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Kevin Smartt of TXB: How To Take Your Company From Good To Great

Authority Magazine

Simply put, people. Of course, you’re not a great company if you’re not profitable and growing at the end of the day, but there are a lot of profitable companies where people are unhappy and miserable. Having a great team of people who are happy to come to work, who love the business, typically helps define great companies. I believe when your employees are passionate about what they do, your company will rise above.

Aspart of my series about “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Smartt.

Kevin Smartt has served as CEO of Kwik Chek for more than 20 years, recently leading the rebrand to Texas Born (TXB). As a family of customer service-oriented convenience stores and quick food operations, the company offers 46 locations across Texas and Oklahoma.

Smartt is the 2021 chairman for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) and serves as chairman for Conexxus. He is a member of the Board of Directors for Oklahoma Petroleum and Convenience Store Association and the Texas Food & Fuel Association, where he assists with various committees. Smartt continues to widen his professional board involvement and is interested in serving on boards involved in the banking, technology and healthcare industries.

Smartt believes there is only one thing more important than becoming a part of the community, giving back to it. He has become a leader in charitable giving programs, involving Kwik Chek Food Stores in an annual Golf Tournament that has raised $60,000 for 11 non-profit child advocacy agencies, including CASA of Central Texas Inc.

Smartt lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Shelly and their three children, Austin, Abby and Grace. When he’s not busy leading TXB/Kwik Chek or cooking for his family, Smartt enjoys traveling, hiking and snow skiing.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Iwas 14 years old when I received my first payroll check from a convenience store, where I was hired to wash the parking lot, stock the shelves and do general things around the store. Later, I got a job with Frito-Lay, where I started out selling chips to c-stores before joining the team at Frito-Lay headquarters in Plano, Texas. There, I held various sales and marketing positions. It’s interesting because I never set out to be in the c-store industry, but I had jobs along the way that pointed me down this path.

When I left Frito-Lay in 1994, my father-in-law was the owner of Kwik Chek. I took the opportunity to work for him at the company’s wholesale fuel division. I was clear with him that I wanted to earn my way within the company. He replied, “Kevin, that will not be a problem.” And it wasn’t. I worked in all areas of the wholesale fuel business, including the retail side, managing stores before taking over marketing and finally becoming president of the company.

In 2001, my business partner and I bought out my father-in-law from Kwik Chek 100% through our parent company, Taylor-Smartt LLC. Since then, the chain has doubled in size and owns several diversified, integrated businesses. These include McCraw Oil Co., a fuel wholesale business and transportation company that delivers fuel to c-stores throughout Texas and Oklahoma, and a propane fuel business that sells to residential consumers. Also, Taylor-Smartt LLC owns a food product manufacturing company that makes and sells salsa to grocery stores such as Sprouts and Whole Foods.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Good question… I think about a lot of different times throughout the course of owning the business and have a lot of examples, but what’s more interesting to me is what makes you fight through those hard times. My first thought is, do you really have a choice?

When you own a business, I suppose you have the option to sell the company in stock, and there have been moments where I pontificated upon that option after some challenging events. But for me, I’ve always been competitive, and I don’t like failing or losing. Hard times come, but bailing out has never seemed like the winning move to me. As a business owner, you have to think about your people, too. Some people have stuck with me for years who have built good careers and families for themselves along the way, so I’ve never seriously thought about it being an option to stop just because the going gets tough.

There is one specific event that comes to mind as a significant challenge. When my partner and I bought the company in 2001, we didn’t have a lot of money; I was 33 at the time. We did a leveraged buyout, took on debt, and bought another similar business two months later. Five months after that, 9/11 happened. It was a defining moment for the country, as we’ve never seen anything like that. The cost of fuel doubled overnight, which meant I had to have double the cash to run the business. It was a very eye-opening moment for me as a young business owner in terms of what could happen overnight and how much pressure we would be under in the tumultuous year after that. After a tough couple of years of putting in maximum effort, we made it through stronger, didn’t quit and learned valuable lessons along the way.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

From a people perspective, we really do have the best team members inside our stores. During the Texas freeze in February 2021, we had a store manager drive six hours to work to open the store (usually a 30-minute drive) and slept there overnight so he would be able to open in the morning. This was in a rural city where the local convenience store was the only place available to get groceries and other essential items. The dedication of this store manager helped so many people through that hard time.

We also have some majorly exciting things happening with the TXB brand that I believe sets us apart from others in our industry. We just opened our very first new-to-industry market store in Georgetown, Texas, following our rebrand from Kwik Chek. The market features ahead-of-its-time features like premium e-vehicle rapid charging stations, an expansive food and beverage line-up, quality, locally-sourced private label products and even two 75-inch, state-of-the-art digital lottery ticket screens. We’re planning to open about seven new stores like this per year starting in 2022, and we can’t wait for our guests to experience them.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I’ve always had a pretty positive outlook on life, seeing the glass as half full, not empty. This is particularly important in our industry, which is very people-intensive in managing folks and hiring a great team. A positive outlook can be contagious.

Those who I know have struggled to have a positive outlook tend to feel like they burn out quickly in the industry, so I encourage all of my colleagues to take care of themselves and find time for work-life balance. It took me a long time to get here myself.

Every person has to prioritize what’s important in their life, whether that be family, health, etc. Create and set your priorities, and literally schedule everything else around them. Personally, I put everything on my master calendar of events, including working out or having dinner with family. My calendar is open for my team to see; I easily get pulled into my work world if I don’t set aside time for myself.

Finally, here’s a piece of advice I have always found incredibly helpful to keep me focused and motivated. Start keeping track of not only company goals but personal goals as well, and update those annually. It’s a great feeling to revisit the goals you made 12 months ago and see how much you accomplished, which only motivates you to achieve more in the next 12 months.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Many peers within the industry have given me great advice over the years, with several I still call today just to chat with. But, my father-in-law, who initially owned the company, has been one of my biggest role models. I had the opportunity to see how he was as a family person and watched him try to find a work-life balance; I also saw how he was as a business owner, how he made decisions and how he treated people, which was consistently fair. When he would go through tough situations, he always made sure to truly listen to the person on the other side before determining an outcome, and I have a lot of respect for him for that.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great.” Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Simply put, people. Of course, you’re not a great company if you’re not profitable and growing at the end of the day, but there are a lot of profitable companies where people are unhappy and miserable. Having a great team of people who are happy to come to work, who love the business, typically helps define great companies. I believe when your employees are passionate about what they do, your company will rise above.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Seek out companies that will best support your vision for successfully growing your business. These can include banks, which are flexible covenants, development lines and revolvers that function as you need, or suppliers, who accommodate and execute on-time work or the delivery of products, with incentives to grow your business through competitively priced products. I also recommend utilizing industry associations, which are typically great for networking, learning challenges of one’s industry and advocating to legislate on behalf of your business.

What does great look like? If you want to be successful, find metrics that allow you to benchmark your company’s performance against others. I have been part of a convenience retailing study group for many years. The companies are spread out across the U.S., and none compete against each other. We share financials monthly and benchmark against KPIs from each company in the group. Additionally, we always share best practices and set goals from meeting to meeting.

Strategy and vision for how the company will grow are important. However, I caution against creating a strategy too far out. In my company, typically we are never working more than three years out on developing and executing a strategic plan. In today’s business world, being nimble is critical.

Build the team, build the team, build the team! Yes, hiring people that are smart, hardworking, and fit one’s culture is important, but so is developing the existing team you already have employed. So many times a company will focus so much on recruiting and hiring new talent that developing existing team member talent seems to become secondary. I have a professional development plan for all of the people that directly report to me and ask them to have one for all their people as well.

Do-Learn-Do. I think great companies are not afraid to keep experimenting. I hear some use the term “fast failure,” a term that I do not like. I think you can try something and it is not completely successful, but you still learn from the process. I think it is one of the most important ways for people to learn and improve their understanding of the business.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose-driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

This comes back to how putting your people first makes you a great company. When I bought my company, of course, I was eager to grow the business, but it was an interesting acquisition in that I felt I was also acquiring a family within the company. My purpose since the beginning is to grow the business mindfully in a way that puts our employees first. I strongly encourage other business owners to find their own purpose and let that be the guiding light for all they do.

