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This past October, CSNews inducted John MacDougall into the Convenience Store Industry Hall of Fame. For more on this year's Hall of Fame inductees, turn to Page 22.
s the President and COO of Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes Inc., a 75-store chain based in Canastota, N.Y., John MacDougall continues his more than 30 years of work in the convenience store business. But MacDougall is more than a savvy and forward-thinking businessman with a successful company. MacDougall is a motivator, a friend, a father figure, and a man who likes to have fun — and he has certainly created a loyal following in his employees.
"John is incredibly modest, totally honest and you can trust him with anything," said Fran Duskiewicz, vice president and CFO of Nice N Easy, who has worked with MacDougall for more than 18 years. "He is my best friend. I'm always happy to see him, and I am always sorry to see him go. This is a tough business and we are in tough situations, and yet we are still here and still having fun."
Like Duskiewicz, many Nice N Easy employees think of MacDougall as more than a boss, and some have been there for a number of years — literally "growing up" with the company. "A lot of John's employees started with the company when they were young, and he is just like a father to them," said Dan Gower, buyer at Nice N Easy for more than a year. "He calls them 'my kids.'"
This family environment extends throughout the entire company — from the store clerks up to the corporate level — and MacDougall takes his time to get to know every one of them. "If you lined up people from the janitor up to the vice president of operations, you wouldn't see a difference if you watch him," said Glenn White, director of foodservice at Nice N Easy. "Everyone gets the big smile, handshake, and the 'Hi, how are you, and how is the family?'"
MacDougall's own family is also part of the business. His wife Elaine owns a franchise and his daughter works at the store. Back in 1984, MacDougall was working with two partners and came across a location he thought would be perfect to open a new convenience store. So when his partners didn't agree, MacDougall decided to buy it himself and have his wife run the store as a franchisee.
"That was the first piece of property I bought, and we put hours of work into it to get it up and running," said MacDougall. "All four of my kids have grown up with it and worked in the store, and it has been good for the whole family. It's a common thread for all of us there."
MacDougall runs his company with a strong work ethic and expects the best from every one of his employees, but at Nice N Easy, the people come first — including the customers — then the business, according to his staff.
"People come first in the whole business environment," said Gower. "With all the employees, and the store staff, it is the people and their welfare that is first and foremost."
To show his gratitude to his employees, MacDougall hosts an annual awards banquet, honoring employees for their years of service with the company. And many of them have been there for five, 10, or 20 years. "His employees come first," said Duskiewicz. "We have several long-term people here and that tends to be a trait of our company. John knows everyone and everyone feels like they have a personal relationship with him, even though we are such a big company. People are not afraid to contact him and e-mail him. It's this personal relationship that makes people want to stay here. John knows who people are, and he even knows their kid's names."
At the annual awards dinner, MacDougall calls the employees up and presents them with their award, and publicly expresses his gratitude for their service. "This is indicative of how he is very people-oriented," said Gower. "I think he genuinely appreciates the work people do for him. He actually thanked me for working at his company in my annual review, and that was the first time I ever got that in my life."
His "honest commitment to people" is his greatest strength, said Duskiewicz. "If you go to a function with him anywhere, you can't stand and talk to him for more than 10 seconds without someone coming over to him and talking to him, even from across the room. The personal relationship he seems to have with everyone is just incredible, and it's real, and people feel that."
A perfect example of MacDougall's "people first" philosophy, and big heart is a time when a particular employee was in need of help. "A woman who works here found out her daughter got into an accident out of state, and John heard she was trying to raise money to go and see her," said Daria Miller, MacDougall's secretary. "He called her and said come into the office, and he wrote her a check and said make your plane arrangements. He's just a wonderful guy."
Fun at Work
MacDougall strives to make the workplace fun for all his employees and aside from his humor — and the refrigerator stocked with beer — he takes time out to give of himself to accomplish this goal.
