NOCO: Expressing Success

As on-the-go needs of convenience store shoppers evolve and change, New York’s NOCO Express is positioning itself as a go-to destination.

By David Bennett, Senior Editor

NOCO interior

Like many regions, western New York is a microcosm of the convenience store industry and its developing penchant to provide more wholesome snacking and food offerings, reflecting the growing demand for healthier options.

Such demand is being driven by both old and young consumers—as baby boomers don’t wish to trade convenience for nourishing selections, and Millennials don’t want to trade convenience for anything.

As Millennial use of convenience stores and fast-casual chains grows, more chains such as NOCO Express are tweaking their operations to reflect shifting preferences. To drive newer strategies to meet such expectations, Tonawanda, N.Y.-based NOCO Energy Corp., parent of NOCO Express, bolstered its executive team in the last few years to spearhead new initiatives at the 36-store chain. Those initiatives include a revamped foodservice program, store renovations and reinforcement of its workforce programs.

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Jim DeFilippis, vice president and general manager of NOCO Express, has been near the forefront of the c-store’s effort to update and enhance its offerings. DeFilippis in 2015 was promoted to vice president of NOCO Energy Corp. Before joining NOCO in 2012, he served as director of fresh food for Acosta sales and marketing.

In his career, DeFilippis has served in positions in the supermarket channel, including vice president of operations at Tops Markets. Over time, he has noticed that the convenience stores have closed the gap with grocers in terms of food offerings and customer service.

“Most people are on the go so much they don’t want to go through the trouble of finding a parking space and walking into these larger units unless they have a need for multiple options,” DeFilippis said.

NOCO Express, the official convenience store of the Buffalo Bills, has invested in several operational upgrades, part of a renovation effort at several store locations. Known for 24-hour service and a host of amenities, the upgrades have resulted in increased sales across the chain.

With the promise of convenience has come a commitment to fulfilling customer expectations. As NOCO Express has committed to fresher snacking and food options, it has changed the way it does business including revamping its proprietary foodservice program, Nickel City Foods.

For history buffs, the name Nickel City derives from when the region was celebrated in the early 1900s, when a U.S. mint there made the first Indian Head Nickels with a prominent buffalo on the back. People began calling them buffalo nickels, and the City of Buffalo became known as the “Nickel City.”

At NOCO Express locations, customers can choose from a variety of sandwiches, wraps, salads, yogurt parfaits and snack packs featuring fruit, cheese or hummus. The c-store features a different Nickel City specialty sandwich each month in addition to more convenient food options with an increased variety of fresh items such as sandwiches, salads and healthier snacks.

A family-owned and -operated company, NOCO Express produces its prepackaged sandwiches out of its local commissary. In the past, traditional subs were top sellers, but consumers are now seeking healthier options, such as sandwiches made with tortillas or flatbread, as well as smaller, more affordable portions for grab and go.

New choices have spurred a new store design that highlights the chain’s popular U-Swirl yogurt bar and grab-and-go selections, housed within a new interior design meant to enhance the shopper experience through clarity in layout and bright, easy-to-shop interiors. One of the latest store refurbishments was completed earlier this year in the city of Niagara.

“The remodel included the addition of custom wall shelving and a new register area. With this update, customers will have better visibility of products displayed throughout the store,”  DeFilippis said. “A new cooler island features freshly-prepared and prepackaged sandwiches, salads, wraps and snack packs from Nickel City Foods, which are available throughout the day, offering customers options for fresh, grab-and-go meals and snacks. New wall graphics installed throughout the store provide an overall updated look.”

Another site that was upgraded was a store in Grand Island, which connects bridges to and from Niagara Falls.

“When we were looking for foodservice options most QSRs (quick-service restaurants) existed within a one to two mile radius of our site so we needed something different,” DeFilippis said. “The resident families often frequented the local Wendy’s or Burger King so we wanted a unique additional option for them. The island also provides a large popular theme park that draws a lot of seasonal visitors. The response has been very good. In addition to satisfying the families, you will often see other guests from business workers to landscapers frequenting at all hours of the day. We made a conscious decision to add a complete franchise versus a smaller convenience store setup.”

