August 2021

Feature

The Storyteller

NACS Show speaker Kendal Netmaker draws on his indigenous roots to share his lessons in business success and resiliency.
Bruce Horovitz

NACS Show speakers sometimes like to brag a bit about their many successes. Not Kendal Netmaker.

Never mind that he’s a wildly successful businessman, entrepreneur and motivational speaker who was raised on an indigenous reservation in Cut Knife, Saskatchewan, Canada. When Netmaker gives his keynote speech at the NACS Show in Chicago October 5–8, he will laser-focus on the life lessons he has learned about the ultimate rewards of honest-to-goodness selflessness and how it can uplift your c-store business—and your life.

But it wasn’t Netmaker who was the selfless one. It was his mom. And her generosity was soon followed by a life-changing act of kindness from a family friend. These two tandem acts of selflessness made all the difference in Netmaker’s life. They made him who he is, and learning from them could even help improve your ability to communicate with your employees.

There is, perhaps, a critical lesson to be learned here by the $256 billion c-store industry as it climbs out of the haze of a pandemic year and regroups in 2021-22. At its simplest: Real success isn’t just about the bottom line—it’s also about giving back.

“Life is all about helping each other to succeed,” said Netmaker, 34, who has founded and invested in five businesses, authored a book and won more than 25 small business awards. “That’s what I’ll bring to the table during my speech.”

As a child, Netmaker was twice the beneficiary of unusually kind acts. Netmaker’s mom, Inez Weenie, a single parent who left her emotionally abusive husband, raised her son and three daughters on her own, sleeping on the couch so her children could have bedrooms. “I grew up in poverty with a lack of basic necessities,” Netmaker recalled.

The four siblings and their mom bounced from shelter to shelter until they landed in a tiny home on the reservation, and his mother made certain that Netmaker finally had his own room. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

Perhaps even more unbelievable were the actions of a fifth-grade friend and his family. They not only provided the necessary funds for Netmaker to play recreational soccer but also gave their car to Netmaker’s mom when the school friend’s family had to relocate. Suddenly, Netmaker and his sisters had a way to get to after-school sports, and his mother had a car to run errands and buy groceries.

Driven to Serve

This act of selflessness utterly changed Netmaker’s life and his family’s. That’s why Netmaker has since dedicated his own life to helping others. His most successful business, Neechie Gear, a lifestyle apparel brand, gives a percentage of its profits to IndigiFund, a nonprofit Netmaker co-founded to empower indigenous youth through sports, education and culture. Truly successful business owners should practice this same level of selflessness, he said.

“I am a product of my mother’s sacrifices and the sacrifices of others,” he said. “When I started bringing more of that giving back into my businesses, things got better,” he said. “You will have a better performing organization if you do this.”

Netmaker knows this firsthand. He’s hired more than 100 employees and takes special pride in learning how to work with people from different backgrounds. Although his business is now run 100% online, he owned 10 retail stores over a 10-year span and has sold his apparel at dozens of retail outlets across Canada.

Along the way, he’s learned to constantly nurture his employees by making their jobs aspirational—and surprising them with small ways to say thank you. Sometimes it’s buying them all pizza. Sometimes it’s handing out movie passes. And other times it’s handing out unexpected bonuses. “Your staff should be your No. 1 focus,” he said. “Make them family to you, and they will act like family to you,” he said.

Success requires constantly giving employees hope, he said. They, in turn, will pass that same hope along to customers. “When I speak, I try to speak to individuals within the crowd and encourage them to find the space in their heart that wakes them up in the morning and gets them excited,” he said. Convenience retailers need to approach their employees in this same way, he said.

Retaining employees, particularly great employees, requires creating a special work environment that makes workers want to stay. Why go elsewhere if your current employer is treating you special? That said, employers can’t ignore the fact that some employees won’t be there forever. Even then, it’s critical to embrace the time you have with them. After all, even though people leave, they will talk about you and your company after they do—and once in a while, they even come back.

Driven to Share

Your staff needs to learn about your brand and share its unique story with customers. For a brand to succeed, he said, it needs to be able to tell a compelling story. Netmaker learned the art of storytelling from his mother and grandmother, and it’s this ability to tell and share folkloric stories that helps set him apart from other business leaders.

Sometimes our greatest failures present the greatest opportunities.

It wasn’t always that way. Growing up, he was terrified of public speaking. Then, as a young man, he entered a competition to write and pitch his own business plan. He reached deeply back into his roots. “This is one of the things we do to pass on ancient knowledge,” he said. “It’s done through stories.” So, he loaded his new business pitch with stories—and he won.

Similarly, he said, every c-store must nurture, create and pass on its own story.

He’s learned from his failures, too.

One of the first brands he created—Moose Meat Apparel—ultimately failed because of intellectual property conflicts around his company’s name. It was that experience that taught Netmaker to be a smarter businessman. “Sometimes our greatest failures present the greatest opportunities,” he said.

Driven to Learn

There’s another critical key to success, he said, in the c-store industry: learning. The more retailers learn about best practices—especially ideas found at the NACS Show—the better they can improve their business. “The more we learn the more we grow,” he said.

It’s also learning about your employees. All of them. “Before you get to team building, you have to understand your team members,” Netmaker said. “If we don’t take the time to understand where they come from, it creates ignorance and leads to problems,” he said.

This is particularly true in the hiring process, he said. Hiring is much more than looking at someone’s resume. It’s also about understanding them and their story. The best way to do that, he said, is often by asking this critical question during the job interview: “Can you tell me the story that brought you here today to apply for this position?” he said.

Before you get to team building, you have to understand your team members.

When you ask that, he said, most folks will tell you something you never expected to hear. “Something happens when people tell a story that nothing else can accomplish,” he said.

Ultimately, Netmaker said, the best hire isn’t necessarily someone who seems to fit the job description. Rather, it should be someone who is coachable and eager to learn. “Anyone who is coachable you can teach skills. You can’t teach a know-it-all,” he said.

Teaching employees is key, especially when you can present them with “win-win” situations of learning. For example, there might be a new technology you need them to learn that also could apply to their endeavors beyond your c-store.

As part of that life learning, he said, everyone needs a coach or mentor who can constantly show them the way. “All great leaders have great coaches from day one. That keeps them accountable and moving forward,” he said.

Great leaders also learn from their own experiences. When Netmaker was a young child, going to a c-store with his family often felt uncomfortable. Instead of hearing a friendly greeting, what they typically received were suspicious looks and eyes that watched them everywhere they went. “When we didn’t feel welcome, we never came back to that store,” he said.

Today, Netmaker has two children, and when the family walks into a c-store, they more often than not are greeted with smiles. One c-store owner even calls them by name—a welcome that Netmaker said lures them back again and again.

So, when NACS members settle in to hear Netmaker’s motivational advice, don’t expect to see statistics or data points or bottom-line lingo.

Expect to hear stories.

Bruce Horovitz

Bruce Horovitz is a freelance journalist and national media training consultant. Contact him at brucehorovitz@gmail.com.