The newest addition to Yesway, industry veteran Derek Gaskins is part of a growing number of senior leaders who are switching from other convenience retailers or other industries.
By David Bennett, Senior Editor
Count Derek Gaskins among the deepening pool of senior professionals who are finding new niches in the convenience store industry.
As the new senior vice president of merchandising and procurement for BW Gas & Convenience, d/b/a Yesway, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, Gaskins acknowledges that he brings a wealth of experience and industry knowledge to the newly created role.
He also reflects a growing number of senior leaders who are either transitioning to successful convenience chains from other c-store chains, or are bringing their talents to convenience retailers after stints in other industries, including quick-service restaurants, transportation or the military.
The convenience store industry is no different from some other industries that are thriving in a healthy U.S. economy where unemployment statistics are at near-record lows and there’s a high premium on senior professionals.
• The unemployment rate for those ages 55 and over is 3.2% as of February 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
• That’s lower than the current unemployment rate of 4.1% for the entire U.S. population and 14.4% for teens.
• More companies are hiring experienced senior workers in this tight labor market.
A native of Washington, D.C., Gaskins said he has heard from many in the industry who were surprised to hear he had opted this past June to leave Rutter’s, where he had earned a reputation for helping develop several modern service programs as part of his responsibilities as chief customer officer at Rutter’s—which itself is now generating attention among other progressive c-store chains.
“It was a very difficult decision to make. (President & CEO) Scott Hartman is a strong mentor to me personally and professionally,” said Gaskins. “Scott gave me an opportunity to help drive Rutter’s brand to new heights, and the Rutter’s family will always be special. The culture was dynamic, and I am forever appreciative of the opportunity I had to lead the brand.”
Prior to his tenure at Rutter’s, Gaskins served as senior vice president in marketing and merchandising with Mid-Atlantic Convenience Stores and as vice president of marketing with the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).
During his tenure at Rutter’s, Gaskins spearheaded the VIP tier of the Rutter’s Rewards loyalty program to capture more information on consumer segments, buying behaviors and category affinities. Other achievements included helping raise Rutter’s to new digital heights by expanding its advertising mix to encompass social media, mobile, cable, television and radio. He also helped revamp the store branding and remodels to help achieve record company growth.
All of his talents made Gaskins a great get for Yesway. Thomas Trkla is the founding member, chairman and CEO of Brookwood Financial, parent company to Yesway, where he also serves as chairman and CEO. Trkla directs all aspects of Brookwood’s and Yesway’s businesses, including managing operations, shaping and setting the company’s culture.
Brookwood, a Massachusetts-based private equity investment firm specializing in acquiring and managing value-add commercial real estate and related businesses, launched Yesway with the acquisition of Country Stores, a 10-store portfolio in western Iowa, in December 2015. Now the convenience chain has grown—mainly through acquisition—to at least 150 sites.
The company reached its 150-store milestone and has significantly expanded its footprint into three new states —South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska with the acquisition of 26 Fresh Start convenience stores.
“Yesway is a brand on the move,” said Gaskins, “the culture in many ways is that of a startup, and is filled with extremely intelligent, driven, passionate team members.”
The high-functioning marketing and category management team that Gaskins touts includes Jeff Keune, senior vice president of food service and innovation, Darrin Samaha, vice president and brand manager and Tony Sparks, vice president of merchandising.
“Tom Trkla has assembled a team of superheroes,” said Gaskins. “The executive team is comprised of many of the best and brightest from a broad range of industries. We are bringing a collaborative approach, backed by our collective knowledge, insights and energy to the table to deliver the Yesway strategic growth.”
Trkla was glad to add Gaskins and his multifaceted talents to the mix.
“Derek represents the latest addition to Yesway’s senior leadership team,” said Trkla. “With his hiring, Yesway’s leadership now includes distinguished industry veterans overseeing each aspect of the company’s operations, each bringing a unique and indispensable perspective to our way of doing business.”
In addition to shared vision on how they see Yesway expanding its retail presence, both men are products of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, which “develops brave leaders who inspire growth in people, organizations and markets.”
GOOD TIME TO SWITCH
John Schaninger joined QuickChek Corp. in 1978 as an assistant manager, growing through the operation’s ranks from assistant manager to become vice president, sales and marketing. Last year, he departed the successful c-store chain to launch the Schaninger Group, a retail consulting firm.
He explained that as the c-store industry recruits and retains better talent, it will become a sought-after industry for executives to transition to. As more talent comes, more are sure to follow.
