Jan. 5, 2012

The Riddle of Spinx

Today, Spinks is synonymous with the chain of gas stations and convenience stores in the Carolinas that bear his name, with an "X," of course, because everyone was going with an X — even Esso had changed to two Xs — at the time.

In recognition of the mark he has left on the industry, Spinks was inducted into the Convenience Store News Industry Hall of Fame in November.

"Stewart Spinks is a gifted marketer who has a vision of what would work in his market," said Bill Douglass of Douglass Distributing Ltd. and the 2008 CSNews Hall of Famer. "Stewart is a great family man and a fine choice for honoring this family firm business leader."

But back in 1969, Spinks was just a recent college graduate with a new job at Shell.

Two years later, he got a call from a Shell vice president in Atlanta that would change his life: the vice president asked him to visit the Caper House in Greenville, S.C., to check out the self-service gas pumps that were connected to the inside store.

"When I first saw the Caper House, I was 25 years old and I said the customers will like this," he recalled. "But everyone was full service in those days — three-bay service stations — so between 1971 and 1979, the industry literally just completely flipped. I was very fortunate."

The oil business actually stagnated in the 1970s, Spinks explained. As the marketplace evolved, the industry, and the major oil companies in particular, were stunned, he said. "It was a perfect time for me, but it was a tough time to get through. Everyone was kind of stunned. What is self service? People said their customers won't pump their own gas. There was a lot of resistance to self service, but it wasn't by me. I would just watch the customers smile when they got a better price."

South Carolina State Senator Greg Ryberg presents a Senate resolution recognizing Spinks' achievements.

One of Spinks' favorite books is Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which in part, examines recognizing an opportunity and not letting it pass by. That premise describes Spinks perfectly.

"I was basically in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the tremendous transition from service stations to self service," he added.

Spinks toiled at Shell for three years — his mother thought he would become president of the company one day — before he ventured out on his own. While at Shell, he was responsible for 15 service stations in Greenville and a commissioned agent in a heating oil company. In July 1972, he bought the worst service station on his beat from Shell and took the first step in a 40-year journey that would eventually lead to The Spinx Co.

"I didn't see myself getting promoted anytime soon. I was also concerned that at Shell, I was not empowered to serve my customers, who were those 15 dealers, in the way that I thought I needed to be to do the job. I knew the support wasn't there for me from Shell and I thought I could do this better. I didn't say that out loud; people would have thought I was crazy. When I decided to actually pull the corporate trigger, I knew I could make it with the service station. Shell had trained me well," he said.

Spinks worked alongside his three employees cleaning windshields, changing oil — whatever needed to be done — from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. The station became such a big part of his life that his wife Martha would bring his two oldest sons, Steve and Jeff (third son John and fourth son Whitney would come along later), to visit him there. No one ever said ownership would be easy.

"I remember one night, we were living in an apartment on Earl Street just a mile from the service station, and I woke up at 2 a.m. and said, 'My God, I didn't pull the bay doors down.' So I jumped in the car and drove down, and sure enough my bay doors were open," he recounted. "My whole life, my whole investment, my whole world was in this one little service station. My tires were still on the shelf, the batteries were still there, the filters were still there. Nobody came in and stole anything."

Bigger Aspirations
Owning one little service station wasn't enough for him, though. During this time, he was negotiating with a businessman named Joe Foster to buy his heating oil business. But Foster was not budging. "I was not a good risk for him because when I started negotiating, I was 25 years old and he knew I didn't have any money; it wasn't that hard to figure out," Spinks said.

Spinks gives credit to his wife Martha for her years of support, especially during the many nights he had to work late.

In the fall of 1972, Foster's health was failing and Spinks' proposal caught the attention of Foster's lawyer, Dean Rainey. "I'm sitting there and I had my proposal. Dean Rainey looked over at Mr. Foster and he said, 'Joe, you're going to sign this document and you're going to sell this company to Mr. Spinks,'" he said. "Mr. 26-year-old Spinks. I get chills when I think about it because that is the moment the world just opened up for me."

So, on Nov. 30, 1972, Spinks bought the business for $50,000. He kept running the service station, opening it up in the morning and getting it ready for that day's business, then heading to the heating oil business. There he was joined by his only employee, Charlie Paige. "I just made sure I was meeting my obligations," he explained. "I owed a lot of money; $50,000 in 1972 was like $500,000 today."

