September 2017

Feature

Globalism and Grit

Frank Gleeson discusses his rise from front line to NACS international leader.
Bruce Horovitz

It all comes down to grit.

For Irishman Frank Gleeson, the very same grit it took for him as a 17-year-old playing at a very high level on his Gaelic football team—and while self-described as “not-very-fast and not-very-skillful”—is the identical grit and boundless determination he displays as a serious mover and shaker in his role on the NACS Board of Directors, as the chairman of the International Committee, and on the recently formed NACS International Board of Directors.

“I’m 5’9” and I’m not very big,” says the self-deprecating Gleeson. “But sometimes, the person who wants something most is the one who gets it.”

Perhaps the most important business lesson that Gleeson says he’s learned in his high-profile career is this: “The best way to reach new heights is to set high goals, but listen to others along the way. The key is to always be willing to try new ideas—and to learn from failure.” He is widely known in the c-store industry as an executive who thinks globally, but acts locally.


Gleeson’s connection with NACS comes at a time when the trade association is doubling-down on its efforts to expand its international outreach.

The 50-year-old executive’s mission in his role with NACS is to continue to expand the trade group’s presence and impact internationally by fostering strong relationships across the globe.

Gleeson’s connection with NACS comes at a time when the trade association is doubling-down on its efforts to expand its international outreach. Even as NACS taps further into its own pent-up potential for global expansion, it is enlisting change agents like Gleeson to help leap the barrier. Under the hard line of a new Trump administration, international cooperation with some foreign governments will no longer be a given, which may increasingly leave the job of international bridge building up to far-sighted executives like Gleeson, whose chief aim is to spread the industry’s best practices across borders.

In the process, he hopes to share his personal success formula with convenience store owners and big and small operators as NACS expands its international reach. Joining Gleeson in his efforts is NACS staffer Mark Wohltmann, newly hired director of NACS Europe.

One of the key international growth plans for NACS falls in lock-step with Gleeson’s stated goals: to share the NACS message of knowledge, connections and advocacy beyond U.S. borders. This June, for example, NACS convened its week-long Convenience Summit Europe in Zurich, Switzerland, and London, England. A Convenience Summit Asia took place in Sapporo and Tokyo, Japan, earlier this year in March. The purpose, he says, of these two summits is to help international attendees build strategic relationships, visit stores through organized tours and gain insights on how other countries are dealing with similar business challenges.

While international growth for NACS won’t be immediate, he says, it’s all about planting the seeds. While the biggest beachhead for NACS is in Europe, which is ripe for growth, the beachhead in Asia “is much less mature,” he says, but has enormous potential. That’s one reason why the NACS international board was formed in 2017, with the goal to attract more international members and encourage interest in Europe and Asia.


"Our mission is to deliver experiences that enrich and nourish life,” Gleeson says of his goals at his current job.

“It’s a much less mature market outside the United States,” says Gleeson, who has firsthand knowledge of this via his work throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. For example, he says, it could take 20 years for South America to develop a mature convenience store industry but the quickest way for the continent to get there, he says, is for successful NACS members to encourage and pass along best industry practices. “It’s all about finding out who is best in class—and learning from them.”

Beyond international growth, what would he most like to see change with NACS? Not much, he admitted. “If Carlsberg [known for its ‘Best in World’ ad slogan] made a trade association, I think NACS would be the association of choice,” he jokes. “For a trade group, NACS has an amazing culture. I’ve not seen anything else as good.”

The Journey

Gleeson has climbed his way up through the ranks at NACS. He began as a curious international attendee at NACS meetings. Then, he became a committee member. Next, a board member. Then, in 2014, he was named vice chairman to the NACS Executive Committee with responsibility for international engagement. Most recently, he was appointed chairman of the NACS International Board.

Gleeson has flourished via a simple, three-step code of conduct:

  1. Be famous for good food and beverage.
  2. Offer consistent and reliable customer service.
  3. Keep all promises to customers and suppliers.

That’s been his “rule of three” along the way. His father was a clothing store owner; his brother owned a coffee shop where Gleeson worked his first job. Next, he worked in the video store business—ultimately managing 16 stores in his early 20s.

