An entrepreneurial business venture that started in 1995 has turned into a Midwestern C-store success story. Across the Midwest, there’s one name that people associate with quality and convenience: Gas Mart USA. Founded in 1995 by a group of entrepreneurs looking to acquire, develop, construct, and operate convenience stores across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, and Nebraska, the company now boasts annual revenue of $375 million and employs more than 400 individuals, and its team hasn’t stopped looking for ways to grow and improve.
“Our goal has always been to get to 400 stores, and we’re about a fourth of the way there,” said David George, president and CEO. “The economy has slowed us down recently, but it hasn’t always been that way.”
George said 2004 was the company’s biggest year for growth, with 30 units opening in Chicago and 11 in Kansas City. Currently, Gas Mart has six deals in the works, either new builds or acquisitions, in the Kansas City area. There are also discussions of larger chain acquisitions, but the toughest part of making that happen is securing the financing.
“The tightening credit market is an issue everyone is dealing with right now,” said George. “We were fortunate to get credit protection before the market crashed, but it did slow down our growth.”
Fuel prices have dropped for the time, and credit card fees are taking their toll on the company’s bottom line, but Gas Mart has found a way to fight back through innovation. The company is continually bringing in new products and services, such as DVD rental platform Redbox.
“Redbox is a new product, and being able to secure them for our stores has helped bring in new customers,” said George. “We’re also working on an advertising campaign with a company called VCTV.”
Under the guidance of President Jim Sheedy, VCTV, which stands for Visitor & Community Television Corporation, will install video screens at each of Gas Mart’s locations, connecting them through live video feeds, and enabling Gas Mart’s inhouse advertisers to run ads on their products.
“Whether it be Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, or Monster, our advertisers can run their ads on those screens and get their products in front of the customer more times than those who don’t advertise,” said George. The 32-inch/42-inch plasma TVs will hang from the ceiling behind the counter and give Gas Mart a leading edge in advertising technology in the C-store arena.
“We will put ads about Gas Mart on those monitors, as well as promotions about our main supplier, ConocoPhillips, letting customers know what’s going on in our stores and what promotions, such as a free car wash with a fill-up, we’re running at the time,” said George. “We plan on rolling it out to all of our stores sometime this summer.”
On the back end of the company’s strategy is a computer system upgrade. The change not only cut back on the paperwork managers are required to handle at their locations but also helped push the green initiatives Gas Mart is working through its chain.
On the operations side, managers are now able to better control inventories while the prices are controlled and changed out of the company’s home office, relieving managers of the hassle. “Taking that part out of the managers’ hands so they don’t have to worry about it and controlling it here from the home office has been one of our biggest changes in the last couple of years,” said George.
On the green side of things, Gas Mart was able to finally let go of the handwritten paperwork process initiated back in the ’90s when managers were sending 60-page packets of information back to the head office each day. All of that paperwork is now handled electronically.
By working with supplier ConocoPhillips and its representative, Kris Smith, Gas Mart has pushed green initiatives out of the back office. Each location now uses low-energy fluorescent lightbulbs and is equipped with recycling bins.
“We also did walk-thrus with Kris at some locations to see what we can do from an energy-efficiency standpoint,” said George. “Teaching our employees about simple things like leaving a cooler door open when refilling or running air conditioners less have made huge differences in our energy consumption and our energy bills.”
Although it sounds cliché, George said one of Gas Mart’s greatest competitive advantages lies in its people, both those at the executive level and those in the stores. Strong leadership, he said, promotes strength throughout the organization.
In the past four years, that strength has led to new business ventures, such as Gas Mart’s fuel hauling business. The company currently has three trucks in which it hauls its own fuel, two in the Omaha, Neb. area and one in Kansas City.
Just as with its plans to expand its location footprint, Gas Mart plans to expand its trucking business once the economy picks up. George said the business is advantageous in many respects. “It helps from a cost perspective, and it helps in being able to control inventory levels,” he said. “Overall, it saves us money.”
It also helps Gas Mart take better control of servicing its customers, something George, his partner, and his employees take pride in. “You treat the customer right and they’ll keep coming back,” he said. “It’s an overall corporate strategy.”