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10/01/2011

From the C-Suite: Pushing for change

Photography by Vito Palmisano

The swipe fee cap on debit card transactions that took effect Oct. 1 didn't happen by accident.

The so-called Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was met with fierce opposition from banks that stand to lose billions in reduced transaction fees. But among the winners are food retailers whose customers regularly use debit cards to make small purchases.

And one of the retail leaders who helped make the amendment happen was Sonja Hubbard, chief executive of privately held E-Z Mart Stores Inc. in Texarkana, Texas. In her role as chairwoman of NACS (The Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing) two years ago, Hubbard used the podium at the group's annual convention to urge members to join the fight against what were some of the highest transaction fees in the world.

It was a stand-out moment for Hubbard, who was the first female NACS chair and is still on the executive committee, recalls Henry Armour, president of NACS. "Her call to action from the stage was to show an ad that the credit card companies had run criticizing the convenience store industry as being overpriced, dirty places to shop," Armour says. "After showing it, she said off the cuff, 'Doesn't that just chap your ass,'" Armour says.

The comment was completely unexpected and highly effective. "Everyone went nuts . . . It resulted in people coming up and signing [a petition]," Armour says. In all, NACS collected 5.2 million signatures on a petition urging limits to swipe fees that it delivered to Congress.

The incident exemplifies what observers cite as two of Hubbard's strong suits: a sharp wit and the ability to get things done with a style all her own. While Hubbard learned the ropes of running the 300-store chain of South central c-stores from her late father, Jim Yates, who founded E-Z Mart in 1970 and also served as chair of NACS, she has earned the industry's respect for her collaborative approach. "Together we're all stronger," she says.

Investing in food

Hubbard also believes in taking a long-term view to build for growth, remaining confident that the economy will rebound and consumers will once again spend freely. For example, E-Z Mart's strong balance sheet has allowed her to invest in foodservice expansion during the recent downturn, she says, when competitors were largely cutting back.

"If you think the world is coming to an end, that's how you are going to operate. You won't take risks. You're only worrying about hunkering down. I don't think you can grow that way," she says.

E-Z Mart this year invested in an expansion of its Two Chicks foodservice program, which includes fried chicken, catfish, corn dogs, burritos, and sausage and biscuits in the morning. It added new equipment, displays and a director of foodservice, and also plans to add field representatives, says Bubba Kirkland, senior vice president of merchandising and foodservice at E-Z Mart, where he has worked for 37 years.

As for the c-store industry as a whole, Hubbard's goal is to inspire the merchandising of more healthy foods. "I have trouble going in one of our stores and finding lunch," she says. "We need a more diverse, bigger breadth of products."

While the logistics of turning over highly perishable products at stores that don't have the traffic of larger supermarkets remains an obstacle, Hubbard believes it's only a temporary issue. "What I would hope is as [an industry], we're smart enough to improve our offerings and do it competitively enough so the consumer public can afford it."

"What I would hope is as [an industry], we're smart enough to improve our offerings and do it competitively enough so the consumer public can afford it."

While it might require a period of adjustment, Hubbard says consumers will purchase more nutritious food at c-stores when given the option.

And if anyone can make something happen, it's Hubbard, suggests Armour of NACS. "She is a hugely talented advocate for our industry," he says. "She's a very good listener and can make her case compellingly. She is certainly a uniter, not a divider."

Healthier c-store fare ultimately will mean a healthier population, Hubbard says. "If you look at our whole lives, we're too good not to be able to solve this problem," she says. "It benefits everybody."

"She is a hugely talented advocate for our industry. She is certainly a uniter, not a divider."

– Henry Armour,

president of NACS

A woman's place

While the c-store industry historically has been male-dominated, Hubbard has excelled in the top job, which she has held at E-Z Mart since her father died in an airplane crash in 1998. But she acknowledges that the industry's progress toward diversity in leadership has been slow.

Hubbard, who is a certified public accountant and worked as controller and chief financial officer before assuming the chief executive position at E-Z Mart, remains part of a minority of women who have climbed to the top of the corporate ladder. At major corporations in all industries, women currently hold 15 percent of senior-executive positions and board seats, according to a recent report by McKinsey & Co. Often it's because they don't have mentors or sponsors and are excluded from the male-dominated networks that can pave the way for advancement, the research indicates. Underlying the obstacles are established mindsets that women aren't right for – or can't hack – the top job, according to the McKinsey report.

Hubbard has her own theory about women leaders: "I think women are much better multi-taskers, maybe because we serve the roles of mothers," she says. And as change develops faster in the industry, multi-tasking will be even more critical to success.

 

"I think women are much better multi-taskers, maybe because we serve the roles of mothers."

But women don't always support other women in the industry enough, Hubbard contends. Although E-Z Mart doesn't have a formal mentoring program for women, Hubbard does look for ways to give women opportunities for advancement even when they don't ask for them. Danna Huskey, for example, rose to become the company's first female category manager after starting out as an administrative assistant to the president. "She had never expressed a desire to do more, but she certainly had the capabilities," Hubbard says.

Collaborative style

Huskey says Hubbard has introduced a collaborative style that invites input from anyone. "She just calms the room in the way she presents herself and speaks," says Huskey. "People are never uptight around her. If you have an opinion, you're allowed to express it."

At E-Z Mart, it was well-known that Hubbard would someday succeed Yates, who was both mentor and sponsor. Yet she says her father wasn't always an easy boss. "My dad was very driven. . . . He always expected similarly of us," Hubbard says. Under his top-down leadership approach, he was the boss and wasn't afraid to criticize Hubbard in front of others. "It was painful sometimes," she recalls, but she toughened up as a result of it.

Hubbard's hard work also has won her respect from employees who knew she wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth. "That made it a lot easier during the transition," says Hubbard, who was chief financial officer when her father died. "They respected I had some competencies within the organization."

A successful transition

Describing herself as a glass half-full person, Hubbard wasted little time when she was thrust into the CEO position. Hubbard completed three acquisitions that were in progress at the time and added a fourth, propelling the company's growth.

Hubbard was an instant leader, agrees Kirkland. "The first staff meeting after (Yates') death, she sat everybody down and said, 'E-Z Mart is going to be here. I'm now in charge,'" Kirkland says. "She took control immediately and stepped into the role. We haven't missed a beat."

In fact, Hubbard has led the company to its best financial performance despite enduring several difficult economies. "She looks at the bottom line and is not hung up on having 500 stores or 1,000 stores. She's interested in having profitable stores," Kirkland says.

Hubbard credits the economic slump at the start of 2001 for ultimately making E-Z Mart stronger and better able to handle the recession of 2008. While the general economy was sluggish, the c-store industry also was confronting increased competition from big-box retailers who would price fuel below cost to establish themselves in a new market. E-Z Mart saw its fuel margin drop 50 percent in two years.

The only option was to determine which stores were serving a market need and get rid of those that weren't. "When you're bleeding cash, you have to start looking" at other choices, Hubbard says.

While shrinking by closing underperforming stores wasn't pleasant, it was a necessary chore, Hubbard says.

"I have an obligation to protect the whole," she says. "We make considerably more money now. We're a better company now."

Freelance journalist Ann Meyer is editor of SmallBizChicago.com and chief executive of L3C Chicago, L3C. Meyer formerly was a freelance small business columnist for the Chicago Tribune and has written for a variety of business publications, including BusinessWeekSmallBiz, Crain's Chicago Business, Specialty Coffee Retailer, Multichannel Merchant and Prepared Foods.