Finding Inspiration Together

Speakers at the general sessions focused on inspiration, innovation and telling the story of your business.

Finding Inspiration Together

November 2023   minute read

Over the course of four days, thousands of convenience industry stakeholders gathered to hear from a variety of speakers—including a 16-time WWE champion.

General Session Day 1

The first general session of the NACS Show made the case for inspiration. Kevin Paul Scott, founder of consulting firm ADDO, offered simple advice. “Great leaders don’t manufacture inspiration, they foster it, find it and fuel it.”

Leaders foster inspiration by creating an environment for inspiration to grow. Simply put, find connection. People want to be connected to each other and a goal. To be inspired is to be purpose driven. “When purpose becomes clear, work becomes meaningful,” said Scott. And when work is meaningful, people perform at a high level.

How do we get people working eight hours a day behind the register, stocking coolers or cleaning bathrooms to feel inspired, not only at work but in life? Because the more inspired your team is in their lives, the more inspired your customers are and the more inspired your profits are. The customer experience comes from the bottom up—which comes from the top down. Inspired leadership trickles down to customers.

Scott posited that when leaders “connect people to purpose,” they can inspire action. He illustrated the point with the example of a janitor who worked at NASA. When President Kennedy asked him what he did there, he answered “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Scott shared his belief that “stories are the way we that we bring inspiration to life.” Once we find those stories, we need a way to share them and communicate them to others.

Fueling inspiration requires sharing stories and celebrating the results in an ongoing way. He shared an example of how a bank’s mission was to fuel prosperity and how the bank had high levels of engagement, deposits and loans because it built stories around its customers. Celebrating a family getting a loan isn’t enough; instead, breathe life into the moment by recognizing what that loan does for them. Did they buy their first home? Put their child through college?

General Session Day 2

Everyone has a story to tell. Finding a way to share your store’s story and be a part of the American road trip goes a long way towards putting your operation on the map.

Stephanie Stuckey, chair of Stuckey’s Corp., told the story of her journey to revive her family’s brand after buying it from the previous owners. Stuckey’s was founded in 1937. It was the first roadside retail chain. “Before there was Walmart or TA or Love’s or Buc-ee’s, there was Stuckey’s.”

To save Stuckey’s, she leaned into storytelling. “The road trip represents freedom and fun and independence. It’s a uniquely American experience,” she told the audience. On social media, Stuckey shared her own experiences with Stuckey’s and road trips growing up, attracting customers who want those same experiences with their own families.

According to Al Hebert (Gas Station Gourmet) and Stafford Shurden (Gas Station Tailgate Review), Stuckey’s isn’t the only store offering a unique road trip experience for customers.

Unique stops lead to great memories, with the panelists discussing stops on their own road trips that featured experiences such as a psychic goat, a historical marker for a UFO sighting and more.

Stuckey noted that you don’t have to go to those extremes because there are stories inside every convenience store. She started to experience success when she shared her own personal story, not just what she thought customers wanted to hear. “I pulled over to this former Stuckey’s that just looked awful, and I posted something very vulnerable. And that was very authentic, but also inspirational,” she said. By the end of the day, she had over 25,000 notifications on her post—a far cry from the couple likes from her family she was receiving before.

The more inspired your team is in their lives, the more inspired your customers are and the more inspired your profits are.

Hebert shared that he was pulled into the industry not just by delicious meals, but by the stories behind every store. “So what I really tried to do is tell your stories, so other people can benefit from your successes,” Hebert said.

And stories don’t have to just be about your store. For example, as Stuckey made her way to a c-store in Hattiesburg, she pulled over and saw a castle on the side of the road. Instant content.

“It’s exploring all these fun places and letting your customers know that it’s the journey, it’s the places along the way … and then pull over at our store and we’re part of that overall experience.

It doesn’t have to be hard to share your story. The panelists recommend taking advantage of what is available to you—use social media. It’s free.

Staying on the theme of road trips, 2022-23 NACS Chair Don Rhoads shared his recent road trip adventures. Rhoads wanted to thank c-store frontline workers, so he went on three road trips and visited over 80 stores on what he called his “Thank You Tour.”

“Let’s face it, people are generally in a bad mood,” Rhoads said. “But our industry can change that. No one else has the relationship we have with our customers.”

He finished his speech with gratitude, saying “I’d like to thank everyone in our industry for inspiring me. You have great teams and it’s obvious we have a bright future.”

General Session Day 3

Victor Paterno, the 2023-24 chair of NACS, opened Day 3’s general session by marking the 50th anniversary of the first 7-Eleven to open in Asia. Paterno shared his own background of helping his father, who co-founded 7-Eleven Philippines, take his business from 40 stores to 100. After leaving the company to forge his own path, Paterno returned in the late ’90s inspired by the challenge to grow the business to 1,000 stores. The retailer now has well over 3,000 stores. (Read more about Paterno on page 8.)