As Spinks worked to pay off Foster — which he finally did in November 1977 — and the oil crisis gripped the country, he was reluctant to commit to anything capital-wise, focusing only on things he could sell.

In 1976, he thought he might take a chance, buying a piece of property where he built his first gas station by himself. "It took me a year to do it. I couldn't hire a real professional because they would get it done too fast and I couldn't afford to pay them. So I did everything myself — dug the tank holes myself with a backhoe, did my own piping," Spinks remembered. "I had a tiny store with a cooler on one side. I didn't want the customers to ever wait in line, so I had two windows."

 
Nov. 14 was declared "Stewart Spinks Day" in a proclamation presented by Greenville City Councilwoman Amy Doyle.

With that first store, Greenville got its first electronic dispenser, he said, adding that customers called him "digit gas." "I had automatic tank gauges and the ability to poll my first store from a central location. My office was about a half mile from the store, so I didn't really need to poll it, but I was trying to set the company up where I could go into other areas and I would be able to retrieve my data electronically."

The following year brought a second store. "I didn't put doors on my first dozen or so. I wanted the checkout close to the pumps and the customers," he said. "I didn't build stores. I basically built kiosks with coolers and snacks."

The move from a service station to a store/gas combination was a different world, Spinks found out. "Once you go into a retail business directly to the consumer, it's like 24/7," he said. "It was a lot harder business."

Spinks' game plan was to have five stores. With his sixth store in 1980, he leased out the first original store. And he kept up that trend with the next few stores as well. Once again, he was able to do this because he was in the right place at the right time.

"If I had come in and decided to start my own company 10 years earlier, oil companies were competing for real estate. But when the oil companies went away, I only competed for really good real estate with quick-service restaurants and banks," he explained. "The oil companies were boarding up service stations on the best corners in Greenville. It created opportunities; those types of sites are irreplaceable."

As the oil industry changed again in 1981, Spinks signed a contract with Allen Washburn at Conoco. It was the first time anybody had offered him a contract, he said. "Al put a contract in front of me and said, 'We sure would like to have your business.' I had not heard those words in all those eight years from '73 to '81. It was a great moment in time."

Over the next few years, Spinks would sign several contracts. He even branded his stores to Amoco in 1984 and the Spinx brand disappeared from the market until 1994. Spinks sold the majority of his business to BP in May 1989 and retired to a North Carolina beach house — shrimp boat and all.

"It was a midlife crisis. I was 42 years old," he joked.

Spinks got back into the c-store game full-time in 1991 and built his company up to 15 stores. In 1993, he more than doubled the size with an 18-store acquisition: nine were in South Carolina and nine were in North Carolina, marking the first time he ventured outside South Carolina.

Growing the Talent
As The Spinx Co. began to grow — at one point having 92 stores in its portfolio — so did the talent pool. His oldest son, Steve, was the first of his sons to join the company and today, Jeff and Whitney also call The Spinx Co. home.

The Spinx Co. operates more than 65 c-stores in North and South Carolina.

"I think there was a lot of talent that came into my company in the 1980s, but I didn't have the ability to realize their strengths and give them responsibilities. I was probably stifling them," Spinks admitted.

But in 1995, he brought in Richard Phipps, a retired executive from Standard of California, who helped him put together a great team. "He played a big role in my maturation as an executive," Spinks explained. "He had been there and done that; I left the corporate world at age 25."

Jeff Spinks seems to agree, noting that his father has mellowed over the years. "When he first started in the business, he had tiger blood," he said.

That is not to say the intensity has gone away. "He is a lot calmer now, but in a lot of ways he is still the same guy," Steve Spinks explained. "He has very high energy, is fast to change things and try something new, and a little restless with keeping things the way they are."

His management style boils down to providing the best service for the customers, according to long-time employees. Linda Gysin, the CEO's executive assistant, counts her days with The Spinx Co. and Spinks back to 1979. "I will say he was very demanding and driven by his desire to provide the customer with a store that was top notch," she said. "He is exacting and his work ethic is very strong. I think he is being a bit hard on himself when he says he stifled talent."