The store remodeling program has resulted in functional and aesthetically pleasing sites. The revamped programs are also designed, in part, to entice more of the younger customer segment.

“We continue to learn that our younger consumers are snacking more frequently and are always mobile and we need to capture and satisfy these new customers and prove we value their time,” DeFilippis said.

That includes a wider selection of food items and hot-meal options.

“With the discoveries we continue to learn with our commissary we feel we have the right experience to expand our Nickle City Food menu to include hot food options. Without a long-term commitment, we can react to these changing needs and uncertainty,” he said.

To this end, the chain has created solutions that have made it efficient while meeting patrons’ expectations.

“Every year we are introduced to new, easy-to-prepare, slack and heat items. Many of these items offer an upscale quality-grade versus traditional c-store items,” DeFilippis said. “With the constant innovation with cooking equipment this affords us, we can create an efficient model that will deliver consistency and quality.”

Moreover, the chain is honing processes of creating  self-serve items, focusing on faster preparation time.

“For example, we are working with a local pizza supplier to offer a breakfast item wrapped in pizza dough. For lunch, locally-branded hot dogs and sausage will be wrapped in the same great dough along with personal pan pizzas. There are other great items to add, but the key will be to test what the customers tell us,” DeFilippis said. “For neighborhoods that may demand healthier options we are looking at implementing our own freshly-prepared salad menu and are also looking at smoothie options.

NOCO Express is also known for its co-branding partnerships, including its burgeoning relationship with Tim Hortons. Various store locations include Subway, Mighty Taco or a Charlie the Butcher co-branding operation. Even with the expansion of its proprietary food program, those partnerships will continue.

“The question for us is ‘What’s the next best QSR and can it sustain its popularity over time?’ These are big commitments that can get you locked in, not knowing what the future holds,” DeFilippis said. “Newer options are popping up each year. The emphasis now is the young consumers preferences like customization and choice.”

Just as the Nickel City brand tips its hat to the roots of greater Buffalo, NOCO Express embraces the community in which it has thrived for the last 83 years. The company was founded in 1933 by Reginald B. Newman; it was incorporated as R.B. Newman Fuel Co. in 1948.

“Our market is pretty unique versus other areas I’ve lived. The consumers here are very loyal in supporting locally-owned businesses. With that in mind we are committed to maintaining strong relationships with all of our local partners/vendors,” DeFilippis said. “A great example is all of the local vendor assistance we had during the November storm in 2014 where we kept almost every store open throughout a difficult two weeks of unbelievable snowfall.”

To ensure that customer service remains a priority, NOCO Express continues to make employee training a top priority, from improving its hiring processes, to boosting management opportunities from within.

“Every July our store managers, foodservice managers and the merchandising department attend a three-day retreat at a local country resort. There they have options for spa treatments, horseback riding, skeet shooting, golf and many other activities. Individual and store awards are presented to the managers during day one,” DeFilippis said. “We also have invested in an outstanding training program to ensure we grow from within to minimize the cost of turnover.”



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Reinventing Sobeys Express

SobeysExpressAntigonish_GO_FINALS_Dec2015-0706It’s still early in the rollout of Canadian grocer Sobeys Inc.’s new convenience store program, but the results are promising.

By David Bennett, Senior Editor

It’s true that every chain begins with one link. Of course, it helps when you have several other chains to take up the slack, if necessary.

Last December, Sobeys Inc.—a wholly-owned subsidiary of Empire Company Ltd. and the second largest grocery retailer in Canada—rolled out Sobeys express, which is meant to test the retail waters in the way a smaller, convenience format affords.

Located off Exit 33 of the Trans-Canada Highway in the town of Antigonish, the pilot store combines a wide selection of traditional grocery store items with healthier, ready-to-eat snacks and meals. The location also offers Shell-brand fuel.

The location is singular, but the initiative isn’t a one-off. Rather, the company is set on executing a larger plan in the coming months.

“In our current capital plan, there are a number of new Sobeys express stores and (plans to) convert other locations to the Sobeys express format,” said Valerie Ryan, Sobeys’ vice-president of convenience and fuel.

