Sheboygan’s Greg Bultman has the right people on his bus
Gregory Bultman appears to be doing things backwards. While many business owners aspire to sell their businesses and become venture capitalists, Bultman’s career in venture capital and finance led him to his current role as owner-manager of a growing chain of convenience stores and 10 bulk petroleum facilities.
Bultman has made the transition successfully. In 2002, his company, Quality State Oil Inc., Sheboygan, posted twice the revenue as it did when he bought into the firm in 1988 – with the same complement of employees.
As Bultman works to build his company’s Q-Mart convenience store chain to about 25 stores — a critical point, given fixed expenses — he works to set a benchmark for customer service along the way. In May, Q-Mart was recognized with the Customer First Award by Lakeland College and the Sheboygan Press.
According to Bultman, the Q-Mart strategy involves competing with grocery stores on high-volume convenience items, including milk and case beer.
"We want them to come here for other things and happen to buy their gas at the same time," Bultman says, stressing that it in recent years, it has been harder to make a profit strictly on gasoline. "To do this, we need to partner with our vendors on promotional and pricing strategies."
Bultman, who closed on the purchase of the company’s 15th Q-Mart retail location May 14, acknowledges he had a few things to learn about the industry he entered when he purchased Quality State Oil.
"I told the former owner (Gordon Petherick) that I didn’t know anything about the convenience store industry," Bultman says. "He promised that I could learn everything I needed to in 30 days. But I find I am still learning everything I need to know every 30 days with no end in sight."
Because of the depth of his ignorance, Bultman says, his decision to invest in the business had a lot to do with the presence of a strong management team. Two managers, vice president of operations Bernard Nowicki and controller Deborah DeBlaey, bought into the company with Bultman. Both Nowicki and DeBlaey had been with the company for more than 15 years — a tenure that now stands at more than 30 years for each.
Another key player, vice president of planning and development John Winter, is described by Bultman as a rising star.
Bultman has a long history of looking at businesses for their investment potential, having worked for Aetna Life & Casualty and as founding partner of the R.W. Allsop & Associates venture capital company.
However, it may be Bultman’s ability to look beyond the balance sheet that is fueling Quality State Oil’s success.
In the lingo of author Jim Collins, Bultman values companies that have the right people on the bus — and can keep them there.
"I have good partners," Bultman says. "I own most of Quality State Oil, but the fact that Bernie and Deb have each been here 30 years is significant."
Bultman says retaining people in lower level positions – including at retail locations – also is key.
"We have one store where we did not turn over a single employee all last year," Bultman says, stressing that managers of each store are motivated by a system of bonuses and incentives based on store revenues vs. budget, secret shopper visits and other factors.
However, even when it comes to Bultman’s other business "investment" ventures, he tends to realize he is investing in the people as much as the profit margin.
Bultman is part-owner of Wrought Washer Manufacturing, Milwaukee, with president Paul Schulz and Jerome Kringel. Kringel was legal counsel when Bultman bought into the firm in 1985. Schulz was CFO and later became president.
In addition, Bultman works with a partner, Ralph Freitag, in another business dealing, CommFleet, a Detroit semi-tractor repair business Bultman hopes to take nationwide.
Bultman also partners with Freitag in QSR, a Taco Bell franchise. In looking at other business opportunities, Bultman feels a sense of loyalty toward his current partners.
"Since the early 1990s, it has been my feeling that I am not going to do anything unless it is with them," Bultman says.
As Bultman looks for additional businesses to invest in, he says he learned that when it comes to active partnerships, there are only two types of managers.
"Some business owners want passive involvement," Bultman says. "And then there are those who truly need help, and they fall into two categories; those who will listen and those who can’t."
The tricky thing, according to Bultman, is knowing the difference.
"You usually don’t know until it is too late," Bultman says, stressing that a strong contract is no guarantee of a successful relationship. "The best contract is a handshake between two honest people."
Quality State Oil
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Wisconsin- Madison
Company’s annual revenues: $80 million
Role model: Two mentor figures he got to know at a distance – via reading about what they were doing and through personal relationships. "I am reticent to say who they were, because I have been inspired and helped by so many people."
Leadership philosophy: "Work with the right people and make sure their hearts and minds are focused on corporate goals."
May 30, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee