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11/29/2021

Investing in Success

Retailer Executive of the Year Kevin Smartt is cultivating the people and business practices that ensure a bright future.
Angela Hanson
Senior Editor
Angela Hanson profile picture

It’s been a busy year for Kevin Smartt. 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the day he bought the Kwik Chek chain after working his way up in a variety of roles, but there was little time to celebrate the milestone. Instead, his time was occupied by overseeing the Spicewood, Texas-based company’s chainwide rebranding to Texas Born (TXB), while also serving as the 2020-2021 NACS chairman.

Having a lot on his plate is nothing new for Smartt, who has been putting in hard work at convenience stores since ­his teens. 

“Life brings you full circle,” he reflected while discussing his career with Convenience Store News. He started with his very first paycheck job at age 14, working for a small c-store operator in Baytown, Texas. “I stocked the shelves. I cleaned the parking lot. I just did whatever he needed,” Smartt recalled. “It was a great little summer job.”

After college, he spent several years in direct sales with Frito-Lay before his father-in-law, the then-owner of Kwik Chek, offered to bring him into the business. Smartt initially declined, but after he and his wife had their first child, they revisited the offer. 

“He said, ‘Kevin, I assure you, it won’t be a problem. You will earn your own way.’ And he was right. I did,” Smartt said. Once again, he learned the ropes of the business through hands-on experience. “I learned how to drive a fuel truck, learned how to work on a fuel dispenser. I managed a store. I was district manager. I finally took over marketing, and became president of the retail company.”

Smartt and his business partner, the late Doyce Taylor, bought Kwik Chek from his father-in-law in early 2001 and promptly began expanding through the acquisition of three stores and a small fuel wholesaler. However, their plans were upended several months later when the terrorist attacks of September 11 took place.

“We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did we do?’” Smartt recounted. The cost of fuel doubled overnight, doubling the company’s cash requirements. “We essentially bought the business with hardly any money, so it was a very challenging time.”

Despite this, Kwik Chek survived and began to thrive. 

“We learned a lot of good lessons and discipline along the way in that timeframe, which made us a better company. The rest is history,” he said.

Twenty years later, the experience Smartt gained through persistent effort and the leadership skills he honed along the way have made him a respected figure who is known for working on behalf of the c-store industry as a whole, while continually pushing to improve his business, earning him the title of Convenience Store News’ 2021 Retailer Executive of the Year. 

Building a Better Tomorrow 

Today, Smartt leads a company that is significantly different from the one he bought in 2001, starting with the name. Last year, Kwik Chek Food Stores announced it would rebrand all locations to TXB to emphasize its Texas roots and values. The first new-build TXB store opened in Georgetown, Texas, in August 2021, bringing the total store count to 46 locations. 

The actual TXB brand is older than it seems as the company trademarked it years ago for uses such as private label packaging. “Then, we had such good success — so many positive comments from consumers — we went, this is it,” Smartt said, noting that TXB is not targeted to people born in Texas — although he was — but rather reflects what Texas represents. 

So far, Smartt is pleased with the rollout, especially the way that fresh food is leading the way at the Georgetown store. But the process hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The decision to rebrand was made two years ago, but it couldn’t be done chainwide at the same time.

“There were things we didn’t realize when we did it; basically, the flow of how things should work,” Smartt said. For example, when the stores began running out of branded fountain cups, did it make sense to order Kwik Chek or TXB branded replacements? Employee uniforms, menuboards and other components also had to be considered. “We had all those little components that just started creeping up.”

Quietly starting the rebrand also prompted questions from shoppers about whether the company had been acquired. So, the retailer decided to make things official and kick off marketing efforts through media stories, store signage, and virtual town halls.

The current plan is to rebrand in regional pockets, after which they can be effectively marketed until the entire network is TXB branded. Some existing stores only need light remodeling, while others will be fully gutted and remodeled — a process that used to take around three months, but is now expected to take four to five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent disruptions to the supply chain. 