Sobeys in 2012 grew its retail gas operations in Québec and Atlantic Canada with the purchase of numerous Shell retail gas locations. This acquisition provides the grocer several options for expanding the Sobeys express program with a mix of new-build and renovated stores at some of the corporate-owned Shell stations.

Choosing other locations will require some thought, based on logistics and other business considerations, but the company isn’t short of options. Based in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, Sobeys is a $24 billion company with more than 1,500 corporate and franchise stores in all 10 provinces under retail banners that include Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Foodland, FreshCo, Price Chopper, Thrifty Foods and Lawtons Drugs, as well as more than 380 retail fuel locations.

The potential of Sobeys express is expansive as its parent’s portfolio. The retailer’s goal to integrate fuller and better meals and other offerings with the shopping experience as well as to reshape its business plan to entice a broader customer base is why Convenience Store Decisions has selected Sobeys express as a chain to watch in 2016.

This isn’t the only c-store platform of Sobeys. The grocery retailer currently operates 149 Needs Convenience locations throughout Eastern Canada. Converting existing locations, including those under the Need Convenience banner, to Sobeys is a viable strategy, but still has to be decided, the vice president said.

The company in 2013 launched IGA Express, another c-store initiative. IGA Express sites average 3,500-4,000 square feet, about 10% the size of a regular IGA store—viewed then as one retail solution for time-constrained consumers. Around that time, Sobeys launched a basic  iteration known as Sobeys Express, part of the linage that would lead to the creation of the new Sobeys express format.

Altogether, lessons taken from IGA Express, coupled with consumer feedback from research conducted in the Atlantic Canada region over the past year was used to create an updated Sobeys express pilot. The consumer research showed that customers were looking for more “better for you” food options to meet their on-the-go needs. Individuals who participated in the research also wanted a one-stop shop for food and fuel.

And thus, the new Sobeys express program was born. Now the focus is to ensure the success of the first Sobeys express store.

“We will continue to ask customers for their feedback on the format and what changes they would like to see,” Ryan said. “Following the opening of the (Antigonish) location we’ve made some tweaks to the format and offer, but overall customer feedback and sales have exceeded expectations.”

The layout of the 2,400-square-foot Sobeys express is more modern and spacious than any other c-store sites operated by Sobeys, which has lent to favorable reviews.

“(The store) is slightly larger and brighter than our current Needs Convenience stores with larger windows. The ceiling is open, making the space as a whole appear more open and inviting,” Ryan said. “The colors are brighter inside and the increase in the square footage allows for more fresh zones.”

The new location carries items commonly found in a convenience store, including deli and bakery products, and produce. However, the c-store’s fresh zones are a primary component to what decision makers envisioned when they the c-store launched late last year. They are meant for healthy food offerings plentiful enough and diverse enough to distinguish Sobeys express from the competition.

“The new Sobeys express offer includes the traditional convenience items but also has a strong focus on the customer looking for a fresher alternative. The store offers a selection of 14 signature and all-butter croissant sandwiches, Sensations by Compliments (Sobeys’ private label) hot soups in three different sizes, and cookies and baguettes cooked fresh daily in-store. There are meal solutions such as cold chicken plates and rotisserie chicken made fresh in the local Sobeys store, and even sushi.”

The c-store is well-positioned to take advantage of Sobeys’ extensive supply and distribution channels. One interesting pairing includes Sobeys’ private label offerings, which range from fresh fish, ice cream and salads.

All are intended to appeal to health-conscious consumers and could be regular Sobeys express offerings down the road. For example, the retailer’s private-label fish is harvested by a small boat fleet using Marine Stewardship Council-certified practices. The fish is processed at a state-of-the-art coastal plant for swift, single-freeze processing to lock in freshness.

Sobeys also markets its own Simply Indulgent-brand ice cream, also sold under the Sensations by Compliments flag. Sobeys touts that all Sensations by Compliments products are free of artificial flavors and colors.

In addition the retailer sells salad kits come in a variety of flavors, prewashed and ready-to-eat.

All the offerings fit into the Sobeys’ mission to bring better food to Canadians, reflective of the company’s slogan, ‘Eat Better, Feel Better and Do Better.’

