Citgo gift cards to receive up to five cents off of each gallon purchased.
“I have been fortunate to work with a great team and learn from an experienced staff that has allowed me to grow into this position,” Clifford said.
Specifically, Clifford has leaned on Rick Miller, operations manager for Clifford Fuel., and Peter Tamburro, the general manager of convenience store operations for the chain.
Tamburro is also the chairman of the National Advisory Group (NAG). Clifford is active in NAG’s Young Executives Organization (YEO).
“There is a big learning curve, especially when dealing with vendors,” Clifford said. “Learning to negotiate contracts with our vendor partners took some time, but you learn by doing it and not being afraid to make mistakes. Peter and Rick have been invaluable resources, as has my dad, who has instilled in me a great work ethic and a true understanding of how valuable our partnerships with vendors are to the company.”
Long Retail History
Clifford Fuel began its long relationship with Nice N Easy in the early 1980s and has grown steadily since.
“We began by leasing a gas station we owned to Nice N Easy right after they started operations in 1980,” Jim Clifford said.
The relationship worked for both sides and blossomed. About five years later, Clifford Fuel converted another store it owned to the Nice N Easy brand and began operating as a franchisee. It was very much a two-way street.
Working with a large chain like Nice N Easy helped Clifford Fuel learn to be a c-store operator, an important profit center for the company that helped it expand through the years when other local fuel distributors failed. Nice N Easy gained critical mass in a competitive market.
“We’re in the same markets as a lot of the Nice N Easy corporate stores, so we get the benefits of the brand name and all the marketing that goes into their own stores here as well,” Clifford said. “Plus, because they are such a progressive chain that likes to introduce a lot of new programs, we are in a position to take advantage of the ones that work and pass on those that aren’t as effective.”
Clifford noted that Nice N Easy also organizes a myriad of promotional programs for the community and holds several events in the central New York area to benefit charitable organizations. His employees are encouraged to participate in the events, including a variety of walks and runs with the American Heart Association.
Clifford Fuel at a Glance
Clifford Fuel Co. was founded in 1961 by Jack Clifford in Dolgeville, N.Y. Located in rural Herkimer County, the company supplied home heating oil, natural gas, farm gas and diesel. It supplied five service stations with gasoline and had just five employees. Today, the third-generation business owns 21 locations, which includes 17 Nice N Easy c-stores. The company also supplies more than 40 locations owned by independent operators and has 250 employees.
Headquarters: Utica, N.Y.
Store Count: 21
C-Store Brand: Nice N Easy
Foodservice Brands: Nice N Easy, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts
Fuel Brands: Sunoco, Citgo
Car Washes: 5
Social Media: www.facebook. com/CliffordFuel; twitter.com/