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His maternal grandfather started Robinson Oil in the 1930s, and Tom Robinson, now the company's president, joined the family business full-time in 1974. By the mid-1980s, the company had entered the convenience store business, and currently operates 34 Rotten Robbies locations in California.
While Robinson Oil, based in San Jose, Calif., joined NACS in the early '90s, Robinson said he began attending events with more regularity toward the end of that decade, and has become much more involved over the past 10 years -- eventually joining the NACS board of directors.
"I had previously been involved with SIGMA, and had been its president in the 2000-2001 timeframe. I had been fairly active in the industry at this point," Robinson told Convenience Store News. "We have always been a much more fuel-dominated company, and I felt there was opportunity to improve the store part of the business, so this interest brought me to the board as well."
While much of his time on the executive committee has been spent in government relations, Robinson is looking forward to getting to know other parts of the association in his new role as chairman, and sees the position as an honor and responsibility.
"I'm very excited and am proud of the opportunity to serve in this position. There will be some challenges, but I feel very comfortable doing it because I'm dealing with an association that is run quite well," he said. "It's fun to play with an organization like NACS, which has so many resources. The challenge is to understand all the things the association does and recognize the things that can help your business."
Convenience Store News spoke with Robinson about how he is preparing for his new role, the big issues facing the c-store industry today, and what's next for NACS and the industry as a whole.
CSNews: What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing the c-store industry today?
Robinson: First of all, I have to say the industry has some great opportunities. One, which has really become apparent in the past couple of years, is that we are a recession-resistant industry. When we compare the c-store industry to others like construction, I feel fortunate.
The other huge advantage is that our competition is local, so no matter how challenging a particular city, state or country can be, the people you compete against more or less have to deal with the exact same challenges. If land is expensive in your area or there are regulatory hurdles like planning or age-sensitive products like tobacco, it's the same for the store across the street. I don't have to worry about competition that might come from a lower cost state or a lower cost country in California, and that is a really neat thing about our industry.
However, the challenge is our industry is very competitive overall. It's an industry without a huge barrier to entry, although they have become higher, and you are dealing with competition from within the c-store industry, but also other retailers like supermarkets, big boxes and drugstores. In a sense, we did it to other industries too. We had gas stations and added stores, and the stores obviously impacted supermarkets. Also, c-store foodservice obviously impacts some of the foodservice companies out there. We compete with a lot of other retailers as well. It always has been, and I expect it always will be, a very competitive business.
Additionally, I think if there was one major game changer out there, it's if we were to ever have a primary non-liquid energy source. If it's not petroleum anymore, that would be a big game changer for the industry.
CSNews: What are some of the issues you plan to tackle as NACS chairman?
Robinson: I don't see any real changes with where NACS is as far as its basic agenda. They have great bandwidth and a strong staff. NACS does things in the area of research, technology, public relations, government relations, retail relations and it throws some pretty big events.
The thing I look at as the challenge for NACS, as with all associations, is to provide value. Retailers pay dues, advertisers advertise, sponsors sponsor and all these dollars come to NACS. It's the association's challenge to take those dollars and provide value, so all of us want to continue giving money to the association. It's about making sure there is value given back to the membership and always asking what is in it for the retailers, and why is this good for the retailer and the supplier? I would call it value monitoring.
Financial discipline is also important, and one of the reasons NACS has been able to develop this great bandwidth is because it has been a strong and disciplined organization. I see the role of chairman as being able to continue monitoring the financial health of the organization.
CSNews: In taking on the role of NACS chairman, what are you looking forward to the most?
Robinson: I'm really looking forward to exploring the non-government relations parts of NACS. The reason I ended up getting involved in the association business had to do with regulations and legislation.
At the state level, one of the first things I ever did was get involved with legislative and regulatory issues. On the executive committee, I was vice president of government relations. I've done that and am pretty comfortable with it, but as I mentioned, NACS has a lot of bandwidth and does a lot of things like technology, research and events. So, I am looking forward to exploring the other parts of NACS because I haven't been as involved with them.
The NACS Show is fascinating. It's so big, and there are so many moving parts. I have been really impressed with it. Being closer and more involved with some of that and some of the educational events we put on is really interesting to me. Also, it's an opportunity to be an ambassador for the association and the industry. It's an opportunity to explore the industry and see what other people are doing and get to know people I haven't had the opportunity to meet.
For more of CSNews' interview with Robinson, pick up our Oct. 3 Show Daily issue at the NACS Show or visit our NACS Show microsite at www.csnewsbeyondtheshow.com.