Greg Minton, vice president of the company's real estate arm Enigma Corp., agrees with Gysin that although he is excitable, Spinks always has the customer in mind. "Now, with the great group of people he has working here, he has been able to step back from the battlefield," Minton said, adding his 15 years with the company have been wonderful. "But Stewart in his earlier days could get pretty excited. One thing he always said was 'make it right for the customer, give them what they want and we will figure out a way to make it profitable later.' That was very important."

While his name is now back at the top of all his stores, Spinks has not gone it alone. From his parents to teachers to colleagues in the oil industry, Spinks has been lucky enough to have many mentors.

"I had a lot of mentors even back in those days; teachers and coaches that took a special interest in me," Spinks remembered. "And my mom, in particular, had the most confidence in me. She was always an optimist. The day I opened my first store that I built, she drove up on the lot, April 15, 1976, and she didn't leave until she died in 1992."

His father worked two jobs, as a mechanic during the day and an orderly at a veterans' hospital in Augusta, Ga., at night. According to Spinks, his father never wanted him to help work on cars because he wanted him to go to school.

"My parents facilitated my growth, but they didn't get in the way," he said. "They let me make mistakes and let me do things. They taught me better than I applied those teachings in the '80s, but I applied those teachings in the '90s. I had courage and confidence in people. That pendulum always swings."

 
Bob Seng, the 1989 retailer inductee, inducts Spinks into the CSNews Industry Hall of Fame.

Now, it may be his time to be a mentor to the next generation of c-store executives. Jim Weber, chief marketing officer, came to Spinx from the grocery business two years ago and is looking forward to learning the business from one of its leaders.

"Stewart has a long history of knowing what to do and what not to do. He keeps people on target through his experience. He brings sage and wisdom to the table," Weber said.

So what now? Will there be another shrimp boat in Spinks' future? Maybe not a shrimp boat, but the licensed pilot and avid flyer does not rule out another airplane — he has four already.

"This business is still stimulating. I try to put myself looking into the company, keeping my hands out of it and let others do things," Spinks said. "Life is good; it is indeed. But I am like Satchel Paige, I don't want to look back because someone may be gaining on me."

All in the Family
When asked when he first entered his father's business, Jeff Spinks jokingly recounts a time when he worked behind the cash register in the third grade. While he laughed at the memory, anyone can tell you that the Spinks family puts the "family" in family business.

"The business became a part of the fabric of our life growing up," Jeff said.

Just ask his children and you will know, undoubtedly, that Stewart Spinks could not have done it without his wife Martha. "My dad was very fortunate because my mom did everything she could to help him with his dream to have a successful business," Jeff said. "She deserves just as much credit. She worked in the business, but also allowed him to work as many hours as he needed to be successful."

Steve Spinks agrees. "Growing up my dad and my mom definitely worked a lot. They built a loft above the office for my brother Jeff and I," he remembered. "And it wasn't unusual for us to go to the stores together. We would clean, sweep, bag ice and front the cooler while dad was doing paperwork or paying the bills. Looking back, it was a lot of fun, but I'm not so sure how much I enjoyed it at the time."

Steve came to work for The Spinx Co. right out of college. With a philosophy degree hanging on his wall, his plan was to eventually go to law school. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Steve liked working in the family business and is now glad the law school route never worked out.

As president of the company, Steve has some big shoes to fill. "My father is a great entrepreneur and founder," he said. "The challenge for me is not to repeat what he has done, but to help the company get to the next level, move it from an entrepreneurial company to a professional company with the entrepreneurial spirit."

Jeff and youngest son Whitney are also working to bring the family business to the next level. Jeff is a real estate specialist for the business' real estate arm, Enigma Corp., and Whitney is category manager for Spinx Fresh on the Go.

And the family connections do not stop there. Remember Charlie Paige, Stewart Spinks' first employee at his heating oil business? He had a son Eric who had a daughter named Allison. Today, Allison is known as Allison Paige Spinks, Steve's wife. The couple just celebrated the birth of their third child on Sept. 15.

With nine grandchildren, a future Spinx president may be waiting in the wings. "My eight-year-old grandson Harper comes in with a shirt and tie," Spinks said. "So I think I have some grandchildren that might want to come into the business."

But no one will ever truly replace Stewart Spinks. "I can't replace my father. He is a unique, special guy," Steve added.

By Melissa Kress       Convenience Store News