Kent's Korner: Big Company Best Practices, Small Company Charm in S.C.

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When most people first graduate from college, they are polishing their resume and practicing their interview skills for their first real job. Chad Ingram, president and chief executive officer of Garvin Oil, on the other hand was taking over the helm of his family’s company, Garvin Oil. The Wagener, S.C.-based company, which does business under the name Kent’s Korner, owns two truckstops, 19 convenience stores and a construction business. He may have been only 22, but Ingram was ready. “I’ve been working for the company my entire life, since I was a kid really,” he said.

With a bit of a smile in his voice, he recalls taking out the trash at six, washing windshields at ten and changing oil in his teens. When he wasn’t busy working for mom and dad, Ingram was busy with his own entrepreneurial efforts. At the encouragement of his dad, Kent, he sold eggs for 50 cents a dozen and during his teenage years he managed a video game business in the company stores.

This solid industry background paired with an entrepreneurial spirit applies to much of what makes the Ingrams’ company unique. “We’ve tried to apply large company best practices while still remaining small and flexible and quick,” Ingram said.

While Ingram modestly waives off Garvin’s hiring and training processes as just basic best practices, it is clear that the company excels in finding and training employees. They employ roughly 300 people, whom, as Ingram shared, are an integral part of their success. “If you get the best people, you’ll do fine. Our people make us unique. We have many wonderful, wonderful people,” he said.

“We’ve set-up a lot of procedures to make sure people fit our culture well,” Ingram said. Those procedures include an online application that all applicants must complete. This technology has multiple benefits including the ability for managers across all stores to view and review applicants. The company is careful to hire the personality and skills for the particular position open using the company’s documented Interview Booklet. For example, when hiring for their cashiers, or hosts as they call them, they review candidates to find those that are friendly, calm and fun. After all, these hosts are asked to follow a company standard set by director of marketing Derek Swarthout to always sincerely greet every customer that comes in. 

Ingram comes by his innovative nature naturally, and he isn’t afraid to hire for big company best practices. “Recently, we’ve tried to hire more professional people that come from a larger corporate setting. They bring new expertise and ideas,” he said.

For example, they recently hired a new director of finance, Kimberly Canada. “She’s already done a lot of analysis for us that is very important. She’s found a lot of inefficiencies that we hadn’t seen before,” Ingram said.

The best practices don’t stop with the hiring process. The company also uses very regimented, processed-based training. “We are always trying to improve our training,” Ingram said. “Basically there is a right way to perform any task in the plaza that is the most cost effective, easiest to execute and most time efficient.”

During the training process the company documents each step learned by the trainee, and the trainee and trainers sign a training sheet certifying each task is understood completely.

“Everything we do can be defined by a process. By teaching the same process throughout the company, we get more consistent execution and a better experience for our guests,” Ingram said.

As an example of a religiously documented and followed practice, Ingram shared the key components of cleaning their fuel islands. “We have purchased a truck-mount pressure washer and the operator makes a circuit to each store based on traffic at each location,” he said. The operator uses environmentally safe products that are actually less expensive and more effective than most products and follows a standard process at each location. “Our first impression to our guests has improved and is more consistent,” Ingram explained.

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4 Korners Walkthrough

The “4 Korners” walkthrough is another Kent’s Korner best practice. First thing every morning the managers at each location do a “4 Korners” walkthough developed by director of operations Dave Slyter. They focus on the four primary areas their guests see when they visit their stores, including:

Korner 1 is the execution at the fuel islands. Are the pumps and islands clean, operating and properly stocked with supplies?

Korner 2 is an assessment of the restrooms. Are they extremely clean and well stocked and are they clean enough to really smell good?

Korner 3 is a review to ensure the merchandise is well stocked. Does the merchandise meet their guests expectations and have they stocked the products customers rely on when they visit their stores? If not, what are they doing to address areas that are lacking?

Korner 4 is the experience at the service desk. Is it fast, friendly and do the guests receive a please and thank you as part of great southern hospitality?

After the walk is completed the manager assigns specific items that need attention to each host along with routine duties that he/she would like them to complete during their shift. The host task lists are used by the manager to check on progress and coach where necessary throughout the day.

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If for some reason the best practices and procedures fail and a customer isn’t happy, Kent’s Korner is ready for that too. They have a mobile app to make it easier for people to give feedback. “I can get the feedback instantly. It used to be the complaints would stop at the manager. Now I know,” Ingram said. As head of the company he reviews the feedback in realtime, again a hallmark of small, nimble companies, and even calls customers directly to get additional feedback on the issue. 

Ingram’s last words of advice for fellow operators are to invest in biodiesel, a recommendation fitting of their small-but-big company model. “I would recommend that if people aren’t doing biodiesel, then they should start. I think those who aren’t doing it are missing the window of opportunity,” he said.

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Darren Schulte, NATSO’s vice president of membership, shared a sample generic 14-point merchandising and marketing checklist on NATSO’s blog. Readers can read his post and download the sample checklist here.

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Photo Credit: Lista's Studio of Photography

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This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

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Amy Toner

Toner markets NATSO products, services and meetings. She is the content editor of NATSO's core websites, Stop Watch magazine and Highway Business Matters biweekly articles. In addition, she provides creative services across all departments. Toner joined NATSO in 2006. Prior to joining the association, she served as director of membership services at an association for ambulatory surgery centers. Toner lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and son. More
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