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"I got my start when I was 17 years old as a full-service fuel attendant with this company," he said. "I literally would get tips when I provided good customer service. I'd wash windows until there would be absolutely no bug particles on them. Little old ladies would give me a dollar, and I'd make enough money on tips to take my girlfriend on a date."
Soon young Goodman would earn the opportunity to move up to a leadership position. Before he was 20 years old, he was promoted to manager of one of the company's Inland Food Stores.
Goodman was promoted to vice president and COO four years ago, after having worn several hats at the company in the years since first pumping gas. He has done "everything there is to do around here," he said. His professional education at "Inland University," as he called it, was, in the early days, under the tutelage of founder Jimmy Wayne Harrell.
Harrell, who died last year, founded the company in 1959 after graduating from Florida State University and trying both teaching and farming for a year each. He recognized a real need among farmers for a ready supply of diesel fuel for large tractors and other machines used for the cultivation and harvest of peanuts, corn, cotton and soybeans in the region of Georgia, a stone's throw from both Florida and Alabama. He bought an old tank wagon truck with a personal loan of $1,000 and launched a wholesale business that would grow into Southwest Georgia Oil, and would include retail stores in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, as well as a propane business.
"Jimmy Harrell was a very conservative, kind-hearted gentleman," Goodman said.
Harrell led by example, according to Goodman, and taught lessons in retail business with gentle suggestions rather than strict instructions.
"I wanted to build sales, and wanted to sell everything at low prices. He said, 'Aaron, you can't pay bills on volume.' I just realized that sooner or later, you have to pay the bills, and my margins were not as good as they needed to be."
Goodman continued, "Early on Mr. Harrell taught me the basic business principles that apply today, tomorrow and forever. He was a great person, a hard worker and very humble. If he told you something, you could bank on it."
Today, Goodman describes his own management style as very hands-on.
"Not long ago, I went to a game at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. We have a store there right off campus, and there were 30 people in line. I ran in and jumped on the cash register. I will clean restrooms; I will mop; I will sweep. My goal is to create a good customer experience."
Goodman's eyes are always on the customer, but, he said, "My employees are my No. 1 asset. Customers are a very close second." He and others at the 28-store chain work together as a team, he said, to provide customers with a great shopping experience.
Much of Goodman's energy focuses on leading employees in building the one offering that can distinguish Inland stores from other c-stores: outrageous customer service.
"Let's face it, in this industry, we all sell basically the same products, for basically the same price. At Inland we try to ensure that customer service is what differentiates us."
He continued, "Sometimes we get too caught up in new trends. I'm telling you, day in and day out, the average customer wants a good cup of coffee, a smiling face and a couple of products."
In Goodman's view, the combination of the smiling face and the one or two products is crucial. Always ensure the first one is offered with the others, he said. "Customer service is near and dear to my heart, and I learned it early on in my career. But I also learned, if you exceed customers' expectations, they will pay a premium for in-store products." He hastened to add that even with great service, customers are not willing to pay a premium for fuel products.
"I just really believe unless you are going to build an amusement park of a convenience store, and you're trying to have restaurants, Internet cafés and so on, the way to differentiate yourself is through customer service."
A clean, neat and well-organized store is a given. A store well merchandised is a no-brainer. A clean restroom is important. Outrageous customer service, on the other hand, is the factor that sets a company above its competitors, Goodman said. The key is to build the company around the customer.
"When you walk through the doors of an Inland store, you will be greeted. When you leave, you will be thanked. We have incentive programs loaded with prizes for store associates to ensure they offer this kind of service."
A current program has the company giving away four Jeeps. "We partnered up with Pepsi, Frito-Lay and Hershey's. In the middle of the greeting and thanking, we plus-sell. For this program, we are plus-selling Pepsi 20-ounce beverages and Frito and Hershey products," Goodman said.
"Plus selling works. We average 200,000 customers per week. I believe if you ask each and every one of them if they want to buy a Hershey bar, you'll sell 10,000 bars. You get a little lift in sales, and you provide a pleasant shopping experience because the sales associates and managers are friendly."