“Sobeys express targets the needs of the on-the-go

customer and provides this customer with the opportunity to purchase quick, better tasting, healthy meal options alongside the traditional convenience store offer,” Ryan said. “The branding attracts Sobeys customers and builds on the value loop for customers between Sobeys and Sobeys express.”

Ryan explained that the company’s relationships with area vendors have accentuated the c-store’s message of fresh fare even further.

“We are proud to support local suppliers and have sourced many items to carry in-store such as handmade chocolates and local cheese,” Ryan said.

To engage more c-store customers, Sobeys express has partnered with Loyalty One Inc. to offer customers AIR MILES reward miles, as part of a unique loyalty program. For every $20 in qualifying purchases, customers receive one AIR MILE.

Customers receive one AIR MILES Reward Mile for every $20 spent cumulatively on qualifying purchases at Sobeys, Foodland, Needs, Lawtons Drugs, Sobeys express and participating co-op stores in Atlantic Canada.

Shell is also a partner with AIR MILES which means that Sobeys express rewards customers with all of their Sobeys express purchases, both in-store and at the pump.

Targeting travelers, Sobeys express also offers a meal deal featuring a sandwich, drink and snack, and rewards customers with two cents off per liter on any subsequent fuel purchase at all of the company’s Fast Fuel and Shell locations across the Atlantic Canada region.


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Moving Forward

B&K STORE FINAL AIn many family convenience stores, next-generation leaders are helping forge their companies’ futures.

By David Bennett, Senior Editor

In the U.S., 97% of family businesses don’t survive past the third generation, according to the Family Business Institute.

No doubt that among those elevated statistics are convenience store entrepreneurs who had a succession plan, but determined his or her children weren’t up to the task. As a result, family businesses withered away or were sold to a hungry competitor.

Other c-store casualties included founders who failed to nurture and help their children to become strong, resourceful leaders. In some instances, children might have had career plans that didn’t include the family business.

In other cases, a portion of those family failures could probably be attributed to bad luck.

Terry Monroe, president and chief operating officer of American Business Brokers, is a consultant to convenience retailers seeking to acquire or sell real property. Monroe has encountered many family-owned c-store chains that have thrived and grown because of solid decisions by the patriarch or matriarch of the company. He has also seen them fail because next generation leaders who were charged with ensuring the company’s future just weren’t up to the task.

“I know a guy—third generation—who has 35 stores and 10 of the stores are losing money and he doesn’t have the guts to close them; that retailer is dying the death of a thousand cuts,” Monroe said.

On the other hand, there are plenty of next-generation c-store leaders who have been groomed for success and understand fully that the business challenges they face today are significant. The face of society is becoming younger, and older. The U.S. economy is a melding, global juggernaut; governmental rules that apply to businesses are stunningly more complex than ever before; and social trends are moving at a speed not seen five years ago.

It’s no secret that competition for qualified workers in U.S. retail today is intense. Moreover, the workforce climate is sodden by recent living-wage issues that many retailers fear will drive down profits, if not drive them out of business entirely. That wasn’t such a concern when Weigel’s Stores Inc. opened its doors 85 years ago.

Weigel’s began as a modest dairy enterprise in 1931 and operated as such for more than a quarter of a century under the direction of brothers William Weigel, Jr. and Lynn Weigel. Next generation heir, William Browder Weigel (Bill), helped lead the transition of the family dairy into a new era after the first Weigel’s drive-in dairy store opened in Knoxville, Tenn. in December 1958.

He opened the first Weigel’s walk-in convenience store in 1964. Today, Bill Weigel is company chairman.

He met Carol Ann Rector, whom he married in 1968. Bill and Ann have two daughters and a son. Kurt Weigel, who joined the company 12 years ago, is the fourth generation representative and now serves as director of recruiting for Weigel’s. Aside from his primary duties, he is charged with fortifying the company’s most important asset: its workforce.

In 1967, when the company introduced its first ICEE machine, the pay structure in the company was straightforward—hourly wages were fixed; the range of salaries were based on positions within the organization. At the time, Weigel’s mirrored the wage structure in the retail industry, which was far less convoluted than today.

But, times have changed.

