The convenience store industry in Canada is growing. Many reports say it’s thriving. At the heart of this success is an ability to anticipate and address changing consumer demands. The innovation, energy and expertise needed to stay ahead of the curve are exemplified in the women you are about to meet.
We put the call out for nominations for our first Star Women In Convenience awards and were overwhelmed by the response and the numbers of talented women in the industry. Out of these an industry panel selected the 11 extraordinary women you are about to meet.
These c-store leaders represent what is best about the industry today: a passion for customer service, an uncanny marketing savvy, a penchant for partnerships. And there is an unequivocal commitment to giving back – to the profession, to staff, to customers, to community. These women are not c-store leaders by default; they are here because they want to be and because they want to make a difference.
That is exactly what they’ve done. One nominator notes his company’s six c-stores would not exist without this one individual. Another states sales have climbed 40% in five years solely thanks to his nominee.
Clearly achievements are second nature to these exceptional individuals. Convenience Store News Canada is honoured to recognize those achievements – and the women who have changed the face of the c-store industry in this country.
Meet the 2018 Star Women in Convenience:
Fortune Benzaquen Bitton: Owner, Boutique des Îles
Fortune Benzaquen Bitton has an uncanny ability to see a need – and meet it. In 1970, she and her husband opened convenience stores in a place no one else had considered: subway stations. “[They] were visionaries in locating convenience stores where convenience items were greatly needed,” says Maxime Bitton. As innovative as the idea was, execution was no easy feat. Construction and planning of the atrium-style convenience store Boutique des Îles in 1980 at Montreal’s Jean-Drapeau metro station, one of three stations on the metro’s yellow line that connects the centre of the city to the city of Longueuil on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, required ongoing and extensive negotiations with the public transit commission. Business plans were submitted and a viability study conducted to demonstrate the value of a convenience store to serve the popular recreation destination and the 400,000 users of the Longueuil line who pass through it. Fortune's ability to see ahead on a business track also extends to launching ethnic products, replacing candy with healthy products, providing fresh sandwiches made onsite, and entering into partnerships with such events as Weekends du Monde.
Darla Clinton: Category Manager, Federated Co-operatives Limited
Darla Clinton has played a key role in the development and execution of Co-op Convenience Store’s strategy for growth of its more than 350 stores in Western Canada. As category manager, she ensures product mix and service offerings are sharp, merchandising rollouts are smooth, and marketing initiatives are on trend. Central to Darla’s success is her strong belief that collaboration with vendors drives better results – as demonstrated by the company’s 5% year-over-year growth. Darla keeps the lines of communication open with top vendors so everyone understands results and insights can transform into promotions that drive performance for everyone. By focusing on speed-to-market strategies for vendor innovation, Darla makes certain new products are on the floor and promoted as soon as they are launched. She also played a key role in the development of the design for the next generation Co-op Convenience stores now being built. A top priority: ensuring the design reflected objectives for the new c-stores. This included a more inviting shopping experience for women and millennials while not alienating core customers plus focusing on fresh and healthy offerings while making high-margin areas such as the beverage counter a store destination.
Debbie Despres: Owner, Double D Gas Bar Limited
Going above and beyond is second nature to Debbie Despres – whether it’s meeting the needs of customers or offering employees a helping hand. Indeed, Debbie is a true friend and support to those who work for her. When one of her staff, for example, was going through a hard time financially with a vehicle that had broken down, Debbie loaned a car to use until that person's fortunes improved. She has also has befriended customers and invited them to her trailer in the summer so she can get to know them on a deeper level. Debbie also willingly shares what she has learned after 25 years in the c-store business as a representative of Esso and, most recently, Circle K. She mentors new Canadians making their foray into the convenience and gas bar industry. With Debbie’s assistance, they are better able to navigate many of the complicated laws, policies and procedures c-stores must comply with in areas such as human resources, lottery sales, and tobacco merchandising. And she does it all with a smile. Customers, staff and suppliers always feel welcome at Double D.
Rupi Dhir: Manager, Hollywood Market and Deli
Five years ago, Manik Dhir purchased a declining c-store business in Kelowna, B.C. that need to be reinvigorated, revamped and re-energized. Thanks to Rupi Dhir, that store is now thriving. Rupi has been instrumental in implementing processes and procedures that have not only added to the bottom line, but have also helped enhance the customer experience for shoppers. The impact of Rupi’s ideas and innovation is significant. She has personally grown the business 40% since the store’s doors re-opened in 2013. At that time, there was one employee. Today, there are seven. “In an industry that’s constantly evolving, I’m constantly impressed with her management techniques to ensure the business is profitable while delivering the best customer experience to anyone that walks through the doors,” says Manik. Rupi is also focused on improving the convenience store sector. She is a leader in the industry who is always looking to collaborate. Indeed, Rupi believes collaboration among business owners and managers is at the heart of the industry’s success today – and tomorrow.
Nancy Emond: Owner-President, Dépanneur St-Sophie
For Nancy Emond, great things come in threes. She has purchased and successfully run three convenience stores in Quebec. As a hands-on owner, Nancy has personally overseen staffing and purchasing. She also set up all the computer systems for ordering, suppliers, and staff. The results: higher-than-industry increases. Nancy’s success is noteworthy. Building three thriving businesses required the c-store owner to turn three struggling businesses around. Technology was a major asset in the transformation. Nancy fully utilizes computerized management systems to enhance efficiency and effectiveness of her stores’ operations. But for her, running a convenience store is ultimately about people. She strives to optimize staffing, find new ideas for customers, make store visits more enjoyable, and build loyalty. “Nancy is a born entrepreneur and a senior manager. She knows how to motivate her teams and excels at managing difficult employees. Her ethics and professionalism are matched only by [her] sense of organization and innovation,” says Karine Halle, a client.
