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F.L. "Steve" Stephens, former chairman and CEO of Town & Country Food Stores Inc., was inducted into the Convenience Store News Industry Hall of Fame in 1993.
Stephens first went to work in a convenience store in 1960 while attending college. Five years later, he became a c-store owner/operator when the chain he joined as a store manager over-expanded and started selling off locations. He and a partner bought seven stores in San Angelo, Texas, thus forming Town & Country Food Stores.
During his time in the convenience industry, Stephens spent a year as NACS chairman and worked on the association's board of directors; was involved with the Texas Retail Grocers Association, serving as a year as its president; and took part in numerous civic efforts.
He left the c-store industry in 1999, when employees of Town & Country purchased the business from him. The company was ultimately acquired by Susser Holdings Corp. in 2007.
In honor of the Hall of Fame's 25th anniversary, CSNews took a trip down memory lane with Stephens, reflecting on his Hall of Fame induction, industry memories and more.
What did it mean to you to be inducted into the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame?
To be recognized by your peers for your contributions to the industry is a real honor. At the time I received the honor, I had just completed my time on the board and executive committee of NACS, and therefore had been in a relatively high-profile position for several years. There are many who have not received this honor who are more deserving than I.
What do you remember most about being inducted?
What I remember most is that the only reason I attended NACS that year was to receive this recognition. My first grandchild was to be born during the dates of the meeting. I told my daughter not to have that baby until I got home! I returned home immediately after the ceremony and she gave birth to my first grandson, Mason, (now 18 and a senior) dutifully the next day.
What would you say has had the greatest positive impact on the industry in the last 25 years?
It has long been a fact of life that what transpires at city hall, the state legislature or Congress can impact a company and an industry more than what happens in our own board rooms. For an association [like NACS] to have a major impact on its industry and its members, it must have a strong voice in government affairs. So, I would say that our involvement in governmental affairs has had the biggest positive impact on our industry over the past 25 years.
What has had the greatest negative impact on the industry in the last 25 years?
Supermarkets and Wal-Mart, etc., responding to the competition our industry has given them, have fast check-out lanes, are open 24 hours and weekends, and added gasoline to their product mix.
How has your business evolved over the last 25 years?
While I sold out of the industry 12 years ago, I can tell you that since the mid 1980's, our company evolved from the old-style '60s model to become a player in the current style of operation by heavily emphasizing fast food, much larger gasoline installations and larger, brighter stores emphasizing large, modern, clean restrooms.
What is the most remarkable thing you've experienced, seen or learned while in the industry?
Our industry has changed dramatically since 1960 when I first went to work in a convenience store. At that time, they were dingy, neighborhood drive-ins that basically were miniature supermarkets (mom-and-pop stores) with longer hours. NACS actually started the year after my "debut." We were not even considered to be an "industry" at that time, and had the reputation of something around the level of a pawn shop. "Refined people" didn't ever shop in our stores.
Today, the convenience store industry is recognized by everyone as a major player in the economy. Virtually all people are customers at c-stores today. We have risen to a high level of significance and legitimacy, as we are seen to provide a need to society that is not likely to go away any time soon. Even the Internet can't replace us!
If you were to jump into the convenience store business today, what would be your greatest concern, and what would you see as your greatest opportunity?
If I were to start over today, the first thing I would do is join NACS and visit successful stores to learn what they are doing right. My greatest concern would be what the various levels of government could do to hurt my business. The greatest opportunity would be to get prime locations and out-operate the many chains (certainly not all).
What do you foresee for the industry, and your company, over the next 25 years?
I think the future is extremely bright for the industry for the foreseeable future. We have seen threats come and go. Tobacco, our leading category for years, has been under attack seemingly forever. And while it is still a major component of our mix, it is far from the percentage of sales that it once was. Gasoline may someday take a major hit as technology develops other sources of cheaper, cleaner energy. But I believe the major strength the industry has always had -- and came about it rather accidentally -- is convenience. We are located conveniently to absolutely everyone. We are light on our feet and can change product mix or respond to customer demand almost overnight. While there is much I don't know about the Internet (almost everything!), I have a hard time seeing how our product can be effectively distributed over the net.
The first NACS meeting I attended was in 1964. Someone from Southland Corp. said something at that meeting that is as true today as it was then. It has always stuck with me and greatly influenced my decisions over our product mix. The quote was, "Most of our products are consumed within 30 minutes of purchase." At the just concluded NACS meeting in Chicago, I heard the same sentiment expressed, except the timeframe was one hour. So, while much has changed over the past 51 years since I first went to work in the industry, the key, core concept is precisely the same: give the customer what they want, when they want it and where they want it.
To read "A Trip Down Memory Lane With Chester Cadieux," click here.