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    Job Switch

    Lee-Moore Oil's exchange program lets execs, managers walk in each others' shoes.

    Looking to foster a better relationship between headquarters personnel and store managers, Lee-Moore Oil Co. created a program that puts corporate employees behind the register and managers face to face with the people who handle their sometimes-not-perfect paperwork.

    At least once a month, one or two of Lee-Moore's corporate employees — from top executives to accounting clerks — are sent to work a store's first shift, acting as a store manager and performing store-related tasks. The same week, the store manager visits the convenience store operator's Sanford, N.C., home office, visiting each department to learn more about how the folks on the other end of the phone work, and how they support the managers.

    "When corporate employees go into the field, they have a much, much greater appreciation of what goes on in a store every day — and why sometimes the store's daily reports might not be sent to the office on time," explained Mark Maddox, executive vice president and COO for the operator of 22 company stores and 20 dealer locations — 11 of which are ExxonMobil On the Run franchises. "Every day brings new challenges for a store manager, like trying to do everything you are supposed to do while getting a cell phone someone dropped out of the toilet. Well, that's not a true story, but it exemplifies the wacky things that happen each day!"

    At the same time, store managers leave the home office knowing headquarters employees do more than "stand around and drink coffee and surf the Web," Maddox said.

    Managers arrive at the corporate campus by 8 a.m. and spend time with the executive team before going on to visit the accounting department for an hour, the service and maintenance department for 20 minutes, human resources for 45 minutes, marketing for half an hour, the operations and IT departments for 20 minutes each and the administration department for 30 minutes. The corporate staff is asked to arrive at a designated store by 5:30 a.m., then spends time in the deli area, brews coffee and prepares the roller grill. This is all done before learning the back-room system, stocking the shelves and cooler, operating the register, counting cigarettes, doing a shift analysis, cleaning the store, completing pricing surveys of the competition and more, including closing out the shift. At the end of each exchange day, managers and corporate employees are debriefed, writing out a short "lessons learned" note, recounting their experience and offering tips on how the program may be improved.

    Positive Impact

    "The evidence so far has convinced us that the program is having a very positive impact," Maddox said. "Corporate employees are a little more patient with managers, and managers appreciate what happens to the information they send to the office and why it is important to try to be on time."

    That was the case for Jeff Bosco, store manager for Lee-Moore's On the Run No. 42, in High Point, N.C. "I saw how the stuff we turn in affects their day. I saw how the little things can mean a lot — like how important it is that the time of day lines up correctly when doing gasoline inventory and handling gasoline invoices."

    His new familiarity with the corporate office has changed the way Bosco completes his paperwork. "I make more notations explaining what is going on in the store," he said. "Many times, people in accounting are unfamiliar with store-level activities. A commonplace circumstance, like a simple refund or an error correction, may look fishy to them."

    Stepping into headquarters, Bosco's primary question was: Should I be doing anything differently with my paperwork? "Is it better to staple coupons to the paper individually or paperclip them in a bundle? What makes their lives easier? When my cashiers turn in their shift reports, I like them a certain way. I wanted to get the same input from the corporate employees."

    His biggest surprise: Seeing how his every-morning gas reports are handled at the corporate office. "It doesn't seem like a big deal at the store level, but at corporate, I saw what really happens with the numbers I submit."

    The quality and tone of communication between managers and the folks at headquarters has changed since the program started, Bosco noted. "Before, Dan [Marcellino] from accounting would call for a certain piece of information. It could literally be something I did a month and a half ago. It will take me a while to find that — he could be on the phone holding for five minutes while I get it. Now, there is more understanding of the time I need to get something like that.

    "There is more appreciation on both ends," he added. "I see now how a little mistake I make entering an invoice really messes him up — a payment could be missed."

    In the past, Bosco said, he trained his associates to input invoices "because it gets tedious day in and day out. But now I do it myself, because I see how mistakes can throw everything off."

    Timing, too, is important. "I saw Dan at 9 a.m. in his office, sitting on his hands, waiting for stores who haven't closed out their reports yet," Bosco noted.

    Marcellino 's visit to Sonja Hopkins' On the Run's #70 in Graham, N.C., gave him a new perspective of the business and the managers' day. The former military man said it is "easy to sit up in the ivory tower and complain about something, but until you are in their shoes you just don't know. The managers do a lot more than I envisioned.