"He sings 'Happy Birthday' to everybody when it's their birthday," said Peter Tamburro, vice president and COO at Nice N Easy. "He gets them a cake and a present and sings to them. He has done it since the day I met him, and I've worked for him for 10 years. He makes it a fun place to work."
But his charitable and caring nature doesn't just present itself in his company. Recently MacDougall helped to get a school started in Afghanistan, and a person involved with the school sent him a "magic carpet," as a thank you, said Miller. "He just brings out the best in everybody. I feel very thankful to have this job."
Down to Business
Underneath his big heart and his drive to make the workplace as much fun as he can, MacDougall is a serious and keen businessman who is always one step ahead. He is an entrepreneur who likes to be involved in every step of the business, and it's not uncommon to see him hop behind the register at one of his stores.
"He grew the business himself and he likes to be involved — whether it's deciding on what products to put in the stores or what color the cabinets should be if we are building a brand new store," said Tamburro. "He likes to be hands-on."
MacDougall doesn't see himself as a boss, according to White, "he thinks of himself as one of the team. He's always eager to help. I'm the director of foodservice and when we are opening a new store, he is always willing and eager to do whatever it takes. I don't think he looks at himself as being a boss when he is out in the field. He's not the guy in the three-piece suit with a bunch of people trailing behind. His approach is one of a friend and a team player as opposed to someone who sits in the ivory tower and never goes out and meets the people."
But what makes MacDougall stand out is that he is always thinking of the future, and what the next big thing will be in the convenience store industry. "He always wants to be the first to do anything," said Miller. "Like with the dollar store items. Before anyone was thinking about it, he thought it was going to work."
He did the same thing with foodservice when he hired White to be in charge. "His vision 10 years ago was that foodservice was going to be a major part of Nice N Easy, and now we have a lot of different franchisees, like Subway and Taco Bell," said White. "My background is Burger King and he knew we were going in the direction of food so he hired me."
This visionary quality has helped Nice N Easy stay ahead, and avert itself from suffering in some tough situations. MacDougall doesn't just look into the future meaning a few years ahead. He looks five years and farther to predict what the company needs to do to be prepared for what may come. "When I started eight years ago, one of the topics that steered everybody was cigarettes, and I remember him telling us that this business isn't going to be here in the future, and we needed to think of another revenue service," said Matt Paduano, director of purchasing at Nice N Easy. "So we stepped up our grocery and foodservice, and it prepared us a while ago for today."
While MacDougall has become a convenience store expert over the years, he can still recognize when he needs to know more. His solution is to hire people who know more than him in a certain area, and learn from them. "He really tends to try to get people qualified in areas he is not," noted White. "He knows the direction he is going in and seeks out people who are good in that particular area. He may not know about a particular thing today, but rest assured, he will. That is how you grow in this business."
But the main goal MacDougall has for his stores is superior customer service, and many of his employees attribute his vision as well as his strive to please his customers as one of the main factors in the success of Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes. "The customer needs to be taken care of if the customer is going to come back," said White. "John knows this and preaches it. Customer service is where it's at, and the reason the company is so successful is we try to emulate this service philosophy. Our staff at the stores know a lot of people by name, and we give personalized service. Even John knows people by name."
Through the years, MacDougall has taught his employees a lot. He's taught them to believe in themselves, not to be afraid of trying new things, and most of all enjoy what they do and have fun doing it.
"He has taught me to surround yourself with the best possible people, and then treat them right," said Tamburro. "Make sure they have fun and they will stay. It's not about the pay or money. It's about people feeling like they contribute to the company."
Duskiewicz has learned not to take everything too seriously. "John knows when to disengage and as I've gotten older, I've learned to listen to him more and more about not to take it all so seriously, and not to lose sight of my own personal goals," he said. "He teaches people not to lose sight of the fact that you need balance in your life. But most of all to have fun. If you can't have fun, than you shouldn't be doing it."
