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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The convenience store industry said goodbye to a 52-year veteran this week. George Helow, founder of the Zippy Marts chain, passed away Jan. 17 at age 90.
Helow began his convenience store career in 1960, eventually owning the 370-store Zippy Mart chain and taking the head leadership role at NACS, the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, in 1977.
At one point, according to The Florida Times-Union, Zippy Mart was the largest solely owned c-store chain in the United States. In a 1976 interview, Helow pointed to that fact that the chain's revenue could be used for expansion rather than stockholder's earnings.
Helow took the first step in his retail journey when he invested in Paks stores with Ed Pack. Within five years, Paks stores had grown to six sites in Miami and seven in Jacksonville. But that was not enough for Helow.
"He was frustrated because he thought they were growing way too slowly and saw a real opportunity to expand these stores," his son, Joseph, told the newspaper.
To that end, Helow bought out the Jacksonville stores and rebranded them as Zippy Mart. In addition to the name change, he increased fast-food and sandwich service, as well as self-service gas pumps. Helow sold the chain to Sun Oil Co. (Sunoco) in 1981.
According to NACS, his tenure as president came at a time when the association was transitioning and growing its annual meeting. He became president at the 1976 annual meeting in Atlanta, the first meeting with a full-fledged expo and the first meeting to draw more than 2,000 attendees.
His president's address a year later was considered one of the best ever delivered at a NACS closing banquet. As NACS entered its 16th year, his speech, "Sweet Little Sixteen," compared the maturation of the industry to that of a person, which was a prescient look at the industry's future.
Helow later told NACS: "I began to realize that we had some issues that were probably paralleled to what an average child or girl or person would have at that age. It was a beautiful age; however it's an age when people are now looking to be more responsible than they have been. And then I thought, isn't that something similar to what we're going through? The first 10 to 15 years, we've gone helter skelter to open stores like there's no stop to it, and all of a sudden we've reached a point where we're reaching maturity in many markets…That was an ideal time to, in retrospect, begin to (look at) our internal operations."
In addition to his convenience store career, Helow started the Margaret and George Helow Family Foundation, which helped the needy, Catholic Charities and the Catholic church.
Helow is survived by his wife of 54 years, Margaret, his son Joseph; daughters Mary Pritchard, Anne Darling, Diane Parker, Katherine Gilligan and Theresa Ryan; 47 grandchildren and one great-grandson.