A clean atmosphere, well-trained staff, and supportive management team keep this c-store chain going strong. With a small footprint and a vision of excellence based on customer service and cleanliness, Houssein Ejtemai and Julio Cornejo founded PMG/E&C Enterprises in 1991. By 2004, they had 15 stores, and then it all changed. That year, Ejtemai, president, and Cornejo, vice president, saw the company’s growth skyrocket. Six years later, there are a total of 320 locations under the E&C umbrella.
For most companies, such tremendous growth would make it difficult to keep a strong hold on the founding principles. Mark Hall, marketing director, said that wasn’t the case at E&C. “If the company ownership and the leadership had taken a hands-off approach, it never would’ve worked,” said Hall.
The managers and owners of E&C, including Hall, work with the understanding that 24/7 is more than just a set of numbers; it’s a way of life and an expectation. Because they are hands on, there is a mantra by which they work: 24/7. Fully appreciating the fast-paced world of retail, to make it work across all locations, those in the top spots must be available at all times to answer any questions and solve any problems.
“We operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Hall. “That same expectation goes for for the leadership of the organization, and it’s championed by the owners.”
The growth of E&C came primarily from an acquisition of Crown Central Petroleum, which was a major retailer in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia markets—the same markets within which E&C already had a footprint. The acquisition not only expanded the company’s footprint, it also multiplied the types of locations under its umbrella.
Original E&C locations were between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet. The Crown locations included kiosks, which are typically around 700 square feet, and larger locations that average 3,000 square feet. Now, in addition to various sized locations, there are various brands under the E&C umbrella, including Corner Mart and Market Place, as well as gasoline-branded locations such as Texaco, Chevron, Shell, Exxon, and Sunoco.
Regardless of where the stores are located or what name brands the location, Hall said it’s easy to spot an E&C location because of the high standards of cleanliness both on the interior and exterior. For the 94 company-operated locations, there is a five-star-standard that is expected.
An interpretation of that program is in process for the company’s leased locations. “We also engage in a mystery shopper program to inspect locations and ensure the standards put in place by Mr. Ejtemai and Mr. Cornejo are maintained,” said Hall.
Critical to maintaining that standard is the company’s unique management style, which is where that 24/7 expectation comes into play. Whether you’re a marketing director, human resource director, or maintenance director, E&C personnel are expected to be actively involved in the stores, visiting locations and supporting operational personnel to ensure success from profit and sales standpoints.
So whether it’s emptying trashcans or cutting the grass, upper management does whatever it takes to help the operations managers get their jobs done. “It could even be weeding,” said Hall. “Whatever the situation warrants, that’s the type of support management lends to an individual operator.”
The philosophy behind E&C’s unique managerial structure is the message it sends to the location-level personnel: if it’s important enough for management to do, it should be important enough for you to do. It also sends the message that all employees should take pride in their work, especially when it comes to greeting and taking care of customers.
“When we take care of our internal customers, they have more of a proclivity to take care of our external guests,” said Hall. The ripple effect is E&C’s ability to balance its numbers when sales of its core product, gasoline, have been down.
“We’ve been down on gasoline gallons at some sites, but our inside sales have maintained or even eclipsed the numbers from last year,” Hall said. Even as national suppliers like Coke, Pepsi, and McLane say their numbers are down for E&C’s region, the chain’s numbers are up.
E&C also recognizes its limitations. As the trend to install fast food restaurants continues to pick up for c-store chains, this chain understands its strength is in its core services: drinks, cigarettes, and, of course, gasoline. “Everyone wants to be in fast food, but everyone isn’t ready for fast food,” said Hall. “We remain close to the vest in the core category concentration, which is gasoline. It’s still the number one SKU, followed closely by cigarettes.”
By offering its customers a value they can count on, E&C has increased its average cigarette carton sales per week. Regardless of the turmoil around the tobacco industry, customers know they’ll get a good deal when they visit their local E&C.
“We provide value packages in the beverage and energy drink categories that are adjacent to those cigarette customers,” Hall said. “We have a reputation. Customers know our prices will be the lowest or very close to it.”
One of E&C’s major gasoline partners, Chevron/Texaco, has decided to exit the chain’s market, heading primarily west of the Mississippi. Although this presents a challenge, E&C’s owners again had the foresight to prepare for such an event. “They didn’t put all of their eggs into one basket, so our relationship with Shell, Sunoco, and Exxon will make it easier to transition our Chevron/Texaco-branded locations,” said Hall.
E&C’s employees will also make it easier for the company to phase in a new brand. The company has one of the lowest turnover rates in the c-store industry—close to 60% lower than the industry high. As a result, the relationship between the personnel in locations in the Maryland; DC; Virginia’s Eastern Shore and Northern Neck; and Richmond, Tidewater, and Northern Virginia markets, means customers come back for more than the value.
“Customers are in and out, not necessarily interested in developing a relationship, but the familiarity goes a long way,” said Hall. “Consistent programs and operations are as important as the availability of the goods and services they expect when they come into our locations.”
As 70% of E&C’s middle management was promoted from within, no matter which of the company’s 320 locations customers visit, they know they’ll be greeted with the same cleanliness and friendly atmosphere they’ve come to expect from their own neighborhood store.