My company is also passionate about giving back to our local communities, which I always encourage others in our industry to do. Convenience stores are often the backbone of rural communities, offering essential supplies like gas, food and commodities, but they also have the potential to do so much more based on the sheer number of them across the country. For years, TXB has supported the local communities in which it serves through nonprofit fundraising and volunteering, and I believe this drives trustworthiness within our customer base.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Look for other examples of business leaders who inspire you. If you can, talk to them. Most leaders have not only experienced great times of enjoyment; most have gone through tougher times, so if you have an inspiring leader to chat with and learn how they navigated those times of struggle, I find that can make a huge difference.

This also comes back to work-life balance. Take a little break when you can. By stepping away, you can get a clearer picture of the challenges, and direction or solutions can also come to light. Even getting as little as three or four days away doing something you enjoy (for me, it’s hiking and being outside to think) can help establish a new vision in a tough time.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

For me, in our industry, we haven’t changed our business strategy much in difficult times. I have let the company’s bottom line fluctuate some, given the state of the economy. It has been essential to me as a business leader to remain consistent in how we do things, not just for our employees but for our customers, too. Maybe we make a little less money this year, but everything remains constant for our team and customers who know what to expect at work and while shopping in-stores.

We’ll work ourselves through the tough situation, but we don’t make drastic changes based on one hardship. Some business owners will take the path of self-preservation for the company’s sake and take action when the economy gets tough by cutting labor to save on costs and shaving expenses in order to keep the bottom line the same. I think that, sometimes, you have to let the bottom line fluctuate and think of it as an investment in the long-term space.

When the pandemic hit, other industries severely cut labor because business dropped drastically. We did not. I told my team we’re going to commit and do our best to make sure everyone stays whole in the pandemic, and it’s worked out really well for us.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

One of the things that took me a long time to understand was the relationship between profit, paying taxes, having the right numbers to please your bank and having cash in the company. All of these things are different; for example, you can be profitable and not have cash in the company, or be profitable and then have to turn around and pay all your taxes, which might lead to your bank not being happy with what you’re reporting cash-wise. Finding the balance between all these is a delicate dance.

I went to a business seminar years ago to try to learn the relationship between these components. A CPA said, “Eighty percent of all companies that go bankrupt have one thing in common. They were all profitable.”

You can make a profit, but if you can’t control your cash, it won’t do you any good.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Understanding how the consumer’s journey relates to one’s business or product is critical. In our company, we measure capture rate by daypart. Our goal is to understand the consumer journey and grow each daypart capture rate, which basically means we are hyper-focused on selling the right items to the consumers at each varying daypart.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen that brands that are trustworthy tend to rise to the top, and being trustworthy can mean a lot of things. It can mean delivering quality products consistently and making sure your customers know what to expect during both the good and bad times. It can mean you are consistent in how you operate your business with employees and customers.

Most great brands do an excellent job of being trustworthy in consumers’ eyes. For example, some companies are on a route of sustainability because they understand that is something important to their customers. Listening and potentially modifying what your company does based on customer feedback can be huge in establishing a trustful relationship.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I’ve seen some mistakes in the past with start-ups I’ve watched or been a part of as an investor. A lot of times, a young company gets too focused on hypergrowth or the end result, which could mean creating a company, growing it and then selling. They lose sight of sticking to the fundamentals of building a great company, for example, focusing on your core business and doing it really well, which will eventually lead to that end result. Being too hyper focused on one single goal, like selling the business, can actually stifle your growth and cause your company to lose value.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is such a big question! There are so many opportunities to help and improve people’s lives and/or the world today. There are different groups today trying to help and solve having access to clean drinking water, so this would not be a new movement. But, a movement to help focus money, technology, resources and awareness on the problem would be what I would create. According to a WHO & UNICEF report published in 2019, there were 2.2 billion people who did not have access to clean drinking water. That is roughly 1/3 of the world’s population. Unbelievable!!!!

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow my work and what’s coming up for the TXB business (and fun things, like my favorite cocktail recipes) on my LinkedIn page or Twitter account. You can also follow my company over on Facebook and Instagram.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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