“We have seen quite a few (convenience) retailers now achieving ‘Best Places to Work’ status, either in their states or national,” said Schaninger. “This reflects a true commitment to the team members, and typically encompasses encouragement to personal growth, reward and recognition. As we focus more on developing teams, we are able to keep those individuals within the industry.”
As more convenience retailers become first-class, the industry as a whole benefits.
Take Yesway, which is priming its leaders for challenges in and outside the convenience business.
“Working at Yesway provides a solid career foundation within the c-store industry that can be translated to other industries as well,” said Trkla. “Our careers and training teach social skills, personal accountability and salesmanship. In addition, as one continues to grow within the organization, he or she will build financial acumen and leadership skills.
John Matthews is president and CEO of Gray Cat Enterprises, a planning and marketing services firm. About 20 years ago, Matthews was vice president of marketing for White Hen Pantry, a successful c-store chain that was breaking new ground in foodservice and other service segments at a time when much of the industry was treading heavily to make a profit.
“I’ll admit, when I first looked at joining the c-store industry in 1997 I was skeptical. Then, I started to understand the complexity of the business and became fascinated. Coming from the quick-service restaurant industry, the c-store industry presented a tremendous opportunity to expand my scale, scope and skill set,” said Matthews. “From dealing with 4,000 SKU’s; to categories that reach every customer segment including age-restricted products; the dynamics of gasoline as a driver in the industry; interfacing with the biggest brands in America like Coke, Pepsi, R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, etc.; and customer traffic volumes that dwarf the QSR industry. It provided me the opportunity to expand beyond marketing to merchandising, real estate management, facilities management, etc. to become a better-rounded executive.”
All of that can be enticing for senior executives looking to make a career change, which is happening more and more. In turn, these career changes are helping make the industry fuller and more dynamic.
“I always said—even back in the ‘90s—that when the transformation of the industry starts to attract people from other industries, the talent surge will accelerate,” said Matthews. “I remember telling folks that if the VP of marketing from the GAP or Panera were to join this industry, c-stores would take on a whole new look and feel.”
JOINING THE RANKS
Christy Cox has brought a wealth of business competencies to Nashville, Tenn.-based Tri Star Energy, which includes the Twice Daily convenience chain as its vice president of human resources (HR).
Before that, Cox spent 20 years at Logan’s Roadhouse restaurant chain, some of that time as director of human resources. When she learned of an opportunity that entailed jumping to the c-store industry a year ago, it came at the right time in her professional career, Cox said.
“Logan’s Roadhouse had been through a lot of transition over the past few years. During that time, I had many opportunities to learn more about things that had not been a normal part of my job. In the end, I decided to take these new skills and seek opportunities elsewhere, which led me to Tri Star Energy.”
Her vast HR experience has helped Cox’s transition at Tri Star and Twice Daily go smoothly. Cox acknowledges the biggest challenge at her new company has been to learn an industry that incorporates many business disciplines.
“The biggest challenge has been grasping the nuances of the various lines of business—distribution, supply, commercial, retail, wholesale—and how they operate together yet individually. Also, understanding the metrics and important terminology and how those impact the HR world, has been critical to getting more comfortable in my role here.”
Since Cox joined Twice Daily, it has rolled out several impactful programs and initiatives over the past year, including the creation and implementation of a new career page. The company has also provided a platform to help drive its employment branding as well as help drive organic traffic to the company’s site.
In her HR role, Cox has helped reconfigure Tri Star’s employee benefits portfolio, which has proven to be a strong tool for recruiting and retaining workers.
“We converted our 401K plan to a safe harbor plan while rolling out a unique initiative to increase our 401K participation, which has been very successful. Recently, we rolled out our new team member assistance fund called Tri Star Cares. This fund was created to provide financial support for our team members who are facing personal or family hardship as a result of a catastrophic event,” said Cox. “Finally, our new performance management program creates a culture of continuous feedback and recognition by introducing a platform by which the team members receive consistent, on-going feedback throughout the year, as opposed to a once-a-year evaluation.”
Matthews explained that Cox and other talented individuals will spell the future of the convenience store industry. It will be on the c-store industry to ensure that talent pipeline continues.
Convenience store retailers need to cultivate this talent in order to survive and hopefully prosper,”said Matthews. “The new store designs that now accommodate foodservice require that companies find the appropriate talent to manage these migrations. In some cases, the talent can come from within. In many cases, it has to be brought in from other industries.”