The rebranding process has involved a certain amount of trial and error, but Smartt and his team are using an old company saying to guide them: “We do, we learn, we hopefully do better.”

Many of these changes came soon after the sudden death of Taylor in late 2019. 

“That was really an emotional time for our company and for me because he was such a great person,” Smartt said. “Him and I were super good friends and good business partners.” 

The onset of the pandemic several months later, followed by months of social unrest in 2020 and multiple catastrophic weather events, added to the difficulties.

“I don’t think it could have been a more challenging time to put this on,” Smartt acknowledged. 

However, he sees strength in his company and throughout the industry at large.

“The thing about our industry is that we’re super resilient,” he said. “We keep proving that.”

Throughout these turbulent times, Smartt believes that c-stores have demonstrated their strength as a channel and their importance to the communities they serve.

“I think c-stores have outshined most everyone else consistently through it all and have been there for our communities and our customers and our employees,” he said. “It’s a testament to the great business leaders we have in this industry and entrepreneurs who have figured out a way to be nimble and change and do what they have to do to survive and succeed.”

Making the Right Investments 

As a leader, Smartt views TXB’s company culture as a major asset, built over decades.

“If you ask anyone about our company, we’ve always had a super strong culture,” he said. “I’ve got employees who have been with me 30 years. I know their kids, everything that’s gone on within their lives. They know me as well. So, there is a sense of family culture there.”

While he has always valued people, Smartt describes having “sort of an epiphany” around seven years ago, when he realized that he was spending a lot of time and money looking for really good pieces of real estate to build stores on, but the same couldn’t be said for his approach to recruiting new team members.

“It’s an investment, right? But one of the most important investments that I could make is in people,” he said.

Previously, being a small company from a small town, he’d been reluctant to search for outside talent and pay them what they were worth. After reassessing, though, he found that TXB was able to reap long-term benefits from wider talent recruitment.

“We still have a lot of people who have been with me a long time, but we went out and found a lot of really talented people around the industry who fit our culture and hired them,” he said. “They’re still with me today and they’re a big reason why we’re having success.”

Smartt describes his own leadership philosophy as “what you see is what you get,” which ties into TXB’s three pillars: authenticity, integrity and hospitality.

“If we’re not living up to that, we want to know,” he said.

Over the last 12 months, Smartt has served as a leader in the overall c-store community as NACS chairman, an experience he describes in one word: “Virtual,” he said with a laugh.

Like his predecessor, Julie Jackowski of Casey’s General Stores Inc., Smartt had to reinvent the role due to the pandemic. The tenure of a NACS chair typically involves a large amount of travel. Instead, Smartt used Zoom and other digital tools to attend events and conferences, give speeches, and discuss the c-store industry. 

“It was very virtual but super engaging,” he noted.

Smartt’s term also marked the second year that the industry went above and beyond for the communities it serves, both in how c-stores act as reliable shopping destinations for the things people need during the pandemic and in the philanthropy performed by retailers of all sizes. It’s something he wants to amplify, now and in the future.

“Our company has been super-involved in communities for years. We take great pride in it,” he said.

It can be as simple as sponsoring a Little League team or as important as helping customers stay safe and stocked up during a global pandemic, but c-stores make a difference wherever they are.

“It sounds a little cheesy, but c-stores truly are the cornerstone of communities, the fabric of America,” Smartt said. “I want to talk about that. It’s been tremendous to get that word out there.”

As both NACS chair and CEO of TXB, he’s also focused on technology, emphasizing the need to lean in and advance the industry’s technology skills, equipment and endeavors. 

Earlier this year, NACS began pilot tests of TruAge, a digital identification solution designed to enhance current age-verification systems, while protecting user privacy.

“Nobody sells more age-restricted products than the convenience store industry,” he said, explaining that he thinks TruAge is going to be needed due to existing and potential new restrictions on certain items. “I think this is another step toward showing we are the most responsible industry in selling age-restricted products.”