For example, at least 20 states or local jurisdictions in the U.S. are discussing mandatory wage laws. Legislators in the state of New York and the city of Cleveland this year have discussed adopting a $15-per-hour minimum wage. So far Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley in California, and Seattle have approved phased-in minimum wage increases that will increase the hourly rates for residents to $15.

However, while states such as California have been making headlines, Tennessee’s minimum wage has remained $7.25 per hour. Though the federal minimum wage is at $7.25, Weigel’s has operated above that minimum wage threshold for a number of years.

In addition, the company encourages employees to take personal ownership of their slice of the business in a variety of ways. For the last 35 years, for example, the company has boasted a successful incentive program that pays managers and assistant managers a bonus focused on sales.

Now, President Obama is pushing a federal mandate that would boost wages for managers and assistant managers nationwide, while limiting bonuses and virtually undoing 35 years of entrepreneurial ingenuity at Weigel’s, which now employs about 800 people at 63 stores.

Federal law already requires most workers to get paid 1.5 times his or her hourly wage for any hours worked beyond 40 hours. But certain salaried employees such as managers and some in administrative jobs can be exempted.

If a manager or assistant manager makes more than $23,660 a year, for example, the company generally need not pay overtime, depending on a few other factors. The $23,660 level was set in 2004. President Obama wants to raise the bottom level to $47,476, and let it rise with inflation each year after that. People making less would earn overtime if they worked the necessary hours.

This is an issue that c-stores nationwide will have to address if the proposal becomes law. Kurt Weigel knows that such a federal policy will undoubtedly change how the family company does business from a workforce perspective, to include rewriting Weigel’s managerial bonus program.

“If they approve this, it’s going to change the whole landscape,” Weigel said.

The changing face of the local workforce is also something the company is contending with. Not only is the c-store developing new programs through social media and other means to reach Millennials, Weigel’s must also contend with how these younger employees fit into the organization. Just as he has experienced a host of changes since he joined the company, Kurt Weigel is adapting his hiring approach to a new generation of employees with new-age work values.

“Retail is a tough business, with all the hours we operate and the holidays we work,” Weigel said. “We are finding that expectations from employees and their work habits are different from prior generations.”

Aside from revamping its hiring and training programs, the c-store does use its legacy to sell the company to job applicants, especially a legacy that dates back 85 years.

“People like to work for a family-owned company. It represents stability,” Weigel said. “We’re locally owned and it’s a big draw. People love that.”

Often next generation leaders are born into a company, then at the right time, groomed to ascend the company ladder.

John Eby lll married into the family c-store business, but the family is grateful because his business acumen and technical savviness was just what CoGo’s Co. needed in its president and CEO. Less than four months ago,  Eby, who most recently was group leader of global information technology at Kraft Heinz Co., succeeded CoGo’s founder, Carl Colteryahn Jr.

CoGo’s, based in Belle Vernon, Pa., has 52 stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. Of those total locations, 13 are franchises.

It was when Colteryahn, Eby’s father-in-law, began to suffer Alzheimer’s that Eby was asked to head the company. The opportunity arose at the same time that legacy H.J. Heinz Co. and Kraft Foods, was merging in 2015. Since his job was expected to migrate to Chicago in a year or so, Eby opted to stay close to home.

“Nobody else in the family had any involvement in the operation,” Eby said. “The board, which was basically family, wasn’t a practicing board. It was kind of going through the motions of being a c-store chain without a vision and a strategy per se, except for what (chief operating officer) Dave Heisler and his team were implementing.”

The origin of CoGo’s dates back to the turn of the 20th century and a dairyman named William Colteryahn. In 1917, Colteryahn’s son, Carl opened the Colteryahn Dairy on its present site in Carrick, a Pittsburgh neighborhood. In 1962, through a franchise arrangement with Stop-N-Go Food Stores, the first convenience store was opened on South Park Road in Bethel Park, and the unit remains open today.

The retail company later adopted the CoGo’s name.

CoGo’s board of directors was recently reconfigured, and while still made of family members, has changed to a body with more corporate knowhow. Besides Eby, new board members include Thomas Rafferty, another son-in-law of Colteryahn and until recently, a senior planning and operations executive with Levi Strauss & Co.