Cheryl Magnuson: Market Manager, Manitoba & Saskatchewan, 7-Eleven Canada
Cheryl Magnuson joined 7-Eleven in 1986 as a part-time employee. Before she knew it, her job had become a career. In 2016, Cheryl was promoted to market manager responsible for more than 70 stores from Vancouver Island to Squamish, B.C. She led the integration of newly acquired Esso stores within this diverse market. With a laser focus on customer service, training, and the strong belief that it "can be done,” Cheryl drove her market to achieve all targets – and she ensured that the staff of the newly acquired stores were brought on board and made to feel a central part of the team. Now Cheryl has taken on responsibility for the single largest geographic market in North America. Based out of Saskatoon, she oversees 7-Eleven’s operations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as individual stores from Alberta and Ontario. Cheryl’s tireless lobbying efforts have also resulted in the temporary renaming of a section of Rouge Road in Winnipeg to “Slurpee Way” in honour of the 91st birthday of the Slurpee and to celebrate the city’s 17th consecutive win as the Slurpee Capital of the World.
Janet McLeod: Manager, Wilson Fuels
Janet McLeod’s career path has been sure, steady and successful. Today, Janet manages the Go! Store brand at the 77 convenience stores throughout Atlantic Canada operated by Wilsons Gas Stops. It’s a far cry from her first job with the company: as a frontline cashier. While working full time in the office, Janet attended university and completed her business degree. After successive promotions, she combined her expertise in the field and at head office to create and manage Wilson’s first merchandise marketing team. Under Janet’s leadership, the merchandising department was established and grew from two to six people working as a collaborative team. The success of the department has further helped grow the retail chain. “Janet recognizes the importance of a team that is multidimensional, able to work independently and together for the better of the business,” says Steve Dunne, president of the Dunne Group. She also believes in giving back. Janet identified that C-Store Day, an industry event and fundraiser for the Children's Wish Foundation, was an important way for her company to contribute to the community. As a result, Wilsons became the first corporate chain to enlist all their stores in the event.
Marivic Nicolas: General Manager, PetroJaffer 116 Inc.
Marivic Nicolas is the quintessential self-starter who has worked her way up through the convenience store sector to her current executive position. She has learned, shared and put into practice knowledge in merchandising, managing people, and operating efficiently, safely and profitably. As a result, there is rarely a month where the mystery shopper scores for PetroJaffer, which comprises six Husky gas stations in the Edmonton area, are not above 90%. “She alone is the reason that we continue in this business,” says Vice President Alim Somji. “She inspires confidence in her staff, grows strong leaders and has improved the lives of many – including ourselves – in this business.”
Marivic has taken the company’s fuel operations, for example, from a single unit, 1,000 sq. ft. convenience store with $2 million in break-even sales to eight stations doing a profit-making $14 million in combined revenue. As the independent manager for the Jaffer company’s retail division, responsible for operations, management and merchandising, Marivic has maintained an exceptional record of safety, cleanliness and audit scores.
Marie-Noël Paré: Owner of several convenience stores, Les Dépanneurs du Groupe Paré
Marie-Noël Paré is an entrepreneur at heart. As a young woman, she worked in her parent’s convenience store. At 20 years of age, she opened her first business. Today she is the co-owner of Les Dépanneurs du Groupe Paré, with 13 locations across Quebec. Marie-Noël also opened the first IGA express in the province. A cross between a supermarket, convenience store, and a fast food restaurant, the mini IGA – paired with a Shell service station – is designed to appeal to customers on the go. The "Table ready in 20" section, for example, offers up meals to make at home in less than 20 minutes, with all the ingredients right at the customers' fingertips. Anticipating and meeting customers’ needs is what drives Marie-Noël. She believes convenience stores are here to stay and that they create connections between people in a community. For Marie-Noël, convenience stores are a gathering place, as general stores were in times past, and she runs her businesses with this image in mind, creating a welcoming atmosphere one convenience store at a time.
Karen Weldman: Vice President Development - Express, Country Style, a Division of MTY Group
Karen Weldman has worked tirelessly for more than a decade implementing Country Style's branded foodservice programs in convenience stores and gas stations across Canada. As a result of her efforts, the Express Division of Country Style has grown to approximately 300 locations. Karen has also been instrumental in creating an innovative kiosk concept, including the Country Style MR.SUB Express, that ensures an owner has branded food and beverage items available all day to help hit maximum sales potential. Thanks in large part to Karen’s ideas and energy, Country Style programs are now available across the country and the number of locations has grown to approximately 300. Understanding that convenience stores are challenged to establish a point of difference to compete successfully, Karen works closely with store owners to improve their business. She helps them to realize that while a coffee or foodservice program can be an important business asset, it is not a magic bullet. The basics – physical environment and customer service – are critical.
Denise Wilson: Co-owner, Burk’s Falls Kwik-Way
Denise Wilson has almost three decades of experience in the convenience store business. Six years ago Denise and her husband invested in and purchased their own c-store. Since then she has run and managed Burk’s Falls Kwik-Way, roughly 265 kilometres (165 miles) north of Toronto. Innovation and openness have defined Denise’s approach to product selection. She’s always willing to give new ideas and new merchandise a try. Last year, for example, Denise noticed a dip in sales so she brought in a quick service restaurant to attract new customers, increase sales and diversify the store’s offerings. A small Sub Bros. outlet is now dishing up its popular applewood hickory pulled pork subs to a growing line of customers – and helping enhance store sales. This innovation is the first of many Denise has introduced – or earned. She received one of the first lottery machines in Northern Muskoka, which were based on sales at that time. Denise was also one of the first to offer debit card payment, cellphone cards, and provide an ATM – all for the convenience of customers. Now she is exploring use of a POS system to better manage inventory.