TruAge will also prepare the industry for a potential future where sales of cannabis products become widely legal. C-stores cannot currently sell such items, even in states where cannabis products are legal, but Smartt is thinking long-term and preparing for change.

“We think this at least gives us a seat at the table in the future,” he said. 

What Comes Next 

In the years to come, technology will continue to be important at TXB, where Smartt and his team are working on putting numerous innovations in place. The company relaunched its mobile app with an enhanced loyalty program in spring 2020, yet TXB continues to evolve its digital program alongside the evolving expectations of consumers. It is currently testing mobile food ordering through the app, which the retailer hopes to have live by the end of the year. 

“It’s a big thing for us,” Smartt said. “We visualize that happening as both in-store pickup and as home delivery.”

TXB will also add a food locker in new builds. Customers who order online will be able to scan a QR code on the locker, which will be placed at the front of the store and unlock their food. This will free up space in the foodservice area for customers ordering in-store and the employees assisting them. 

“We’re excited about that,” he said. “We think it’s a little bit of future-proofing, if you will, in terms of where we’re going.”

New TXB stores will also be built in a way that allows them to add a drive-thru one day if necessary, enabling the company to save money now but get into the drive-thru business quickly if it eventually makes sense. There are no current plans to add curbside pickup.

“We like [the food lockers] a little better than curbside,” Smartt said, noting the importance of his stores’ limited parking spaces. “We think customers will appreciate it from a convenience standpoint; of being able to come right in the door, get the food out of the food locker, and leave.”

Another impending innovation is new fuel dispensers that feature a large digital touchscreen and no buttons. “We hope to integrate that, so once you start fueling, it looks like our app on the screen,” he said.

If all goes well, customers will be able to order food at the pump, too, just like in the app.

As for the food offering itself, Smartt strongly believes that TXB can compete with fast-casual and fast-food operators, as well as other convenience stores. The key, he says, is to never stop looking for ways to improve what’s on the menu.

“Our team is constantly thinking about innovation that we can execute at a store level, things that our consumers are looking for,” he said.

As Smartt prepares for the next stage of his company’s existence, he recognizes the many ways the c-store industry has changed since the start of his career — and the ways it hasn’t.

“There has been a tremendous amount of change but, at the same time, some core things are still the same,” he said. “Technology has dramatically changed the convenience store world. It’s changed retail in general.”

Looking back, Smartt recognizes that he began investing more in technology around the same time he began investing more in people. When asked what advice he’d give to his younger self, he says he’d advise him to take the same path, but do it sooner.

“I’d encourage myself to embrace spending money in those areas,” he said.

Looking ahead to the future that he continues to prepare for, Smartt expects more changes to come, including the proliferation of contactless checkout options and the expansion of delivery options as both become critical to success.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean home delivery. It could be home delivery; it could be drive thru,” he said. “The point of delivery of the product will continue to morph and there will be more options there for the consumer.”

Electric vehicle (EV) charging is another area where Smartt urges c-store operators to have a voice. “The return-on-investment case for it may not be there today, but if we don’t have a seat at the table today, we won’t be in the conversation three or four or five years from now,” he cautioned.

It is particularly important for retailers to get involved in the EV charging discussion due to how new the industry is and how many uncertainties exist. Smartt pointed out that while the EV charging stations at TXB’s new Georgetown store are getting a surprising amount of use, he doesn’t know what his electricity cost is until the end of the month, making it difficult to know what to charge users.

Regardless of how EV technology and the c-store industry in general change in the future, Smartt plans to do what he advises all c-store leaders to do: make his voice heard. 

“I hope our industry finds a way to again be a part of that conversation and help be a leader throughout this country and how we build out this infrastructure,” he said. “I hope we’re an important part of that conversation.” 

About the Author

Angela Hanson
Angela Hanson is Senior Editor of Convenience Store News. Read More