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ST. LOUIS -- 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto is not the only industry executive who can work inside a c-store to learn more about the day-to-day challenges of the people on the front lines.
Seventeen years ago, William "Willie" Laufer also learned the ropes of the c-store business by working inside a convenience store for a week. And like the "Undercover Boss" of 7-Eleven, the long-time Anheuser-Busch (A-B) executive gained a new perspective that helped him throughout his career in the convenience and grocery industry.
"When I was first given the c-store assignment by A-B, I was asked by a retailer, 'Have you ever worked in a convenience store? No? Then how can you relate to anyone in the c-store business?'" Laufer, 53, recollected to CSNews Online. "So I went to my boss for permission and then got it cleared by the legal department, and I worked in all aspects of that retailer's store for a week."
Talking to CSNews Online from the airport just hours after finalizing his voluntary retirement from the world's largest beer company, Laufer laughed that, like DePinto, he too spilled coffee all over the counter during his week at the store level.
Laufer started his career with A-B April 17, 1979. His first assignment was on a project marketing team of 80 recent college graduates charged with changing the perception of Budweiser from "my father's beer" to appeal to younger, contemporary adults. During days, he rode with a wholesaler, building displays at stores; evenings, he worked on promotions at restaurants and bars nationwide.
From there, he carried a route book with an A-B-owned wholesaler with 253 accounts. At the time, on the West Coast, A-B had only four brands -- Bud, Michelob, Michelob Light and Natural Light, and had a 50-percent market share. "Today, A-B has hundreds of brands," Laufer noted.
In 1993, he moved to the retail side as convenience store segment manager where he worked to put national programs together and deliver best practices across the industry. One of his earliest learning experiences reveals a lot about Laufer's character. On one of his first sales calls to a major chain in the c-store industry, he went in with a blank sheet of paper. He sat down with the buyer and instead of making a presentation, he asked, "Tell me everything you'd like a beer company to do to improve your business."
He came away with 30 bullet points that served as his "roadmap for success" in the c-store industry from then on, Laufer said.
His career moved quickly from there. In 1995, he was promoted to director of segment sales marketing, and a year later, was elevated to sales director for national retail sales. Then in 1998, he was named senior sales director for the group, and by 2000, became the vice president of convenience, mass merchandise and club channels, before moving exclusively to the convenience channel. In 2005, he became the vice president of supermarket and grocery channel.
Laufer calls his 2006 induction into the supplier wing of the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame his career highlight. "I'm real proud that retailers thought enough of me to elect me into the CSNews Hall of Fame," he told CSNews Online.
At the time, Laufer said, "I am very honored by this award. The most meaningful part of this award is that it came from a panel of retailers. Since the 1950s, our corporate slogan at Anheuser-Busch has been, 'Making Friends Is Our Business,' and I try to do that. I pride myself on getting to know each retailer I work with and understanding their business. I've made a lot of friends in the c-store industry since 1993 when I started working in this channel. It's been a great time for me, and we have been through many challenges together."
An added highlight, according to Laufer, was being inducted into the CSNews Hall of Fame at the same time as retail pioneer William "Bill" Krause, co-founder of the Iowa-based Kum & Go chain.
There's little doubt that Laufer became one of the most well-liked people in the convenience industry. His marriage to Kristen -- herself a well-known industry account executive -- just before the 2001 NACS Show was attended by several c-store retailers and, according to Laufer, helped "bring industry people back to life again" after the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Of his many influencers, Laufer credited his mother as his first mentor. "She taught me to deal honestly with everyone," he said.
He also credited all the wholesalers he worked with in the field for teaching him the nuts and bolts of the business.
And he didn't overlook his wife. "Kristen really turned my life around the moment she came into my life," he said.
Laufer and his wife recently sold their house in St. Louis and are moving to Kansas City, but the "first couple of the c-store industry" doesn't expect to be strangers to the business they love.
"I would love to come back to the industry," said Laufer. "I'm still young and once you get retail in your heart and soul, you can't get it out."
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