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A typical morning management meeting at RaceTrac Petroleum's Atlanta headquarters provides some insight into the personality and drive that make RaceTrac's chairman and CEO Carl Bolch Jr. one of the convenience store industry's most perspicacious leaders and innovators.
"This morning we were kicking around some ideas with our technology people," related Max Lenker, RaceTrac's president, who started working for Bolch 35 years ago as the company pilot.
"The tech people suggested that we could move some of our financial reports from print to an electronic format to save some money on printing," said Lenker. "But Carl, with his real world perspective, wondered if people would really dig into the electronic versions with the same vigor as they did with the printed reports. At the end of the meeting, we decided the savings would be negligible compared to the potential loss of the insights our people get from having all of the financial information right at their fingertips."
Bolch, along with Greg Gilkerson, president of Temple, Texas-based Professional Datasolutions Inc. (PDI), was inducted into the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame at a gala reception and dinner last month in Atlanta.
In a moving acceptance speech, the usually reserved Bolch credited the leaders and associates at RaceTrac as being powerful reasons for the company's success.
Bolch joined his family's 100-store, independent gasoline business that his father started 75 years ago in 1967, after receiving his Doctor of Laws degree from Duke University Law School. Today, RaceTrac Petroleum is one of the largest privately held companies in the nation with 545 stores in 12 southern states, last year approaching $8 billion in annual sales.
Bolch is famous for asking penetrating questions, according to Lenker. "Good ideas keep bubbling up all the time," he said. "Carl is great at investigating every angle of a problem. He will ask questions and probe for any flaw in the logic. He is very good at simplifying a complicated idea. He's never satisfied and is a driving force for change. Hardly a day goes by that Carl doesn't have a new idea to explore."
For example, when the recession hit, RaceTrac had to become more flexible in order to grow in a market with limited or no liquidity. "So Carl said, 'Let's go to the local banks.' It will be more work and we might only be able to fund one store at a time, but at least we'll still be able to grow," said Lenker.
In an exclusive interview with CSNews, Bolch, 66, acknowledged he avoids the spotlight. "My daughter Allison [Moran, the company's senior vice president of operations] had to twist my arm to accept this award," said Bolch. "But she convinced me -- and I agreed -- that this recognition should be shared with everyone in the RaceTrac family."
Moran described her father as a very modest man. "He doesn't like attention," she told CSNews. "He always puts the people of RaceTrac before personal accolades."
Bolch didn't disagree. "There's a saying, 'Pride goeth before a fall.' So I've never been one to seek out recognition or awards for our accomplishments. But I am very proud of what all the great people at RaceTrac have accomplished."
Bolch agreed to speak to CSNews about his views on a variety of topics, from his personal philosophy to the future of the convenience store industry.
On industry changes and RaceTrac's independence:
"When I came into the business, 100 percent of the focus was on gas. At the time, the major oil companies held a vise-like grip over every aspect of the industry. Tax laws at the time gave them a preferential position. We were competing against companies that didn't need or want to make a profit from refining or retailing. We were dubbed 'black hats' in those days because we were the mavericks. We were fiercely independent and we wouldn't let the big oil companies dictate to us how to run our businesses. We had the attitude, 'This is my business. Get out of here.'
"We found we could compete doing business our own way. Then in the '80s, during the gasoline shortage, the depletion allowance was taken away from the oil companies and this leveled the playing field. The oil industry was de-regulated and all of a sudden, each separate functional unit of an integrated oil company had to stand on its own. This began the modern era of the c-store.
"When I came into the business, we had 100 country grocery stores that in total averaged 5,000 gallons of fuel a month. With my father, we eventually doubled that to 10,000 gallons per month. Today, we have one store that alone sells 10,000 gallons of fuel per month."
RaceTrac's sales last year approached $8 billion and the chain was ranked 50th on Forbes' list of largest privately held U.S. companies. Bolch has no desire to go public. "It is important to control your own destiny," he said.
"If you're a public company then you're also a public person. That's not my personality. My personality is working hard to make the business a better business. The public part is a distraction and not enjoyable to me, and I've always felt that if you're not enjoying what you're doing, you're a damn fool."
