A C-Store’s Heartbeat

Managers are the heart of the store, and retailers are finding the best ways to attract and retain them.

A C-Store’s Heartbeat

May 2024   minute read

By: Shannon Carroll

“People don’t leave jobs, people leave people,” said Abby Curlin, recruitment coordinator and training developer at Texas-based convenience retailer TXB.

As a result, she said, creating a culture where people enjoy coming to work is crucial. “I think environment and culture are kind of the foundation for retention,” she said. “If we’re creating an environment in a culture where people feel valued, they feel seen, they have fun at their job, that’s where retention really gets built.”

Hannah Ubl, the co-founder of management consulting firm Good Company Consulting, said, “It sounds really cliche, but I feel like when people feel like they’re taken care of, they stick around a lot longer—or if they leave, they’ll come back.”

She said that, while paying employees well is obviously important, investing in employees is “a massive differentiator.” Making it clear to your managers that you’re committed to their development makes them feel valued During the hiring process, being able to tell potential managers what kinds of growth programs you have can set you apart from your competition, Ubl said.

According to Ubl, development should involve saying to employees, “If I develop you, if you take these skills and go somewhere else, that’s OK. I celebrate you taking the next step in your career. … So come here and we will give you the best experience possible to set you up for future success.”

Ubl has seen plenty of creative ways companies are approaching managerial issues. Some companies in the healthcare industry have started offering school-hour shifts so parents can drop their kids off, work and pick their kids up. Some of those companies are also telling employees that if their work hours are the only time when they can exercise, the company will pay for their exercise time.

Fostering Connection

TXB’s Curlin said the retailer tries to make sure its managers are connected and have support from others who might be experiencing similar things. “They get their groups together a lot … having weekly meetings so that they have face-to-face time because you are kind of on your own island when you’re running an operation. So having those weekly meetings, having those touch points just to say, ‘This is what I’m struggling with this week,’ or, ‘I took the idea that Emily gave me last week, and I implemented it in my store, and this is a success,’ has been really important.”

For the past month, TXB has been holding virtual manager-in-training (MIT) calls where everyone who is going through the retailer’s manager training program can talk about what they’re doing in a given week. On the call also are members of the company’s senior leadership—from the vice president of operations to Curlin. In these calls, for example, a manager can say, “I feel like I didn’t learn lotto as well as I needed to.”

“That’s something we can immediately address the following day just to make sure [managers] know they’re being supported,” Curlin said.

People don’t leave jobs, people leave people.”

She added that the program provides connection. “As you’re going through training, you know if you have another manager in training that you might want to call on, there is that connection, there is that relationship right there.” And talking about that program during the hiring process can let potential managers know that they’re not just going to be thrown into the deep end and will instead be supported from day one.

TXB also encourages managers to have fun with their employees.

“Whether that’s Wacky Hat Wednesday or wearing your team’s jersey on Fridays, we let them kind of have that store individuality to create some fun within the team,” Curlin said.

TXB has seen more success with some of its programs than it has with upping wages and bonuses—although the retailer follows the industry trends on both. “Monetary bonuses only last so long for us; we haven’t seen [them] really build our bench. … The money kind of only got us so far. People appreciated that, but ... you’re spending most of your day at work, so you need to feel connected to what you’re doing.”

East Tennessee-based Weigel’s found that it was losing its store leaders to a number of large manufacturing plants in the area. As a result, the retailer had to get creative.

Melanie Wilson Disney, Weigel’s director of human resources, said, “Our assistant managers used to be required to work 55 hours a week. That was just part of the program, and they’d enjoy overtime, but we got a lot of feedback that they’d rather have time off, they’d rather have a work-life balance with 40 hours a week. So we listened to that.” In January, after a company-wide survey, Weigel’s reduced hours—while also raising hourly pay “to be the best in class,” Wilson Disney said.

To make sure Weigel’s remains attractive to current managers—and can attract potential ones—Wilson Disney said the retailer has put together “some pretty robust programs that I don’t think anyone in the industry has ever attempted.” Because it’s still in the works, she wasn’t able to share too many details, but noted the company has a bonus structure that goes all the way down to hourly employees and creates incentives so that all the store’s employees know what the retailer’s expectations are.

Nurturing Talent

“In the past, [we’ve been focused on employees who are] more task-oriented, who can multitask,” Wilson Disney said. “But now, we’re more focused on the people side of things. … A lot of it is personality. And you have to look generationally … we have to navigate what people need and want. So [the ideal manager] for us is someone who is open-minded, who is going to be progressive, who understands that you have multiple generations in their store and understands how to lead each one.”

Linda Sutton, the director of recruiting at RaceTrac, said the retailer has observed that there’s a wider range of qualified candidates available, allowing for more selective recruitment. There have also been store closures that changed the market for external hires, which she said has meant that, “given RaceTrac’s strong brand, we’ve been successful in attracting this talent to our organization.”

She said Covid “transformed how we approach hiring. We recognize that applicants today have higher expectations. Our recruiting team takes the time to understand what each candidate’s aspirations are, as well as their deal breakers. This focus on relatability allows us to uncover what truly motivates [managers] in their careers and identify potential culture misalignments.”

