E-Z Mart Pursuing Upgrades to Stores, Products

Sonja Hubbard describes herself as a “fixer.” And as a fixer, the CEO of E-Z Mart Inc. is searching for just the right mix of products and services for the company’s 302 convenience stores.

“Whatever the convenience needs of the consuming public is what obviously is going to be our goal and driver and mission to fulfill,” she said.

Growing up the daughter of company founder Jim Yates, Hubbard learned her father’s lessons. One of those: “He wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Combining her father’s tenacity with her drive to make things work means Hubbard pushes through obstacles to find solutions. That trait has helped E-Z Mart grow from a $574.2 million enterprise in 2004 to one reporting more than $1 billion in 2013.

Although 2013 revenue was a slim decline of 1.4 percent compared with 2012 numbers, Hubbard said 2014 is looking bright.

The last couple of years have been “kind of static,” but this year has started well and “I’m encouraged,” she said, rapping the wooden conference table in her office at company headquarters in Texarkana, Texas.

E-Z Mart, No. 8 on this year’s list of 75 largest private companies in Arkansas, is in the midst of a companywide renovation of its stores, upgrades that involve not only the buildings but also the stores’ offerings.

“We’re still searching for that perfect design,” Hubbard said. “It seems every one we do we go in and we tweak it and we amend it. But I think we’re getting real close” to finding the perfect formula.

Helping E-Z Mart find that perfect design is the Little Rock architectural firm of Williams & Dean, which she praises for its efforts in developing a “more impactful” design.

E-Z Mart, which has stores in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, was founded by Yates in 1970. Hubbard is proud of the company’s history but she’s also looking out for its future.

“We just yesterday finished a loan agreement to allow us to expedite some of our upgrades, because we’ve been doing it all on cash flow,” she said. “We’ve poured all the free cash flow for at least the last 15 years back into the company and have got now to the point I would say a good third of our stores — maybe half — are close to where we want them.”

E-Z Mart has experimented with offering healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, but the company has had mixed results. What people say they want and what they actually buy are often two different things. And the competition for the convenience store dollar is stiff.

“Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think it’s beginning to catch on,” she said of healthier food choices. Campaigns emphasizing better food choices will take at least a decade to have much effect, Hubbard said.

In addition, “I think people still have a little bit of a hangup about gas station food,” she said. “And sometimes, depending on how we execute it, we give them just cause to feel like that.”

The company seeks to set itself apart also in its amenities, including clean restrooms, and Hubbard proudly cited E-Z Mart’s recognition last year from CSPnet.com, an online industry publication, for having the cleanest restrooms among eight convenience store chains in the United States.

“We’re still finding our way,” Hubbard said. “I guess that’s part of what’s fun about this business. It never gets old because you’re always learning something new.”

Hubbard does convey a sense of fun, a sense of genuinely enjoying the business that also employs her husband, Bob, as chief operating officer, and her sister, Stacy, as chief financial officer.

The reason for the store renovations is financial. Hubbard, an animated woman who talks and thinks fast, said E-Z Mart is dealing with ever higher operating costs. And “there’s only so much you can do to minimize it,” she said. Trimming expenses isn’t enough to compensate. “You also have to earn some revenue. So we need to generate more sales and more volume.”

Government regulations cost her company money, Hubbard said. But there are other factors.

“The United States is a very competitive environment,” she said. “We can blame and thank Wal-Mart, both, for having made so many categories competitive.” Margins are thin “so we have to have more revenue to make a store work than we used to.”

Despite the challenges, E-Z Mart, after time spent consolidating its stores, is back in growth mode, Hubbard said.

After a Tragedy

Hubbard took the helm of E-Z Mart after her father died in a plane crash in 1998. She was 37 and though her ascension was part of the plan, it came early, unexpectedly and hard.

She second-guessed herself for a while, trying to channel her father. Eventually, she realized that doing things differently, reaching different decisions was not just acceptable; it was necessary.

“Now, I actually look back over [those early years] and go, it’s OK. We’re different. Different people. Different times. I think you have to evolve to the point that you can do that to really be effective.”

In addition, the company was in the middle of some big changes when Jim Yates died.

“We had two large acquisitions that included a lot of leverage,” Hubbard said. “At the same time, things economically turned down nationwide. And we went through a very difficult time.”

She knew that E-Z Mart had to close stores, a lot of stores, or the company faced disaster. It went from more than 500 locations to its current level of about 300.

Hubbard is proud of her decision-making — now. “If I had anything to do over, I would have done that faster.”

She is still learning. Hubbard is a fixer who knows she can’t fix everything. “Sometimes I try too hard,” she said. Some fights are futile. “The trick is knowing when to quit and when to carry on. Learning to ‘succeed sooner by failing faster’ is something I continue to learn.”

Although Hubbard’s 27-year-old daughter has no plans to join the business, Stacy’s children have expressed interest. Hubbard’s 19-year-old niece and 14-year-old nephew have their eyes on a future at E-Z Mart, and Hubbard thinks there’s talent and appreciation in the third generation. They understand the struggle.

But that’s some time off. For now, Hubbard loves her job, and she admires her employees. “It’s just amazing, how much they care,” she said. “I love them not knowing who I am and hearing them talk to their customers and call them by name.”

“They renew my energy for what I do.”