March 30, 2012

Spinks built business from single Greenville gas station

Launching his Spinx Oil business with one service station in 1972, he now has 64 convenience stores with gasoline islands and 750 employees. His wholesale distribution business also delivers motor fuel to more than 60 independent dealers.

Over the past 40 years, he has bought property and built and sold stores. He has sold property, primarily to drug store and fast food chains that need the same type of location that his business does. He’s bought stores, sold more and built more. And he is a partner in a totally different business, Devereaux’s restaurant in downtown Greenville.

He’s also involved in the community and has served as Greenville Chamber chairman.

The company sponsors the Spinx Charity Classic, which is donating its proceeds to six area charities this year. Since 2000, Spinx has donated more than $4 million to local charities, emphasizing children and organizations that help them.

And to celebrate 40 years in business, the company is awarding 40 $1,000 scholarships to graduating high school seniors.

Students can apply at scholarship through April 27.

Spinks, 65, is a role model for entrepreneurship, said Jill Burroughs, director of Clemson University’s Regional Small Business Development Center.

“He shows the drive,” she said. “He has become well-known. Stewart Spinks is Spinx. ”

A key to entrepreneurs is that they understand risk differently, said Greg Pickett, associate dean of Clemson at the Falls and director of the Spiro Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the MBA program. They weigh the risk versus the potential benefits of a business and have the initiative to take action.

“One of the most difficult parts of starting a business can be getting started,” he said.

“We all have the potential for being a successful entrepreneur,” he said, but not everyone has the willingness to accept the risk and hard work and perseverance to make the company grow. Those are choices that must be made.

Entrepreneurs also are innovative, said John Moore, executive vice president of the Greenville Chamber.

“There may be 10 convenience store owners, each with one store in a market. The one that grows is the one with innovation and flexibility,” he said, and that is what allowed Spinx to grow.

For example, Spinks went to self-serve gasoline early because customers liked it. He was one of the first in the area to move into fast-food franchising and then his own brand of food.

“At some point, a company has to look strategically at where it is, where the owner wants to go and how to get there,” Burroughs said, and that is when a company may become entrepreneurial. It also may be where financing has to be sought.

That “is one of the most challenging aspects of scaling up a business,” Pickett said. Statistics show that 98 percent of startups don’t go the venture capital route immediately but may come to it later.

Spinks, chairman and chief executive officer, has brought three sons into the business — Steve, the eldest son, is president; Jeff works in real estate and Whitney in foods and marketing.

To encourage his employees to think like business owners, he recently created an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, putting a portion of the company in employee ownership.

“I’m willing to share the success with all our associates,” he said. “It will attract the kind of people who will drive you crazy but make the company better.”

Building a business demands dedication, he said. But enjoying it, wanting to come to work every day, is also vital.

“I have fun with what I do,” Spinks said. “That’s one of the blessings of my life.”

Spinks said business owners need to plan. They need to understand the business, financing, staffing, growth potential and more. And as the business grows, that plan needs to be redone.

Either the owner or a financial professional must keep track of the finances and be sure financial decisions are rational.

And “you have to have a network of people to help you,” he said.

Moore agreed. “You need a network of advisers, who will tell you the truth, and a network of professional contacts. You also need a strong staff that can help you grow.”

Before Spinks became a business owner, he learned the ins and outs of the oil business and small business.

After graduating from the University of Tennessee with a degree in marketing and advertising in 1968, he interviewed with numerous companies, including Caterpillar and Shell Oil.

That was his first bout of luck. The military was drafting many young men during the Vietnam War, but he had joined the U.S. Army Reserves a year earlier and had completed his six-month active duty stint so “I could go straight to work.”

He took the job with Shell, he said, partly because his father was an automobile mechanic and he was comfortable with the oil business. While he was in Atlanta, Shell donated his services as a loaned executive to the United Way. He eventually was named the “Outstanding Loaned Executive” among the 44 executives working with the organization and garnered several job offers.

After short stints there and in Columbia, he ended up in Greenville, one of Shell’s most vibrant South Carolina markets, with responsibility for 15 dealers. He said he “really fell” for the city.

“I was a business financial counselor. The company taught me how to run a small business, and I trained the dealers. I learned to operate on a day-to-day basis, a weekly cycle, a monthly cycle and a yearly cycle,” he said, helpful knowledge when he began his business.

Still, going out on his own was scary. In fact, he initially gave up the thoughts of becoming an entrepreneur when he got a raise at Shell Oil.

He soon bought a service station at Laurens and Washington streets. For a couple of months, he ran that station before and after his regular job with Shell. That couldn’t last. He resigned from Shell in July 1972, knowing “I could feed my family with the service station.”

Then came another bout of luck. At the age of 25, he bought a retail distribution business for $50,000 — a monthly payment of $833.

He took over that business in November, just in time to handle the second seasonal wave of heating oil deliveries. Fortunately, he scraped up the money for the inventory he needed.

“When I first started, I didn’t do much but pay the bills,” he said. But keeping a close eye on his finances quickly gave him room to grow.

Luck struck again in 1973 when gasoline was scarce and oil companies had to allocate supplies. While a dip in supply doesn’t seem lucky, he was a retail distributor, and the major oil companies were mandated to serve even their small customers. He had trucks small enough to handle the loads to those businesses.

As the entire industry changed, he changed with it, he said. As the industry moved to self-serve, he went along, building his first convenience store in 1976 — a BoJo on Poinsett Highway. Also, he convinced Shell to make him a commercial jobber.

Spinks soon tore down the service station on Washington Street and rebuilt it as a convenience store. That was when he re-branded it as Spinx with a logo based on the Egyptian sphinx.

He began adding stores because he saw “an unmet need. I saw what the consumer embraced,” he said. And the former football player said competition played a part, too: “If I don’t do it, somebody will beat me to it.”

“You need to have the desire to grow bigger,” Moore said.

Spinks was pleased with the growth — the company had his name “even if it was misspelled,” he said. “I looked modern. I was modern. I stood out. It was a bad time economically. Somebody doing something really stood out.”

Initially he had little competition for real estate. By 1981, he had 11 stores. A few years later, the market was changing again, moving toward branded gas. His research found that Amoco was the most profitable gasoline. So he partnered with that company, converting 11 stores and selling four.

“I paid off all I owed everybody” with that sale, he said.

It wasn’t all easy, he said. “I hit the wall a couple of times, and I sold stores.”

In 1989, he sold 11 stores and took a year off for family reasons. He bought a house at Ocean Isle, N.C., and spent a year shrimping. However, he didn’t close the business, with its five stores, but left it in the care of close associates.

After a year, he returned and soon his son Steve joined the business. Eventually he bought a business with 18 stores, half of them in North Carolina.

That’s when he realized he couldn’t continue the same way.

“I would get to where I couldn’t handle it, and I’d have to sell,” he said. But “I had to break through and find ways to hire talented employees. When you double the size of the company, you have to bring in professional management.”

“You reach a certain level, and you need new skills,” Moore said. “You’ve got to learn to be a manager.”

All small business owners are entrepreneurs, Pickett said. Some build high impact, quickly growing businesses that are scalable and create significant revenues and jobs.

“When we think about entrepreneurs, we should not think just about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. That can create a barrier to action,” Pickett said.