"In the '70s, we were one of the early pioneers of self-service. We had the first self-service gas stations in Georgia and Alabama. We weren't afraid of it. We didn't think this would prevent people from coming into the c-store.
"In a de-regulated era, we had the advantage because we always profited through the marketing side of the business. RaceTrac wasn't running its stores as loss-leaders for its gas business like the oil companies.
"Self-service drove the integration of the c-store business and the gas business. It quickly became apparent to me that if you weren't in both businesses, you weren't going to be in business for the long haul. You were destined for the waste can if you were not in both businesses."
"My upbringing and education taught me to enjoy change, not fear it. Early on, we attended SIGMA (Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America) meetings. My dad was one of the founding members of SIGMA.
"I've never been afraid of trying new ideas. At RaceTrac we have a saying: 'Make failure your friend.'"
On the future of RaceTrac:
"I'm basically a very optimistic person. I look at problems as opportunities. We represent a little more than 1 percent of the sales in our industry -- that's not much. That means there's plenty of opportunity for growth. We have a better team of highly effective people than we've ever had, from associates to top leadership. This is a great driving force for taking us into the future.
"We plan to expand store count by 10 percent a year. This year we will probably hit roughly 7 percent to 8 percent for the year. For the last five years, we've been restructuring our business. We went from a high of close to 300 company-operated stores to the current 267, converting the remainder to independently operated RaceWay stores. We consolidated the company-operated RaceTrac stores into four markets (Florida, Atlanta, Louisiana and Dallas). Although the RaceWay-branded stores are operated by independent contractors, RaceTrac stills owns and controls the gasoline business and real estate."
On the future of the industry:
"If the industry is one of convenience, that means saving people time, and that need is not going to go away. The industry will change and morph into different things, but if you define the industry as 'convenience' [not gasoline retailing], then you have to see a bright future."
Carl's father, Carl Bolch Sr., started the company 75 years ago in the depth of the Depression.
"I got a great education from him," said Bolch, who went to law school but turned down a career in the legal profession to work for the family business, which at the time was based in Montgomery, Ala.
"I started picking up bottles of Coke in my dad's store at the age of six," said Bolch.
Bolch has two sons. The oldest is Carl III, who is currently in the commercial real estate business. The youngest, Jordan Bolch, recently graduated from Southern Methodist University and is working at RaceTrac as an assistant project manager.
Bolch also has three daughters. The eldest, Allison Moran, is RaceTrac's senior vice president of operations. She and her husband Crawford are busy rearing two daughters of their own, Jorie, 13 and Margaret, 10.
Natalie Bolch works for a private consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. She is planning to get her MBA and will likely join the family business.
Melanie Bolch, after gaining experience in RaceTrac's Supply and Distribution department, returned to school and is in her first year of an MBA program at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. She too, is likely to return to RaceTrac.
Bolch met his wife, Susan, at a SIGMA meeting. Susan, a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, was then in private practice with the law firm representing SIGMA. Bolch is a past president of the organization.
On his personality:
"I've always said that if you practice the right principles and stick to the right principles, you'll be successful. I've always taken a very common sense and rational approach.
"I'm a little bit different from most people. I don't look at work as capturing me. I don't believe in having two lives -- one at work and one at home. For example, when my daughter Allison went to look at colleges, we drove to Ohio to visit universities. We took pictures all the way from home to Ohio -- we came home with one photo of the two of us in front of her chosen school, Denison. The rest of the photos were all of various Speedway stores we visited along the way!
"If you don't enjoy your work, you're the biggest fool in the world.
"I think if my first job out of school had been as a ditch digger, I would have done two things: first, I would have dug the best ditch in the world, and second, I would have figured out how to get the hell out of the ditch!"
On the current recession:
"We continue to grow from the ground up; we don't do acquisitions. We've been able to buy fabulous real estate at lower prices than it would have cost a couple of years ago.
"We are a strong and conservatively financed company. One of our biggest concerns these days is which bank to trust -- where to put our money. Because of the nature of our industry, we haven't suffered like some other companies. We are well positioned to be value- and volume-oriented. It is a great combination in these times."