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When one of Bob Robertson's sons decided to change careers and leave his life as the owner of a brewery and pub to go to medical school, Robertson told him he thought it was a great idea. Then the son, Scott, asked if Dad could help him foot the bills.
Robertson, this year's inductee into the Convenience Store Industry Hall of Fame, struck a deal with Scott, a deal that illustrates much about Robertson's character and his philosophy toward business and life. The deal was this: If his son worked hard and graduated near the top of his class, Robertson said, he would reimburse him 75 percent of his expenses. If he ended up graduating in the middle of the class, he'd get 50 percent of his school bills back from Dad. If he got through only by the skin of his teeth, he'd get 25 percent of his money back.
His son finished Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine near the top of his class and happily recouped 75 percent of his med school bills. (When telling this story, Robertson quickly added that he is tremendously proud of his other children, too: Debbie, the director of a multi-facility rehabilitation program for alcohol- and drug-addicted adolescents; Bob Jr., a senior systems development executive with Allstate Insurance Co.; and Patty, a successful small business owner.)
The combination of compassion and uncompromising commitment to excellence that drove Robertson's "deal" with his son Scott also helped him, as founder, president and CEO, build the Elmhurst, Ill.-based White Hen Pantry chain of convenience stores. In fact, to understand how White Hen Pantry gained its superb reputation, it is necessary to take a good look at Robertson himself. His former colleagues, business and charity associates and friends, with remarkable consistency, paint a portrait of man who is humble but sure of his ideas, a soft-spoken, gentle man with an iron will and an unwavering commitment to his goals.
"Robbie is a rock," said Brandon Barnholt, CEO of Oak Brook, Ill.-based Clark Retail Enterprises Inc., the owner since early 2000 of the White Hen Pantry chain. "I had to negotiate with him in order to buy his company. You learn a lot about a person when you do that. I found that throughout his career, a countless number of great things were done because of who he is. If he has an opinion, he doesn't waver. He'll never move. This is what White Hen was built on."
Barnholt explained that every decision at White Hen had to be bounced against "Robbie's" beliefs or vision. This unassailable steadfastness is "almost unbelievable," he said. "You think there has to be a crack in this foundation. But he's just a solid guy; he knows what he stands for."
Know Thy Customer
Robertson also has a knack for knowing what customers want, according to Doug Fritsch, vice president, franchise operations at Clark Retail Enterprises, who began working for Robertson in 1974. For example, Robertson asked a focus group an open question: What do you like about White Hen? The group began discussing coffee. He recognized the potential to grow the business by expanding the chain's coffee offering. Fritsch said, "We did a lot with flavors and brand extensions. It created more work for us, but it was worth it. Customers appreciated it. It was a real home run."
Robertson demanded the best in cost, quality and service from vendors, Fritsch said, but he knew that if they delivered these, they would get good value in return. He said, "Bob Robertson is the most honest person I know. He has the highest integrity, whether in his work life or personal life. But he doesn't want anything he didn't earn."
Robertson explained his firm commitment to quality very simply: "I don't like being identified with anything that is not done well. If something is exceptional, then everybody wins."
Barnholt said Robertson's influence continues at Clark Retail Enterprises. "We've added products consistent with what the consumer wants today, but in every case, we make the decision by asking ourselves, 'What would Bob have done? Why did Bob not do this?'"
He added, "Bob serves as the solid foundation or cornerstone of everything he comes in contact with. He is a man of great character, with a huge heart, and the magic touch of a great entrepreneur and merchant. I consider Bob a mentor, a business associate and, most important to me, a friend who offers a living example of what principle-centered leadership is all about."
Robertson obviously made a new friend and fan in Barnholt, but, not surprisingly, he inspired deep loyalty among his colleagues during his years at White Hen Pantry. Many employees put in 15 years or more there, such as Charlotte Maroon, who worked as executive assistant for him and his partners, Bob Knight, Al Davis, George Bovis and Bob Smith. "He's a great leader, very focused," she said "He knows what he wants and he goes after it." Maroon and the partners and all the respective spouses meet frequently for dinner, even though they no longer work together. Obviously, they were more than co-workers.
Robertson received the good wishes of many other friends and industry colleagues when word got out he would be inducted into the Convenience Store Industry Hall of Fame.
"Bob guided me from the very beginning of my career and not just in placing candy on shelves, either," said Robert J. Brodsky, formerly of J.J. Brodsky & Sons Inc., Chicago. "He taught me the secret of success: Please the customer every day in every way no matter the cost. His philosophy helped me forge a strong bond between the franchisees and myself that never broke even when the competition used unrealistically low pricing as a method to break into White Hen Pantry."
Added Leo F. Fronza of Elmhurst (Ill.) Memorial Healthcare: "Bob has been involved with Elmhurst Memorial Hospital since 1979. In 1997, we named him the second recipient of the Robert E. Soukup Award for Leadership. We noted his selfless devotion, generosity and willingness to devote his time and energy to continuously improve health care services for our community."
White Hen Pantry's Bob Seabright added that "Bob helped all of us to understand what superior standards mean. After a while, it became fun trying to exceed what were understood to be his very high standards."
"It was exciting and fun establishing a good, solid franchise organization, opening 30 or 40 stores each year, constantly adding to the young management team," said David L. Diana, White Hen Pantry president from 1968–74. "This kind of solid growth could never have been accomplished without the leadership and intelligence provided by Bob and other members of the best management team I have ever worked with, including Jim Teufel, Bob Knight, Al Davis and George Bovis."
"I count myself fortunate to be among those to be both led and coached by Robbie," added Doug Fritsch. "His commitment to service, attention to detail and unrelenting attitude for 'getting better at what we do' produced a formula for success from which many have benefited."
Today, former executive assistant Maroon says, "We are family. We are more than just friends."