With the new board in place, Eby has been busy putting his background in technology and operational analytics to use by making some changes to the c-store chain’s foodservice program, in-store operations—including a new POS system—and looking hard at individual store performance. After taking over, Eby soon decided to close CoGo’s newest store that was built close to the main campus of West Virginia University.

“It was absolutely gorgeous, but there was zero traffic,” Eby said. “It was operating at a very large loss.”

Five more stores are slated to fall off CoGo’s portfolio because of leases that aren’t due for renewal.

Even with the number of stores dwindling this year, the new president has two goals in the next three years: increasing CoGo’s operating footprint and improving its foodservice expertise.

Having spent 13 years at a major food corporation, Eby has ideas about how to hone the c-store’s foodservice operations in terms of streamlining supply and distribution channels, while maintaining quality.

He likes where the company was headed before he came on board, including  its “CoGo’s 2 Go Café” fresh offerings, ranging from breakfast sandwiches to salads and appetizers. Grab-and-go items that were once purchased from a commissary are now made on-site daily.

In addition, select stores also offer patrons custom pizza through the branded concept deVinci’s, developed by wholesale distributor Liberty USA.

Eby is now evaluating different offerings at different stores, experimenting with price points and product blends and then measuring the data.

When it comes to store selection by customers, price-related attributes fall below others, according to a new Nielsen report, “Think Small for Bigger Growth,” which breaks down the evolving retail landscape. For study participants high quality produce (57%), convenient location (56%) and product availability (54%) were rated as highly influential.

Eby is aware that “food deserts” exist in some urban communities that CoGo’s serves. In downtown Pittsburgh, he recently targeted three locations and changed the product mix to a larger grocery format to see how customers would respond. Using operational analytics and measurement tools, he found that by offering more produce and grocery items such as big boxes of cereal, diapers and other items—all at lower prices than area groceries were offering—in-store sales jumped significantly.

Going forward, Eby is excited to launch his three-year plan in earnest to see the direction CoGo’s is headed.

“These are very tactical things that we’re doing now, so they’re not really strategic,” Eby said. “Right now, we’re just gathering low-hanging fruit.”

In the last few years, Millennials have been assuming leadership positions, and more are being groomed to assume leadership positions going forward. They are increasingly becoming the backbone of U.S. organizations, including convenience store companies.

Millennials seem a good match for leading the c-store industry because of their awareness, creativity and propensity to achieve what they want now, Monroe said.

“The next generation understands that this is a ‘c’-store; it’s a box that sells items for convenience,” Monroe said. “They embrace technology and social media, which is important.”

Even in the small c-store chains nationwide, next generation leaders are taking charge.

After returning from World War II, family man Jack Frawley resumed his job as a fuel truck driver in Whitewater, Wis. In 1948, Jack purchased a fueling business from Cities Service Oil Co. and changed the name to Frawley Oil. In 1974, Jack’s son Mike Frawley, now company president, began working for the family business while in college.

Frawley Oil Co., based in Whitewater, Wis., today operates six Frawley’s-branded stores, extending the family-owned and operated chain link-by-link. Mike Frawley’s mother remains active as secretary/treasurer.

The third generation family business is perpetuated by Mike Frawley’s daughter, Paula and two sons, Phil and Brian—all vice presidents in the company.

Brian Frawley agrees that next generation executives will be instrumental in shaping the fabric of the c-store industry.

Besides awareness, creativity and desire, good communication skills are also a key tool, he said.

“As our family business grows into the third generation, patience and communication become paramount to our success,” said Brian Frawley. “In our particular situation, there are three siblings trying to work together towards a common goal, which can be difficult at times. We all have different areas of the retail and wholesale industry, but we have to work together to get the job done.”

The c-store chain not only seeks to engage Millennial-age customers through social media and all its patrons through Frawley Smart Rewards 4U loyalty program, but also instills a tone of quality customer service that has been carefully designed to pervade the entire organization.