All the while, the No. 1 priority is not forgotten. At monthly managers' meetings, for example, the top sales associate in the incentive programs arrives in a limousine. The associates appreciate the red-carpet treatment, Goodman said.
The Ultimate Challenge
A moment every business leader dreads came to Aaron Goodman this past December when an employee died while on duty. A truck driver, Jamie Bryan, on the wholesale side of the business, was killed in a traffic accident in which a car pulled out in front of him. Goodman said, "My CEO, Mike Harrell (son of founder Jimmy Harrell), was in California on business. The CFO, Glennie Bunch, was in New York at a business meeting. They both came home as soon as they could, but dealing with that tragedy was the toughest thing I have ever had to deal with. The whole Inland team came together, and our only goal was to provide love and support for the family. It did not matter at that moment if I ever sold another bag of chips."
Bryan's death was the first fatality in the history of the company.
In spite of the inevitable heartbreaks, Goodman cannot imagine working in another industry. "When I get to heaven, I'm going to have my own little convenience store — but it probably won't have cigarettes and beer. I love my job. It's all I know."
Good leaders almost always say the same thing when asked where and how they continue to learn and improve in their work: They look to other leaders. Goodman said he recently attended a NACS Southeast Regional Grassroots event for the first time, in Braselton, Ga. At the CEO Forum there, he heard other Georgia c-store executives such as Sam Turner and Woody Woodruff, and NACS president Hank Armour sound off on business challenges.
"It's amazing how we have so many common problems and issues," Goodman said, "and it's nice to know we can get together and solve problems. Any time you get people together who love this business, you get something of value."
Goodman also looks no further than his own living room for assistance in leadership. His two children, 15-year-old Adam and nine-year-old Annabeth, help with new product testing for the stores. Together with his wife April, the Goodmans, who have dubbed themselves The A-Team, provide inspiration and a helping hand: Adam's first job was cleaning Inland restrooms, Goodman said.
Time of Crisis
Hurricane Katrina brought destruction, misery and enough formidable challenges to residents of the Gulf Coast to make other disasters within memory pale in comparison. As the storm ripped into Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Southwest Georgia Oil was dealing with daily and hourly increases in prices of petroleum products, Goodman said. "There was a real possibility we were going to be out of regular grade fuel for five to seven days," he explained. "If I had been out of product, I would still have 400 employees that I would have to pay. I was worried."
He said he got so caught up in ensuring he had enough product in the ground, he momentarily forgot about the human toll the storm was taking. But then, he, Bunch and Mike Harrell decided as a group that they were going to do something constructive for hurricane victims.
Goodman felt certain that each Inland store could raise $1,000 within 30 days. He and his team decided to offer paper sunshines to customers for $1 each to benefit Hurricaine victims.
Then he issued a call to the entire American c-store industry. It was an act of leadership that was simple, logical and good. "If every convenience store could raise $1,000, our industry would raise almost $140 million for the victims," he said. It was also good for business. "Our industry got such a black eye with rising petroleum prices. This was a way of helping to counter that."
Goodman said he watched the news accounts on television the first few days and realized how many victims there were, and that a lot of them no longer had homes. "I can't imagine losing everything," he said. "I could see that the industry as a whole could make a major dent in the relief efforts. All the big oil companies sent a lot of money. But I saw that we can certainly make an important contribution by collecting money at store level."
At press time, the stores had collected $5,000, and Goodman believed they would come very close to reaching the goal, if not exceeding it.
In addition, the company sent shipments of bottled water to hurricane victims.
Goodman said his greatest inspiration is the life of Jesus. "Jesus was a carpenter. He had a great work ethic," he explained. "I consider myself having a great work ethic. I am a hard worker. I'm not a rocket scientist. I'm just an average Joe, but I'm living proof, if you work hard, you can succeed. My parents instilled those values in me early in life: Take pride in what you do and work your backside off."
Store count: 28
Markets: Georgia, Florida and Alabama
CEO: Mike Harrell
CFO: Glennie Bunch
COO: Aaron Goodman
The company's enterprises include the retail stores, a wholesale fuel business and a propane operation.