Providing great leadership during the best of times can make or break a business. Leadership during a global pandemic is downright daunting. People look to leaders for guidance on what to do, what to expect and how to act. During uncertain and fluid times, the need for strong, calm, trustworthy leadership is more important than ever.
As Kevin Smartt, CEO of Texas Born (TXB), wraps up his year as chairman of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), he has seen firsthand the importance of staying focused, remaining calm and being a guiding influence for his company and his peers across the industry. As the pandemic raged on the past 18 months, Smartt navigated a delicate balancing act of representing the industry in hearings before Congress with rebranding his own c-store chain from Kwik Chek to TXB. Either one of those would be a full-time job.
“It’s all part of the business of convenience retailing,” said Smartt, who will be succeeded as NACS Chairman by Jared Scheeler, CEO of The Hub Convenience Stores in North Dakota.
“As an industry, we stepped up our game and provided great service and kept our doors open for our customers, often at times when we were the only game in town. That shows that Americans trust convenience stores, and we are an important part of consumers’ everyday lives. We should all be proud of the work we are doing.”
During his tenure as NACS Chairman, Smartt lobbied before Congress on a host of issues ranging from technology standards to liability issues surrounding COVID-19. Providing leadership in this area is in Smartt’s blood. In addition to serving as NACS Chairman, he is the chairman for Conexxus, a technology group dedicated to the implementation of standards and advocacy for the convenience store and petroleum market. He is also a member of the boards of directors for Oklahoma Petroleum and Convenience Store Association and the Texas Food & Fuel Association, where he assists with various committees. All of this while rebranding his chain of nearly 50 convenience stores in Texas and Oklahoma.
In a project that has been several years in the making, Smartt officially rebranded Kwik Chek to TXB, a move to reflect a more progressive retail offering. The modern, upscale brand is dynamic in its aesthetic appeal and futuristic in its offering.
TXB markets have a host of features including premium electric vehicle rapid-charging stations, an expansive food and beverage lineup, quality and locally sourced products, and more.
“This rebrand is more than just a different logo or name; this is a true reflection of who we are as a company,” Smartt said. “We want our guests to have the absolute best experience, whether it’s our fresh foods; versatile, eco-friendly packaging; convenient technology; clean environment; or hospitable employees. It all reflects the TXB mission to ‘Leave ‘em Better.’”
Smartt sat down with CStore Decisions to discuss the past year and outline where the industry is headed over the next 12-18 months.
CStore Decisions (CSD): What a challenging year. What did you learn about the c-store industry during 2020?
Kevin Smartt (KS): It was a challenging and unique year, but among the biggest takeaways is the affirmation that our industry and our people never wavered for a moment, despite the difficulties of COVID. It was inspirational to see how everybody showed up for work every day and took care of business. There are so many wonderful stories of our stores across America being there to serve our customers, and in many cases just being a friend people could count on when everything looked so bleak. But we already knew this about our industry. In small towns across the country, we can be everything to consumers: the grocery store, the gas station, the restaurant, the sponsor of local youth sports teams. The list goes on. For decades, we have endured through snowstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes — any challenge — and we found a way to keep the lights on and the shelves stocked for our customers and, just as importantly, for first responders. What I am proud of is people have noticed how good our industry is, how good we are as neighbors and responsible businesses and that we are indeed the fabric of America.
CSD: What were the biggest initiatives or challenges you worked on during your time as chairman?
KS: There are a number of issues important to the industry that need attention. First and foremost, I testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of NACS and its members, asking it to consider reasonable liability protections for responsible businesses during COVID-19. This helps protect our industry against frivolous lawsuits that could arise from COVID. Technology-wise, TruAge has been a big one for us. This is an innovative age-verification program that assures consumer privacy while increasing reliability of age verification. There have been several hearings before a House Financial Services Committee task force that deal with the issue of maintaining privacy in the age of digital identification. This is going to be a huge issue for the c-store industry.
The charging infrastructure has been another big topic of conversation for us in terms of having a seat at the table and trying to make sure that, as technology advances, convenience stores have a level playing field.
CSD: What big initiatives or challenges will persist during this next year?
KS: Technology is always going to be a challenge. Whether it’s privacy laws, processing payments, social media or automated distribution, as an industry, we need to find the right balance to stay competitive and keep the playing field level.
But the most important issue we are facing is likely going to be the labor market. I don’t think the challenges of hiring are going to subside anytime within the next year. We have to be innovative in our recruiting and retaining processes to deal with the labor shortages. Legislation is hurting our process. I want to be careful I’m not putting everyone in one basket, but it is hard to compete when we are offering full-time jobs again, and our pay has increased substantially, and we still can’t find enough bodies to work. When people that you’re trying to hire tell your recruiters and HR team that they’ve got more money in their checking account than they’ve ever had, why do they need to work, this is an issue that must be addressed.
Legislation on tobacco will persist on all legislative levels for all tobacco products, so we need to stay on top of this and make our voices heard. I still think there is going to be some kind of tax reform to help pay for the infrastructure package, so this is another area where we must have a voice to articulate how increased taxes affect our industry and the communities we serve.
CSD: We have seen so many categories come under fire the past few years: tobacco, foodservice regulations, minimum wage hikes, etc. How important is industry advocacy and having retailers getting involved in the legislative process?
KS: This is absolutely critical. An opportunity exists for everyone in this industry to get involved in the legislative process. Don’t sit back thinking others have this covered because it’s too important. Your congressman, your senator, your local mayor — they want to hear from their constituents. We need to tell our story of how we support communities, how we are an employer of choice and how we are responsible businessmen and women. NACS sponsors ‘Day on the Hill.’ If you have not participated, come to D.C. and join us to learn how you can make a difference. If you can’t come to Washington, speak to your local legislators and tell them about the great work you are doing. Everyone’s voice is important, and collectively is how we are going to make a difference.
CSD: As a whole, what do you think are the industry’s greatest strengths? What is the one area we should work to improve?
KS: We have many great strengths, so as a whole I would lean on both foodservice and technology just because these are two key areas that can help us drive sales. These are two areas I would like to see our industry continue to evolve and develop because they are critical to our long-term success. When you look at the headwinds in our competitors around us, we don’t have a choice but to continue to evolve. We’re going to have to do that and do it quickly. Supermarkets and big box chains have mastered things like self-checkout. That’s one extremely successful step for dealing with the labor shortage.
To improve, I would like to see operators focus a little more on future-proofing the business and understanding how we are going to play in the next round of retail innovation. Our competitors understand that retail is constantly evolving, and they use technology to gain advantages. We need to understand the opportunities better. The other thing, again, is advocacy. We need to continue telling our story in a more prominent way. We keep America rolling, and we need our story to be heard.