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    Family Man

    Employees, customers, vendors -- to Bill Douglass, they're all related

    By Barbara Grondin Francella

    Wonderful. Inspirational. Brilliant. Graceful. Generous. Charitable. Tireless. Encouraging. Selfless. Devoted. Integrity.

    Ever have a boss that fits this description? These are a few of the words Bill Douglass' 280 employees used to describe him and his family in a full-page newspaper ad last December.

    As CEO of W. Douglass Distributing Ltd., Douglass works with his wife, Joan, who serves as treasurer; his son, Brad, president of the company's petroleum wholesaling division; and his daughter, Diane, president of the 14-unit Lone Star Food Stores. But, he genuinely considers every one of the company's employees members of his family.

    "The organization's biggest strength is our people," Douglass told Convenience Store News. "We rally together when there are individual or public needs that require support."

    For instance, although he doesn't like to talk about it, Douglass has been able to help employees and customers in medical need by leveraging relationships with friends in the medical field. "I've been able to cut through the bureaucracy and have seen people make amazing recoveries just by getting the best medical care."

    The Douglass team "works together, plays together and even prays together," he said. "We're in the buckle of the Bible belt, where people are very active in their churches. I'm not talking about the religious right. I'm talking about people simply living their faith."

    But don't expect to walk in and hear a prayer for fewer out-of-stocks or a successful fountain promotion. "We pray for people's spiritual inspiration, not for the economics of the company. We are trying to tap the higher power for higher purposes."

    That giving attitude extends beyond the office. The staff recognizes every customer as "an acquaintance, neighbor, friend or relative."

    "We believe we are all linked together as extended families and have an obligation to behave in a manner that supports these dynamics," Douglass said.

    Case in point: He has given large personal loans to customers on a handshake. "They recognize I was extending the hand of friendship, not commerce," he said.

    Douglass and his family strive to hire employees who share their business philosophy. "Over the years, we have learned your reputation is everything," he said. "The point we emphasize with every new hire is, 'You must have two qualities to be successful in our company -- a good attitude and integrity.'The importance of a fine reputation carries over when recruiting associates and serving the public.I love the fact that I can come and go anywhere in our market and, unsolicited, hear good things about my associates and our service."

    Employees have an important role in the delivery of excellent customer service, he said, noting the company has no organizational chart and no secretaries. "We are a flat organization, which allows the person identifying the outage to own it."

    Store associates have the go-ahead to make customers happy, he added, noting the company has quadrupled its training and education budget. "Sometimes you may overpay for a store employee's decision, but you aggravate fewer people by not making them go through the normal system."

    The biggest lesson learned from his associates, Douglass noted, is there is no such thing as too much communication about the market and its challenges. "We think we tell employees what they need to know, but they really have a high appetite for information."

    At Douglass Distributing, employees know "everything about the company -- what our challenges are, what our investments are, how much we have earned, what our safety record is, even my salary," he said.

    The company also is heavily invested in charitable organizations, including Scouting, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Home Hospice, rehab services, public education organizations, churches and trade associations.

    "This allows our employees to work alongside many civic-minded customers and giving back is an excellent way to demonstrate your company's culture to the public at large," Douglass explained. "We start out taking care of each other inside the company, and it carries over to other activities."

    In the Beginning

    The future entrepreneur grew up in Pennsylvania's rural farm country. In 1951, at 14, he landed his first W-2 job, maintaining the grounds of a historic church and cemetery."Digging graves by hand will make education look like 'a way out,'" he noted. Douglass made 60 cents an hour for mowing the lawns and 70 cents an hour for the graveyard work.

    His second job, at 16, was at an Esso service station, which paid 10 cents an hour more. There, he became acquainted with an Esso sales representative. "He wore a suit, drove a nice company car and was a college graduate," Douglass remembered. "It struck me: This is a whole lot more attractive than the manual opportunities available in our rural economy."

    The Esso representative told Douglass he wouldn't have a shot at that type of job, until after college and the service. (The draft was in place at the time.) After graduating from Muhlenberg College, he joined the Marines, becoming an officer. Later, Douglass used the sales representative as a reference, showing up at Esso's field office, and got a job.

    After 21 years with the company, in 12 assignments, in eight locations, Douglass decided to turn down a job opportunity that would send him overseas. Instead, he became an Exxon-branded distributor in 1981, taking over a distributorship in Sherman, Texas, that came with six service stations and some rural commercial accounts.

    Today, his company is an ExxonMobil's On The Run franchisor and marketer of Shell, Fina and Valero, as well as a Burger King, Subway, Church's Chicken, Stuckey's and Dickey's Barbecue Pit franchisee.

    An early c-store operator, Douglass got into the business when one of his dealer's best three-bay operations burned down. "I looked at that burned-out station and thought, 'This isn't the future,'" Douglass laughed. "The dealer didn't want to operate a c-store, so we took it over."

    After converting all of his stations to c-stores, in 1993 he built his first ground-up. "As I traveled, I thought, why do people use McDonald's? The food isn't great. But, [the restaurants] are convenient, safe and have clean restrooms. Service stations had an old little toilet and sink, complete with a mop in it."

    He began looking around and incorporating the best of what he found into his first c-store -- low shelving and wide aisles; automatic doors like those used by Marriott Hotels; piped-in music; telephones at tables in a raised seating area; Baskin-Robbins and Subway restaurants; and even touch-free fixtures in the bathroom.

    "We wanted to make the store attractive to women," Douglass said. "Men historically came in most anyplace that was convenient. As opposed to most women shoppers, men tend to be as sensitive as rhinoceroses."

    He installed flower boxes, emphasized landscaping, placed televisions and hand-washing sinks at the gas islands, and the canopy reached to the store, something Big Oil frowned upon. These additions were unique to the market at the time and pushed the cost of the store considerably higher than the cookie-cutter units around him.

    "I had to have faith it would pay off," he said.

    In 1996, after touring Europe and visiting hypermarkets, Douglass was convinced they would see success in the United States. "I knew you could not compete with a hypermarket, but I wanted to see what would be successful alongside that kind of store."

    He came back and built a prototype store with a fast-food court, seating for more than 100 and a two-story indoor playground. "Ten years later, it is still state-of-the-art and it is booming, because the market grew into it. I wanted it to be a destination."

    Convenience retailing is "fun because you can surprise and delight," Douglass said. "Disney was my model for the delightful quality of our stores. I continue to love the industry and possess a desire to be different."

    Continually delighting an ever-increasingly jaded consumer isn't easy. The company recently added biodiesel to the offer, and sells racing fuel and propane in a convenient multi-product dispenser (MPD).

    "We always try to stay ahead versus catching up to our customers and the competition," Douglass said. "Reinventing ourselves will be the key to our future success.

    "My favorite phrase, which I tell my employees, is, 'You will succeed in life to the extent you sell yourself to others, whether it is to an employer, date or mate -- or customer.'"

    For comments, contact Barbara Grondin Francella, Senior Editor, at [email protected].

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