Kwik Trip exec hints at future growth cities, shares tips for running family-owned business at BizTimes Family & Closely Held Business Summit

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Before 2002, not much differentiated Kwik Trip from traditional “cokes and smokes” convenience stores throughout the country. But it was that year that Kwik Trip began its separation from the pack of competitors as it adopted and implemented several new growth and brand strategies.

The La Crosse-based convenience store chain had just rolled out its hot food bar, but to ensure customers chose Kwik Trip over other brands, it placed a major emphasis on a characteristic that convenience stores aren’t historically known for – cleanliness, Kwik Trip training manager Carl Rick said Tuesday at BizTimes’ annual Family & Closely Held Business Summit.

In fact, Kwik Trip staked its future on both cleanliness in bathrooms and at its fuel lines, said Rick, a third-generation member of the Zietlow family, which became Kwik Trip’s sole owner in 2000.

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“If people are going to eat in a convenience store, which has been the butt of a joke for as long as convenience stores have been around, we have to be clean. There’s just no two ways about it,” Rick said.

Kwik Trip bathrooms have an 800 number to call if bathrooms aren’t to a guest’s standards. When a visitor submits a complaint, they’ll receive a call from Kwik Trip president and CEO Don Zietlow, Rick said.

“Two weeks ago, we had nearly 10 million guests visit our stores over the course of the week. We had eight bathroom complaints and (Don) called them all back on Friday morning,” Rick said.

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Since Kwik Trip opened its first location in Eau Claire in 1965, the company has grown to more than 770 stores mostly across Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, making it the 13th largest chain convenience store in the country.

Now Kwik Trip plans to open 40 new stores and remodel another 10 stores in 2021. Over the next five years, the company will build 40 to 50 new stores each year, which could grow to as many as 70 stores annually with remodeled locations, Rick said.

Because Kwik Trip delivers 80% of its own product daily, the company can cut costs and control the safety and quality of its food products. However, Rick says the fact that Kwik Trip delivers most of the products it sells also hinders where it can expand.

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Despite this limitation, stationed drivers across Kwik Trip’s network have allowed the company to use a spoke and hub approach to reach new geographies, Rick said, adding that North and South Dakota, as well as the Upper Peninsula, are where the company plans to expand next.

“We know we can get out a lot further than we are right now, but we still have a lot of infill to do where we’re at,” Rick said. “We’re not in Racine, Milwaukee proper, or Minneapolis and St. Paul proper.”

Employee loyalty is at the forefront of Kwik Trip’s growth strategy, and it starts with calling team members co-workers rather than employees and treating them as members of the family, Rick said.

Kwik Trip currently has 30,000 co-workers whose benefits include a 40% profit sharing program – the program has provided staff with nearly a billion in shared revenue since it was launched in 1989, Rick said.

The idea behind the program is that if Kwik Trip works for its co-workers, rather than the other way around, the company will retain staff in turn create a better experience for the customer, he added.

“That accomplishes a couple of things,” Rick said. “Our co-workers are our most important asset. They’re not just our greatest expense in labor, but they’re our biggest expense in profit.”

The Family & Closely Held Business Summit was the first in-person BizTimes Media has held in more then 15 months. Photos from the program and networking cocktail hour are available here. 

The entire program is available here on demand.

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