In MacDougall's Words
The concept for Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes did not begin until 1980, but MacDougall started in the business back in 1966 as a consultant for Bruthers Company, a firm in Cleveland that worked with both dairies and drugstores — the basis for many c-store chains today. It was here that MacDougall began to learn the basics of what Nice N Easy has become today.
"Being fresh to the business world, this job put me in contact with a lot of business owners and operators immediately and started me dealing with profit and loss responsibilities right at the beginning of my career," explained MacDougall. "This helped me to understand the functioning of a business and the needs of a business to be successful."
Bruthers also showed him how essential a strong staff is to the success and longevity of a profitable business, which he carried over into his own business in 1980. "It made me realize the importance of strong people to the organization and management team through the programs I designed for the customers I was working with," he said. "The stronger the staff, the better the implementation would be, so I understood the need to have a strong staff and knowledgeable people working for you."
Looking back, MacDougall knows firsthand how dramatically the convenience store industry has changed over the years, and understands that these changes will continue into the future. He also realizes that the industry will continue to grow and satisfy customers in the years to come.
"The whole premise in the original days was to be open from seven to 11 at night, and very few stores had gasoline back then," he explained. "The prices were extremely high and the quality of service was extremely low — and convenience was the name of the game. Also, there was very little competition compared to today, which is much different. The industry has grown tremendously. It used to be less than 4,000 stores throughout the industry and now there is more than 130,000 stores. The store sizes themselves have grown as well, and have become centers for more than gasoline. Now they have fast food, banking with ATMs and lottery."
These changes have required a lot on the business end, and also make it much more expensive to run a c-store than it was years ago, according to MacDougall. "It's more difficult and expensive to get into the business today, and there is much more volume and product selection — not to mention the technology that goes with it."
These factors, again, explain the need to have a strong staff in place to run the business. "In the old days it was more haphazard, and not much time and energy went into training staff," he said. "But now there is a need to have well prepared and professional people working for you."
Also, gasoline and cigarettes can no longer be relied on as major sources of revenue, and one of the biggest replacements has been a move toward foodservice. Years ago, foodservice, coffee and beverage fountains were and afterthought, according to MacDougall, but today they have become staples in the c-store.
"We opened a new store in June, and of the top 20 items we have sold since the opening, 17 of them are foodservice items," he noted. "We sell more pizza then we do packs of Marlboro, and that's a big deal."
However, there were some good people in the business when it first began, like 7 Eleven, Quik Trip and Wawa Inc., that did well in designing new stores and picking good people to work for them, said MacDougall. "These were the people I picked as my heroes."
In such a tumultuous industry — with bankruptcies, taxes and cross-channel competition — what is it that makes Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes survive today, considering New York state was hit hard when cigarette taxes jumped dramatically? Focusing on the people is the MacDougall answer.
"We stay successful because we focus on people and try to satisfy them — whether 'people' is the customers or our employees — because our employees are the ones meeting the customers and representing Nice N Easy. They need to enjoy working for us and they need to be properly trained with a professional staff behind them," he said. "Also, I surround myself with a lot of bright, professional people who love the industry and want to see the company and the industry grow. It's get in your blood, and it has to be part of your system, and we have a lot of people at Nice N Easy like that."
A Look Ahead
As time progresses, convenience seems to be more and more important to shoppers, and this is one of the main reasons MacDougall believes the industry will continue to grow. Over time the work week has expanded and time to spend with families has been dramatically reduces, and this has been one of the drivers for convenience, he explained.
"As long as people want convenience, the industry will continue to grow," said MacDougall. "We need to keep expanding the services we give them, so they can get more things done in one stop. The more we do this, the better off we will be."
And while he feels strongly that the industry will continue to grow and the number of stores throughout it will continue to rise, he does warn about the importance of quality and continual improvement. "There will be more stores, but they will be better," he said. "The pressure on the industry is that you either become better or somebody will eat you up. They will devour you. It's survival of the fittest in this industry today."