    "Some people here had no idea. If managers are doing the job like they should, it keeps them very busy. It is easy for me to sit here and say, 'Geez, he made a mistake,' but I don't have the whole picture of what they go through on a daily basis, trying to do their paperwork, run a busy store, keep the labor budget in control by helping out with customers — I see now how mistakes happen."

    Marcellino said the managers' input is important and he tries not to call them "just to chastise them about something. I don't like being talked down to, so I don't talk down to them.

    "There were areas with Sonja where she didn't realize how one wrong thing impacts me. But I learned there are limitations to her store system. It was an eye-opener — running the register, keeping eyes on the pump and being customer-friendly."

    Hopkins, too, found the experience eye-opening. "I was surprised at how much everyone in the office does and is still able to respond to us rather rapidly," she said.

    "I was amazed at what Kimberly [Senter], our office manager, does. She works with all of the stores and takes care of so many odds and ends, like cleaning supplies. I thought our computer guru Kerri [Immel, a systems analyst] only took care of the store's computers. But she does all the programming and all sorts of amazing things for the company. I told Kerri, 'I thought you just fixed our computers,' and she said, 'Well, they don't break down all the time,' and I said, 'You have a point there!'"

    Since the corporate exchange, Hopkins said she tries to pay closer attention when inputting data into her reporting system. "I want to help Dan a little more. If I can't get the numbers to match, now I'll call him and let him know, so that he can have someone else take a look at it. Then, I'll get a report back about how it was fixed."

    The day helped her become more efficient and more effective, she added. "I take the time to make sure my cooler-door prices are correct and I pay much closer attention to what products are being added or deleted and what new prices are in the pricebook. That wasn't as high a priority for me before."

    Help Me, Help You

    For store manager Matt Gabelman of On the Run No. 21 in Durham, N.C., his day in the office was an opportunity to determine how corporate employees can best help him do his job. "I saw exactly who does what, and if I was using them to the fullest extent," he said, noting that some departments, such as the auditing department, are "overused" by managers. "Some stores file paperwork and expect the auditors to correct it for them."

    With an eye on a career in marketing and merchandising, Gabelman said the corporate visit showed him activity in that area was "even above my expectations and it made my desire to work in that field even greater.

    "I think this exchange would be very effective for managers who haven't been at it too long," he added. "Some come in without a lot of knowledge of the industry. It would be beneficial for them to see who was backing them up in their jobs. A lot of times, a manager will call another manager or a district manager for help, instead of someone at the corporate office who is there to support him in his job."

    The exchange program already has resulted in some solid companywide modifications. For example, in the past managers had an issue with Lee-Moore's in-store couponing program.

    "We would do a 52-cent fountain drink special and we'd sell 100 a day," Bosco said. "We were required to turn in a coupon and a receipt for each one sold. From an accounting standpoint, it was easy. But corporate didn't understand how hard it was to get a receipt for each one. I can't yell at a cashier because they are missing one. But then we'd have to go through our POS [point-of-sale] journal and look for the sale."

    Now, the chain takes an automatic adjustment off a designated price-lookup key. "Our operations manager saw how we had to go back to deal with the coupons," Bosco said. "After talking to some managers, the policy changed."

    The program has had a positive effect on Lee-Moore's corporate culture as a whole, said Belinda Cummings, who works in the company's fuel management department as an inventory control specialist. The experience of working in a store for a day, she said, has made her much more patient with store managers.

    "They are closing out the shift around 5 a.m. — the start of their busiest time of day," she explained. "I didn't realize how much went on at that time. I understand now when I call managers and they don't have time to talk. They don't want to be ugly, but they really don't have time. It's changed the way I call them. I make sure right away it's a good time to talk."

    She also witnessed the importance of a manager properly training their associates. "A manager has to be able to walk away from the cash register and know her employees can take up where she stopped. While I was in the store, the employees ran the register, knew when each person walked into the store and where each was in the store. They knew when someone pulled up to pump gas and which customer went with each vehicle — even though people were coming in all the time. That just amazed me.

    "I have been sheltered here in the office!"

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