“The key to growth and success of our business can be directly attributed to the quality, attitude and devotion of the people we work side by side with every day,” said Mike Frawley. “Every employee, whether they be a c-store clerk, car wash attendant, office employee, service mechanic, truck driver, store manager or store supervisor, all play a vital role in perpetuating our business. These are the people our customers see every day, and these are the people who allow Frawley Oil to still be an effective choice for our customers in the communities we serve.”

Davis Oil, based in Battle Creek, Mich., is a family-owned company founded by Richard Davis and Lew Katz. Davis eventually became sole proprietor and Davis Oil was born. In 1974 Richard’s son, James Davis, joined the company and this started what would be a father-son tradition in the family-owned  business. Soon after, Davis Oil launched its first convenience store brand called  “C-Store.”

Richard retired in 1990 and James’s sons Benjamin and Jonathon took over operations of both the wholesale fuel division and the C-Store chain of 19 stores, respectively. The company’s  newest store opened late last year near the Grand River in Portland, Mich.

Jon Davis, president of C-Store, knows that big or small, next-generation companies still hold a special place within the industry. How they fare in the future, however, is up to each organization.

“While working alongside family, it’s of the utmost importance to keep in mind how decisions affect each person and that it’s a give-and-take relationship. Ultimately, both sides want the business to continue and to be profitable, so it’s all about finding that sweet spot that makes everyone feel like they are getting what they need,” Jon Davis said.

Back in Knoxville, Weigel’s still has its own dairy operations. More recently, it opened a 6,000-square-foot bakery, which produces fresh doughnuts, cookies and muffins for the stores daily.  Weigel’s also expanded into a fresh made-to-order, kiosk-food program.

But the c-store can’t rest on its laurels. Kurt Weigel eventually will be responsible for guiding the company into its next phase of its corporate future—ultimately determining the direction for the next generation.

Like many other convenience store retailers, Weigel’s faces the challenge of expanding its operational footprint—to a much greater geographic radius of its corporate office in Powell, Tenn. Like most things that Weigel’s does, the steps leading up to such an expansion have to be measured.

“We are preparing now by purchasing sites for the next three years of our expansion,” Weigel said.

Expansion, workforce issues and operation analytics are all parts of the big picture for the foreseeable future.

One can argue that next-generation leaders are the final piece for success.

“I would love to someday see my boys and/or nephews working with us, but I would never want them to plan on it,” Jon Davis said. “There’s a lot that can happen in the meantime, so I’d rather them plan for the future by finding their own path first. If we are still going strong when they are adults, it would be a dream come true to work with them.”


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Nouria Tapping Retail Potential

InteriorIn the past 10 years, Nouria Energy Corp. has put together a savvy organization, which is taking the necessary steps to grow its retail brand in New England.

By David Bennett, Senior Editor

There comes a point in every successful convenience store company’s existence wherein it’s time to broaden the customer base, introduce new products or take advantage of new resources in order to expand its operation.

To what degree that happens depends on the strategies that company develops and puts into motion.

Nouria Energy Corp., which operates the Lil’ Mart convenience store chain, is employing such strategies as it focuses on expanding its regional footprint in the Northeast.

Worchester, Mass.-based Nouria is a diversified group of companies primarily engaged in the retail operation of more than 140 gas stations and c-stores in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The company is putting the finishing touches on reimaging some of its stores, and eventually rebranding many locations with the Nouria name.

Industry veteran Joe Hamza, Nouria’s chief operating officer of retail and marketing, said the company isn’t just looking at store sites, but business ventures that complement and grow Nouria’s entire operation.

For example, the company, in May 2016, acquired the assets of the Xpress Stop convenience chain in Maine.

The deal includes eight Xpress Stop convenience stores with fuel, two Express Lube auto service stations, three “state-of-the-art” Ultra Clean-brand car wash locations, a wholesale distributorship and a transport logistics business. The acquisition also increases Nouria’s presence in Maine to 31 sites.

Nouria now has a total of 28 car wash locations.

“Nouria Energy has long identified strategic acquisition targets as part of its long-term growth strategy,” Hamza said. “J&S Oil was one of those targets because of a number of factors, namely its strong brand in the marketplace and important geographic footprint, which complements our footprint in the region and fills important geographic gaps.”

