When asked to briefly summarize her experience as the 2019-2020 NACS chair, Julie Jackowski didn't have to pause to think.
"Totally unpredictable," she told Convenience Store News (CSNC's U.S. sister publication) with a laugh. "That's probably the biggest word."
While the position traditionally comes with a busy schedule full of outreach, advocacy and organizational duties, Jackowski faced a new level of challenge this spring when the coronavirus pandemic prompted widespread business closures and stay-at-home orders. Not only did the convenience store industry have to balance the safety of its employees and customers with the need to serve communities, but NACS itself also had to find new ways to support its thousands of retailer and supplier members.
"A lot of it is in-person events," Jackowski said, recalling the sudden need to reinvent how she could fulfill her responsibilities as chair of the association while working from home.
She admits that it was disappointing at first, as she looked forward to seeing people and networking, but she soon found the value that Zoom calls and virtual meetings can bring. The lack of associated travel time opened up space on her calendar, and digital events gave her the opportunity to connect with members of the industry who might not have attended the face-to-face events.
"I realized there's a different way to serve," she said. "I probably met with more people virtually than I would have in person."
A CHANGE OF PLANS
2020 doesn't mark the first unexpected change in Jackowski's career. As a lawyer who focused on employment law due to her desire to help people, she had no connection to the c-store industry before a partner at her firm alerted her to an opportunity at Casey's General Stores Inc. Today, she serves as chief legal officer and secretary of the Ankeny, Iowa-based chain.
"I didn't grow up in the industry," Jackowski said at the closing general session of the 2019 NACS Show in Atlanta. "I didn't seek out the industry, and somehow it found me."
The first few months of her time as chair proceeded normally, with the NACS Show serving as the kickoff for Jackowski and other NACS leaders to coordinate larger projects for the year to come. When COVID-19 hit, the focus shifted to how they could best serve the needs of NACS members and ensure that the industry's smaller retailers and entrepreneurs had the resources they would need to survive and thrive.
"We did a lot of government outreach," she said, describing "countless" meetings with senators and congressional representatives. Jackowski cites the designation of convenience stores as essential businesses, along with other COVID-related legislation such as the CARES Act, as particularly important achievements during her term.
While the c-store industry might not be the first retail segment to come to mind for many people when they're asked to name essential businesses, Jackowski views it as a case of layered support. Hospitals and health care clinics need to stay open to support their communities as they fight COVID-19, and c-stores and other businesses support the health care workers who keep those facilities open by helping fulfill their needs.
While some consumers are already aware that c-stores can be more than a place to make an impulse buy — particularly those who live in areas where the closest grocery store isn't just around the corner — she believes the pandemic has opened the eyes of many more consumers.
"What is this industry all about?" she asked. "It's not just about selling candy bars and cans of pop."
ALL ABOUT ADAPTABILITY
Jackowski credits the "fabulous" NACS government relations team, as well as the other teams and committees she works with, for getting so much done during this unprecedented crisis. She participates in multiple NACS committees in addition to her work as chair.
The move to virtual meetings required the NACS Political Action Committee to take a new approach to fundraising. At the same time, the coronavirus crisis provided a clear example of how NACS can represent and advocate for the c-store industry.
"All the work we've done regarding COVID, it did shine a light on that particular service we bring through membership," Jackowski said.
While she points to the advocacy and government relations work as the accomplishment she is most proud of during her year as NACS chair, that pride is related just as much to how things were done as it is to the end result.
"Accomplishments are really just being adaptable," she said. "Adaptability is really the key to everything."
A willingness to adapt and be flexible will continue to be useful in an industry that is seeing significant change on multiple levels, Jackowski noted. Over the next five years, she expects the competitive space to shift through further consolidation as large chains acquire smaller ones. She also believes that advances in technology and the digital space will keep moving forward, pushing c-store operators to keep up.
On the foodservice side, she believes that many c-stores will continue to develop a more quick-service restaurant type feel through the expansion of fresh food offerings.
When asked what advice she has for future NACS chairs, Jackowski emphasized a similar willingness to adjust and meet NACS members' needs in new ways.
"Just as our businesses have worked to adapt to a changing retail environment, those in leadership roles must also adapt their ways of doing things to meet the needs of those we serve," Jackowski said. "Knowing that social distancing restrictions will likely remain for some time, it is imperative that we continue to network through virtual conferencing, placing more emphasis on governmental advocacy, and ensuring that we truly listen and respond to the needs of our members through a more individualized approach to communications."
While restrictions related to the pandemic may be inconvenient, they also open the door to try new things that may turn out to be equally effective, according to the outgoing chair.
"Whether in person or virtually, the chair must focus on representing the industry, bringing industry issues to the forefront, and connecting with members," she said. "Be creative in your approach to provide ways for our members to connect with you and with one another, whether that is through in-person collaboration, small group virtual meetings on topical issues, or just having a socially distanced happy hour for people to reconnect and laugh.
"The time goes by quickly," Jackowski continued. "Enjoy having that brief time to lead the best industry family there is with people who, while competitive, are sincere, kind and support one another so that we can collectively best serve our communities."