Next on stage was a panel on creating a culture of innovation. Moderator Gray Taylor, the executive director of Conexxus, was joined by Emily Sheetz, who is the vice president for innovation and IT at Sheetz, and Vish Ganapathy, director, customer engineering retail, Google.

Sheetz said it’s a typical misconception that technology drives innovation. She believes technology should be seen as tool of innovation rather the driver. “Really understanding what your customer wants, and not what you think they want, helps you innovate towards value,” said Sheetz.

Ganapathy agreed. “Purely technology-based innovation, what we consider shiny objects, is not sustainable [even though] it might drive a lot of enthusiasm and interest at first,” he said.

Creating a culture of innovation requires creating a sense of safety.

Google regularly surveys its teams to ask what is needed to innovate, Ganapathy shared. The top response was a safe, non-judgmental environment. Sheetz agreed that creating a culture of innovation requires creating a sense of safety. “That starts from the top. Leadership has to create an environment where people feel they can take risks. You don’t innovate without risks,” she said.

Ganapathy believes that innovation comes from the frontlines. “The people who are working with your customers every day are best positioned to know what’s going to work,” he said.

“Innovation isn’t creating a brand-new business model,” said Sheetz. “It’s about how do you do your job day in and day out better. And sometimes that is making it easier for our store employees. So when I say thinking about the end customer, our successful innovations have gone all the whole way back to the value chain.”

Sheetz has an innovation hub in Pittsburgh. Partnering with universities in the area has been “win, win, win, all around,” Sheetz said. “From a number of different standpoints, universities are doing cutting-edge research and technology development across so many different disciplines that our business is in,” she said. “Students get access or exposure to our company and how we treat people, and then we become a viable option for somebody coming out of school to come work for us.”

To close out the session, NACS CEO Henry Armour introduced Dr. Zeynep Ton, the author of “The Good Jobs Strategy.” Dr. Ton explained her solution for developing a more reliable, more motivated workforce. One key element is standardization, which enables efficiency, consistency and productivity. Another is empowerment.

“That standardization is really done to reduce mental overburden,” she said. “The empowerment enables workers to contribute to higher sales and reduce costs by coming up with ideas that improve their systems all the time. That combination increases their productivity.”

General Session Day 4

It was a Friday morning SmackDown at the NACS Show when WWE wrestler and actor John Cena took the stage.

Connecting to the theme of inspiration, Cena shared the journey that took him from his childhood in West Newbury, Massachusetts, to movie and TV screens worldwide—a journey he called a “series of happy accidents.”

“I’ve had a whole bunch of losses, but I’ve just never given up trying,” he said. Cena also explained that he isn’t so different from a typical c-store operator.

“We are in the customer service business,” Cena said, “and we know what it’s like to open the door on a day where maybe we wake up on the wrong side of the bed and we still have to be empathetic to the needs of your customer. And your experience and your existence is to make that customer happy so that they want to continue to do business with you. So in that regard, we are all in the same fight.”

Cena had to run out the door after his speech because he was wrestling later that evening in St. Louis. His first stop in the city? A c-store to look for water, caffeine and protein bars.

“That has been my path of action for 20 years,” Cena said. “This is like the golden era for me. I can now walk into any convenience store and be flooded with options.”

“Wow, how’d you get John Cena?”

was a question that we heard repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the NACS Show—and even more so after his awe-inspiring presentation.

Because the closing general session is early (8:30 a.m. start), and it comes after a long week of activity, it’s important to find someone who is a recognized name who people will get up to hear. A variety of sports stars were options, and several rose to the top of the list. But Cena was only one who is currently active, and that was a big plus. More important, his story perfectly fit the general session theme of inspiration. Cena’s work with charities, especially with Make-A-Wish, was too hard to ignore.

Cena also has a reputation for having a great work ethic, and for really preparing for each speech—and that was obvious with his specific references to our industry, which included a reference to an article in NACS Magazine. (Pro tip: Green rooms where speakers prepare before hitting the stage can be pretty boring, so if you place some magazines there, odds are they will be read.)

We prepared more than 50 questions on virtually every topic possible, ultimately whittling them down to about a dozen to allow time for audience questions. And in the end, Cena delivered exactly how he is described in his speaker profile: “He leaves audiences feeling motivated and inspired to be themselves and try their best every day.”

And that went even beyond his appearance, based on what he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, right after he left the NACS Show.

—Jeff Lenard, VP, strategic industry initiatives, NACS
First slide

Kevin Paul Scott kicked off the first general session with the case for inspiration.

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First slide

Stephanie Stuckey, Stafford Shurden and Al Hebert talked about the importance of storytelling.

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First slide

Henry Armour, Zeynep Ton, Varish Goyal and Joe Hamza shared the stage to talk about good jobs.

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Gray Taylor, Emily Sheetz and Vish Ganapathy gave a roadmap for creating a culture of innovation.

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Kevin Paul Scott returned to the stage to host John Cena in a Q&A.

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