Hamza joined Nouria in October 2015 to oversee the company’s developing merchandise and foodservice segments. Prior to joining the company, Hamza served as Tedeschi Food Shops’ vice president of sales and marketing. He is also a board member for the National Advisory Group (NAG).

Implementing J&S Oil, which was established in 1972 by John and Sonja Babb, into Nouria’s toolbox is part of the company’s plan to expand both through bolt-on opportunities and organic growth.

“There’s no doubt that the J&S acquisition has afforded Nouria’s existing operation many tangible benefits including, economies of scale, market penetration, operational synergies, etc., but the biggest and more important acquisition for Nouria was its acquisition of the dedicated and hardworking store associates and managers and the well-honed culture that Babb’s family cultivated over the years,” Hamza said.

Known for blueberries and L.L. Bean, Maine is also representative of the type of geographic area that Nouria finds an opportunity for its retail plans.

“In general, for its diversity of markets, the New England states remain very robust markets for convenience retailing,” Hamza said. “We are eying opportunities in other New England states. Stay tuned.”

Nouria Energy was founded in 1989 when Tony El-Nemr opened for business with his first Shell station in Auburn, Mass. Today, the company’s locations are branded with Shell, Irving and Gulf fuels and the group’s wholesale division sells gasoline and diesel fuels.

A significant step for the growth of Nouria’s retail operation came in 2011 when the company acquired 80 Shell-branded retail gas stations located in Massachusetts and New Hampshire from Motiva Enterprises LLC.

Since then, the company has worked to define its own identity in the crowded New England c-store landscape.

“With the efforts and hard work of every member of our team, we are on track to complete a total revamp of the existing merchandising layout, upgrades to the facilities and facelifts to enhance the interior and exterior appearances of most of our locations by year end,” Hamza said.

As part of the company’s Sebago Café foodservice program, patrons can grab a slice of pizza, a wrap or a made-to-order sandwich. The c-store also boasts an extensive Green Mountain Coffee selection.

This year, the company launched a plan to reimage many of its sites, while rebranding key locations under the Nouria name. The reimaged sites will have foodservice offerings that feature a mix of healthful, proprietary and traditional menu items.

“All stores will receive a new merchandising layout and planograms. Many categories including foodservice fresh and healthy foods will be expanded adding breadth to assortments and offerings,” Hamza said

Nouria is also on track to build two new stores—the first new-to-industry projects this year. One of the locations will be a 4,000-square-foot store in Massachusetts and the other a larger 6,000-square-foot location in Maine. Both stores are expected to be completed later this year.

“The Lil’ Mart brand will gradually retire as we reimage the stores,” Hamza said.

To ensure that his plans for success didn’t suffer any flat notes, El-Nemr, president and CEO, put together an A-Team of retail experts.

Besides Hamza, the company also enlisted Dorothy Fleishman, the real estate and business development manager. Formerly the area real estate manager at McDonald’s USA, Fleishman joined Nouria in July 2015.

Nouria also brought in Tom Healey as director of technical services. Healey had worked as an engineer for Exxon and Shell.

Other Nouria hires include Tedeschi convenience stores veteran Bob Goodwin, director of fresh foods. Fouad El-Nemr is Nouria’s executive vice president. Richard Fusco has been Nouria Energy’s chief financial officer since November 2008. Lastly, Natalya Fater is the director of human resources.

While the reimaged sites might sparkle and shine when the work is done, Nouria acknowledges that it’s the people inside—productive employees and satisfied customers—that drives business from within.

“I have been very fortunate to have joined a company that already had a great team of loyal and hardworking associates,” Hamza said. “My job was to embody the type of culture our founder, Tony El-Nemr, wanted for our company to cultivate. So our first step was to increase focus on our most important capital: our people.”

As part of that focus, the company designed a new career path for store associates—“Path for Success.”

“By providing our employees with the opportunities, education and the necessary training to reach their goals, we hope they build a successful, long-lasting career with us,” Hamza said. “In addition we are adding new dimensions to the retail operation from market positioning and product mix to community involvement and marketing.”

In the New England retail landscape, Nouria clearly sees its potential, based in a simple concept.

“Our brand identity is defined by the people who shop our stores and by our employees who passionately serve them,” Hamza said.


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