The remodeling investment signals a new approach for Break Time, which celebrates 30 years in business this year. The company is part of MFA Oil, a farmer-owned cooperative based out of Columbia, Mo., that mainly serves rural areas. Likewise, most of Break Time’s 75 locations are in smaller, rural communities and, with the exception of one store in Arkansas, all are in the state of Missouri.
MFA Oil is looking to grow into larger markets and in November 2014 hired Chaney to oversee their Break Time chain. With 30 years of experience in the convenience store industry, Chaney previously served as the vice president and COO of Tri-Star Marketing, which operated 55 Super Pantry stores in Illinois and Indiana.
Fresh Look For Retail
Upon joining the company, Chaney found Break Time had a nice range of stores, but many had not been upgraded or remodeled in 20 years. “We started by identifying stores that needed a refresh to bring them up to our current design standards,” he says. A couple of locations that were limited by space constraints were earmarked for closing and 12 others were tagged for a facelift to invigorate sales.
The first area of attack was the food and drink offerings. Many of the remodeled stores expanded from 12 to 20 fountainheads and added a full complement of teas. Coffee and cappuccino equipment was replaced to offer more variety. Some stores received larger roller grills and new deli merchandisers to expand food offerings.
One store in Holden, Mo., which Break Time purchased last year, needed a bit more than a refresh. The company gutted its entire interior, including floor and ceiling. In addition to expanded fountain, coffee, and roller grill—they were able to add Krispy Krunchy Chicken to their hot food program and a large beer cave. In 2016, Break Time plans foodservice upgrades to another six stores and will raze and rebuild two other locations.
A brand new location is also planned for 2016; a concept that could become the blueprint for all future Break Time locations. The company purchased land to construct a 5,000-square-foot store in Lee’s Summit a southeastern suburb of Kansas City, Mo. The store will feature 10 fuel pumps and a car wash. Plans for the interior include a more open floor plan with food service at the center of everything.
Chaney says the Lee’s Summit location will blend what Break Time already does well with his experience in the convenience store industry. The layout will have an inviting design that gives consumers options on where to go. The beer cave will have automatic doors to make it easier for customers to handle products. The food will be positioned closer to the checkout to allow staff to be cross-trained to work both the register and foodservice, improving efficiency.
Break Time is currently in the process of redefining their brand and finding ways to give their stores a more contemporary look. The brand has been represented by the same red and white logo for the past 20 years or so. The company is in the process of developing new strategies for its brand and how it will be represented going into the future. “The small, rural markets are what we are built upon and we want to maintain our focus in those communities. But to be competitive, we have to find ways to appeal to a broader customer base,” Chaney explains.
Foodservice will be an increasingly important component as Break Time looks to improve its existing stores and build new ones. Supporting that segment of the business requires people with experience in the food industry. Break Time is in the process of recruiting a food service professional to take its commissary and other food programs to the next level. “We really want someone who is focused solely on foodservice and can drive future decisions in this area of the business,” Chaney says.
The company is also developing a loyalty program that will reward customers at not only Break Time stores, but at MFA Oil-owned Jiffy Lube and Big O Tires franchises.
Attention to Retention
But what good is investing in stores if there are no employees to run them? After years of battling turnover issues, Break Time instituted several initiatives to improve staff retention in 2015. The first waves of those efforts were simple yet meaningful ways to make the stores a better place to work. The company now allows smoke breaks, provides free uniforms and gives employees free fountain drinks. Already, Break Time is seeing a difference in employee retention. The company’s turnover rate decreased by 22 percent from December 2014 to July 2015.
In six months, the company has already seen promising improvements but its most significant retention initiative began only this past summer. Break Time conducted a wage survey in all of its markets, comparing its employees’ earnings to those at competing convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. The study showed where Break Time should increase pay and the company further instituted step wage increases to reward longer-serving staff members. Chaney says the wage adjustments resulted in a pay increase for 90 percent of hourly workers. “We had some employees getting a wage increase of more than $2 per hour,” he adds.
The implementation of the pay increase was too recent to know the impact, but the company expects it will further improve retention efforts. Already, Chaney has noticed a rise in store sales and credits that in part to declining turnover.
When employees stick around longer, they better understand the company’s programs, Chaney says. Break Time is capitalizing on its retention efforts by improving training programs. Committees comprised of Break Time’s regional managers and district supervisor collaborated on developing a new training process and updating the company’s training checklist.
Under the new philosophy, employees receive more cross-training and processes were streamlined to free up time for sales associates and managers to spend more of their day interacting with customers. Further, the company now has processes in place to verify that training was completed correctly and to retrain staff if necessary.
“Once you give employees training, they are more comfortable there,” Chaney says. “They’re more apt to stay a little longer and they’re apt to run your programs how you want them to be run.”
One of Break Time’s goals is to put employees’ talents to better use. The company tries to avoid micromanaging and instead empowers staff to make decisions. Chaney points out that no one can write a policy manual that resolves every situation, so Break Time wants its people to have the confidence to handle the day-to-day issues that might arise.
“In retail, there are a lot of gray areas,” Chaney says. “And we need to give those people guidance in the black and white areas so that when those gray areas arise, they are equipped and empowered to make smart decisions.”
With the right initiatives in place, Break Time believes it is ready for the challenge of higher-volume suburban areas. The company’s next goal is to have 100 quality stores. This includes not just new locations but bringing their current locations up to a higher standard. “We want to better serve our current customers but also expand into new markets,” Chaney explains. With a defined growth strategy, Break Time is positioned for new levels of success in its next 30 years.