Like Weigel’s, RaceTrac prefers to hire from within—which Sutton said is what the retailer’s “success hinges on.” The company’s HR and operations departments work together to identify high-potential employees and to prepare them for leadership roles. When internal talent isn’t available, the retailer leverages its “strong understanding of transferable skills from adjacent retail sectors, allowing us to identify individuals who will flourish in our unique culture.”

Sutton added, “Our ideal candidate prioritizes cultural fit—someone we can train on the technical side but who already embodies the leadership qualities and empathy that make a great manager in our environment.”

At TXB, the mix of internal hires to external hires is about 60-40% throughout the entire company, according to Curlin. The retailer’s “top priority” is always to hire internally, so executives will start having early conversations with employees they identify as strong managerial candidates. “We want to lay the foundation that, ‘We see a path for you, and we want to start adding in responsibility.’” That doesn’t just mean promoting directly but moving people in the company to their best fit—recently, TXB had a manager move to its IT department.

“If we’re hiring for the employee who has the attitude and the commitment and the motivation, we will find the right spot for you,” she said. “We don’t want to lose someone just because management might not be their thing.”

But that has meant taking a step back and looking at how TXB approached its hiring.

“We really liked people who knew the industry, [but] we took a step back from that and said, ‘Maybe that’s not the best way for us to go,” Curlin said. “We need people who have the right attitude—and we can teach them the industry. But we can’t teach them to want to come to work. We can’t teach them to want to be here. So we started looking for people who are really passionate about coming in and leading a team and really around that attitude around leadership and executive leadership in a store. And that has made all the difference.”

As a result, TXB has hired managers with various backgrounds—for example, someone who used to run a bank branch is one of its store managers. TXB pitches the opportunity to potential hires as: The store is your business. It’s part of this whole system, but this is yours, and you have to own it. Curlin said, “That leads to a trickle-down effect for us, because then they are hiring staff members who carry around that attitude and same opinion about guest service and make sure the operation is running efficiently and effectively, versus people who’ve [run a c-store] before who know how to run our POS system.”

We need people who have the right attitude—and we can teach them the industry.”

TXB also tailors its hiring and training to its locations, because it has found that its North Texas stores are very different from its stores in South Texas.

“We as a recruiting team have to be able to look in that market and know what that market responds to, what type of leadership that group needs, and then find it for them,” Curlin said.

Ideas From the Wills Group

Like other retailers, the mid-Atlantic-based and family-owned Wills Group tries to hire internally. But Rayma Alexander, the retailer’s director of corporate communications and diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), said the retailer’s location also allows it to “attract talent from a lot of different areas [and backgrounds]—whether that’s people who live in rural or urban areas, people who have served in the military, people who have different education levels.”

“We’re not stuck on whether you’ve worked in the industry before. We’re very open to recruiting from other industries, because they bring other experiences,” she said. “They’re bringing new skills or a new approach to business than maybe we’ve done traditionally. So I think it’s a combination of veterans in the industry and people who are bringing new skills and perspectives, as well.”

Alexander said the Wills Group’s support for DE&I, “focusing on this culture of belonging,” has been a game-changer.

A manager who is Indian recently spoke at an employee engagement activity about what Diwali is. A manager who is Muslim talked to fellow employees about why he and others pray at certain times of the day.

“It makes people feel valued and included, and they are helping grow the organization,” Alexander said. “They leave their own sort of imprint on that … [and] it does build morale.”

The Wills Group makes it a point to listen to all sorts of feedback. After hearing how much employees love their pets, the company created a pet insurance program that gets high usage. Alexander said that because people can fall on hard times and need some help, the Wills Group offers crisis grants. Now, the retailer is looking into compassion time off.

She added, “We just lean into our benefits, try to be competitive and create a sense of an inclusive environment where people feel that they have a voice and they are able to be part of the decision-making process.”

How to Hire for Managerial Roles

Hiring for managerial roles doesn’t have to be complicated, said Good Company Consulting’s Hannah Ubl. A top quality for a leader is that they’re open-minded and approach the role with a growth mindset.

She said, “[Managers] can’t go in thinking, ‘Well, my generation did it this way.’ … So if you can find someone whose instinct is to ask questions, instead of judge, that is one of the most powerful leadership skills.”

Ubl also recommended looking at interview processes. She said behavioral and situational questions—e.g., I’m going to give you an example of something that happens all the time, and you explain how you would respond—are important because you learn how trainable someone is. But interviews shouldn’t feel like a checklist; interviewees should ask deep follow-up questions to understand a person. Evaluating that interview process might also mean considering providing questions to the potential hire ahead of time. Ubl said that while some people function well on the spot, others can freeze, which doesn’t mean they aren’t a good candidate.

“Providing questions in advance just sets someone up for success and allows you, the interviewer, to get a better understanding of the person so that you can feel like you’re getting more of a great hire right away rather than finding out some more things later.”

Shannon Carroll

Shannon Carroll

Shannon is a contract writer/editor for NACS. Outside work, you can find her reading—or yelling at the sports on her TV.

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