As 7-Eleven chief executive, Joe DePinto has fostered growth in both the U.S. and abroad for the convenience-store chain in his nine-year tenure with the Dallas-based company. Today it leads the convenience-retailing category with 53,000 locations and worldwide sales that total more than $84.8 billion.
DePinto has enabled that growth through solid leadership and surrounding himself with a talented team, decisive evolution of food offerings as consumer tastes change, and a savvy approach to distribution and logistics that enables franchisees to carry fresh foods daily.
DePinto is sought out for that expertise by industry peers. He was tapped in 2010 to join the Brinker International board for his operations acumen and experience growing a business globally.
DePinto recently spoke with Stan Sheetz, president and chief executive of Sheetz Inc., parent of the Sheetz convenience store chain, about building a global brand and adapting to customer needs.
An excerpt from their conversation, moderated by NRN, follows:
Stan Sheetz: 7-Eleven has been driving hard into fresh and prepared foods for virtually the 24-hour eating cycle. Can you give us a little insight [into] how you think the C-Store channel can stand out in the restaurant industry?
Joe DePinto: There are conveniences at a premium, and consumers that are always looking for convenient, on-the-go items, and the convenience store channel is uniquely positioned to deliver on those items. We’ve always [sold] food. Eighty percent of the consumers that walk into our stores are walking out putting something in their mouth. They’re eating and drinking and have been for years. I think as their preferences have changed, we’re evolving with those preferences. Today there’s a gigantic trend in snacking. People are eating more, more frequently, and they’re looking for convenient on-the-go items, and that’s where I think we can best play.
SS: You’ve also been pushing a lot in the area of commissary, distribution, and logistics to supply your brand. Can you explain to us what kinds of advantages you’re finding through that new network?
JD: Our network distributes product to our stores everyday, so for us it’s an effective way of keeping inventories at lower levels than the stores, which is something that our franchise owners really keep an eye on. But it also allows us to deliver fresh, prepared products that are made at our commissaries or our bakeries.
SS: A new 7-Eleven unit [opens somewhere in the world] every three hours. What are the challenges of leading an organization that is growing at a pace like that?
JD: For me it’s about setting the tone collaboratively with our team here, building the strategy of how we want to grow, [and] where we want to grow.
We built the pipeline of great leaders and then trained and developed those folks ... and we let them do their jobs. Then it just comes down to following up, verification, and tweaking what needs to be tweaked.
SS: Speaking of people, 7-Eleven has become known as a brand that builds and encourages a very diverse workforce. Can you talk about that?
JD: We talk about diversity a lot here, and it’s important. We actively seek out employees, corporate store managers, franchise owners from all backgrounds, and I think we’re a stronger organization because of it. That didn’t just happen. It’s a strategic objective on our one-page strategy map. The entire organization knows that this is important to us.
Future of foodservice, retail
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SS: How do you and your team at 7-Eleven plans to take advantage of the new ways [that technology allows you to] touch customers?
JD: We’ve got a whole part of our work structure that’s focused on digital innovation and how digital innovation is going to help drive our business in the future. That includes … apps that we use to reach out to consumers [and] loyalty programs. With all the data that we’re gaining, it’s allowing us to interact one to one with the guest, particularly Millennials, [who] are engaged in using their smartphones everyday. We’re active on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. It’s not just that interaction. It’s what are the products and services that they’re going to want in the future, and how are they going to want those products and services distributed to them, how are they going to want to pay for them, etcetera.
Immediate consumption items really haven’t been affected yet, but they will be affected. We’ll figure out how to deliver immediate consumption items to the consumer when they want it, where they want it, in the quantity they want it, and do it cheaply. We’re very involved in that, because we think we can play a big role given that we’ve got this vast network of stores, which openly become distribution points for us.
SS: When you think about the future of food service and the future of retail, what are you the most optimistic about?
JD: The opportunity is to determine and provide [consumers] what they want to eat. The other opportunity is convenience, [which] is going to be an important part of consumers’ lives. We’re in a buyers’ market, and guests and consumers have more control and more power over the products they get, how they get them, when they get them, and as retailers and as food service operators we’ve just got to be in tune with that. We’ve got to be running right along side them [or] ahead of them to make the changes that they’re going to demand in the future,.
NRN: Who inspired you or mentored you throughout your career?
JD: I’ve had a lot of folks throughout my career who’ve touched me. If I had to point to a time in my life, I would tell you it was when I went to college at West Point [Military Academy in New York] and the influence of the folks at the military academy. The [lessons] were leadership, how to lead, how to build credibility and trust that gave you the authority to lead, and to do it by serving others and if you served others you built that credibility and trust and others gave you the permission to lead.
NRN: As you both look towards the future of food service and retail, I’m curious about what keeps you up at night and what you’re optimistic about?
JD: It’s how do we continue to keep up with the pace of that change, knowing where the convenience store business fits in that and where we fit long term with the consumer and how they’re going to want us to deliver food items to them. Again, historically it was packaged food items; today, it’s more freshly prepared or freshly delivered, more towards snacking, more towards healthy, but we’ve got to stay on top of those trends.
Things are changing so fast right now. Driven by one, the economy, and two, through technology ... So we’ve got to stay on top of the changes.
Stan Sheetz is president and chief executive of Sheetz Inc., parent to the Sheetz convenience store chain. He won a Golden Chain in 2012 for his leadership at the family-owned company.