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    Mapping a Future

    Atlas Oil Co.'s core values and numerous services provide a stable foundation for the growth of the family-owned company and its retail partners.

    By Mehgan Belanger

    Taylor, Mich.-based Atlas Oil Co., a petroleum marketer and operator of 40 convenience stores, is more than just a fuel supplier to its 300-plus retail customers -- it's a company that strives to uphold six core values in every aspect of its varied operations.

    Sam Simon, president and CEO of Atlas, detailed these values -- passion; pride and image; being solution driven; grow or go; customer focused; and do the right thing -- and explained their importance.

    "It's not about how much money we make," he said, adding that every month, the company hosts all new employees at its headquarters to discuss the meaning of each core value and how it relates to customers. For example, every employee must reply to customers' communication within 24 hours.

    Beyond its own operations, the company also provides programs to enhance service for its retail partners.

    An example is Atlas University, where inexperienced entrepreneurs learn how to run convenience stores and gas stations. Students are taught in-store cash flows, pricing tactics and customer service, Simon told Convenience Store News.

    "We can build our own entrepreneurs, and because [entrepreneurs] can do a better job, we lease our stores, sell them or enter a partnership with them," he said, noting that the company's true goal is to move fuel gallons.

    Another service is Atlas Cares, a program to give back to its communities. "We have to be good citizens," Simon explained. "We've been blessed with what we have. At the end of the day, we've got to give back."

    The first event undertaken by Atlas Cares was a Christmas party for 300 U.S. Marines and their families. The soldiers were scheduled to be deployed in Iraq shortly after the holiday, but did not have money to celebrate. The company brought in more than 80 volunteers to host a party, complete with a Santa, decorated tree, food, gifts and a band.

    Atlas Cares also plans to build homes for neighbors in need, Simon explained.

    "We want to go directly [to the community], not through a charity," he said. "That's who we are -- back to the core values, we want to help our customers and our employees. You can't do one and not the other. Internally, people have to learn every day how they can do better. We're constantly training and constantly improving."

    Meanwhile, expansion is also under way within the company's petroleum marketing division, as it tries to better support its customer base.

    The company supplies fuel to nine states, with plans to reach 15 in 2008, primarily through the request of its wholesale partners. Atlas found several opportunities where its customers are located, such as in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and is moving into Texas and Florida.

    The other side of Atlas -- its convenience store chain -- is also growing, helped by an open mind toward acquisitions that allows it to consider purchases as small as four stores to as large as 30. In January, the company made two purchases -- four locations from bankrupt Fusion Oil and five stores from R & J Inc. -- which represent one side of a two-pronged growth strategy.

    "Some we'll buy through acquisitions," Mike Evans, Atlas Oil executive vice president of business development, told CSNews when the Fusion Oil purchase was announced. "There will be two to three new-to-industry stores we look to build this year. There will be a couple of remodels going on at sites, some are old Clark locations and some are old Shell sites."

    While Atlas does not have a set strategy for store acquisitions, the deciding factor for an acquisition will be "if we think it can perform better or in a different business model than what is being operated in today," he said, noting that the company tries to focus on good pieces of real estate with long-term viable assets.

    At the other end of its growth strategy, the company developed an upscale store concept. Called WoW!, the first convenience store sporting the design won the top spot in CSNews' 2007 Store Design Contest for Best Original Design of a new build.

    The 4,000-square-foot store, located in Fraser, Mich., exudes an organic feel -- a curving counter; a natural color palette of muted blues, greens, reds and yellows; and sun symbols used prominently in signage.

    The company is looking at pieces of property that could support at least one other WoW! brand convenience store, said Evans, who noted a second WoW! would have a number of similarities to the first, but would also reflect learnings from the first store, such as fewer fuel pumps and a smaller square footage to ensure an optimized sales space. In addition, the store could feature other co-branding profit centers on the property, such as a national fast food operator, to "drive traffic and provide a destination point for the consumer," he said.

    The first WoW! location features a Starbucks and a restaurant on the property.

    The many endeavors across all Altas' divisions ensure it has a strong base to foster growth, but expansion is not the company's main priority.

    "At the end of the day, we want to be the best, not just the biggest," Simon concluded.

    For comments, contact Mehgan Belanger, Associate Editor, at [email protected].

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