Gleeson is a strong believer in changing careers every five to seven years so he left the video business and entered the c-store business in Ireland—but not before touring the United States to examine best-in-class competition—ultimately becoming retail director of Topaz Energy Group, the largest importer and distributor of transport fuel in Ireland. He led a team responsible for the successful development and rollout of the Topaz brand—an integration of Shell and Statoil service stations.

He points to five global trends as the bedrock of operating a successful convenience store:
 

Healthier Food

This is particularly critical for attracting millennials, he says, who demand fresh food. Nevermind that most customers won’t purchase better-for-you food daily, but only once or twice per week. Even then, they want to at least see it as an option every day.

Great Coffee

Fresh coffee, alone, won’t do it anymore. You’d better have barista-quality coffee if you want customers coming back.

Authenticity

Millennials, in particular, want to know a product’s origin before they purchase it. They want products that are locally and ethically sourced. “If you have that differentiator, you need to call it out,” he advises.

Technology

This may be one of the biggest, ongoing changes, with technologies like downloadable apps, pay-at-the-pump and loyalty programs all rolled into one.

Bigger Stores

The small, 1,000-square-foot convenience store just doesn’t make it any more, he says. Many c-stores are now 5,000 square feet or more. “The stores are five times the size they were five years ago,” he says. “Our mission is to deliver experiences that enrich and nourish life,” he says of his goals at his current job. And he also says that NACS helps him deliver these important experiences: “I get some of my best ideas from NACS because you always find a member doing something really good—or really successful.”

The Lessons

Gleeson also admits to getting some of his best ideas by occasionally failing. “If you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough,” says Gleeson. He certainly knows his biggest mistake, as a young worker: he was too cocky.

This realization came in his early 20s, when he was passed over for another candidate for a regional manager’s job at the former Blockbuster video chain. Angrily, he went in to ask his boss why he didn’t get the promotion. “He told me that I was the hardest worker—but that I was also the hardest to get along with,” says Gleeson. “That was pretty tough feedback, in my 20s, to hear that I wasn’t as terrific as I thought I was.”

Now, however, as a more seasoned business leader, he says, that failure proved invaluable, because it painfully taught him the critical importance of listening to others. Just as important, years later it helped him to realize that he needed to go back to college for additional training, where he enrolled in a leadership workshop and took classes in behavioral training. He attended the NACS Executive Leadership Program in Cornell, which he says helped him understand his leadership gaps.

“Early in my career I thought I had all of the answers,” he says. “I had to mature and listen more. As I learned to make better decisions, the more collaborative I became.”


While he now is a senior executive with thousands of employees working under him, Gleeson believes in the importance of treating all employees as equals.

That same experience, he says, also taught him how to treat his employees. While he now is a senior executive with thousands of employees working under him, he says the trick is to treat all employees as equals. “I always introduce myself and explain where I came from,” he says. “My first job was washing dishes and my second job was cooking. I always treat people how I want to be treated. After all, I probably did one of their jobs at some stage.”

Why is fair employee treatment so important? Among other things, it will ultimately show up in the most critical place: the bottom line. “If you fail to treat employees with respect, they won’t treat customers with respect,” he says. That’s why Gleeson strongly believes in only hiring employees with positive attitudes. “It’s what I try to drill into my HR folks: Hire for attitude and train for competence.”

My first job was washing dishes and my second job was cooking. I always treat people how I want to be treated. After all, I probably did one of their jobs at some stage.”

He’s also learned that no employer can afford to ignore what employees tell you, even if it’s bad news. “If you hear anything consistently, you know it’s a major problem area with your business.”

Even then, the combined demands of his high-pressure job and his commitments to NACS can sometimes seem overwhelming. So he relies heavily on his iPhone, iPad and even his Apple watch to organize his day. He also relies on a series of apps to speed through the bureaucratic stuff. “My whole day and my whole week are mapped out on my technology,” he says. “Boy, does it save me time!”

Yet all the technology in the world won’t make a c-store successful, he says. And that brings us back to grit. Gleeson’s got grit, in spades. “I’ve never been afraid to get my hands dirty,” reflects Gleeson. “I’ll still clear dirty dishes from a table—or help a customer with whatever they need. You have to remember where you came from. You don’t have a business without your customer.”

Bruce Horovitz

Bruce Horovitz is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist. He can be reached at brucehorovitz@gmail.com.