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A Different Kind of Recruit

Military values paired with the right corporate culture can be a winning combo for both veterans and retailers.

​By Debby Garbato

The 2001 movie “Black Hawk Down” tells the true story of a 1993 failed Somalia mission and the U.S. Army’s steadfast commitment to never leave a soldier behind— even at the risk of life and limb for everyone involved.

While many enlisted people never experience those kinds of combat horrors, the concepts of trust, teamwork and never giving up are still entrenched in the minds of all military personnel—regardless of the task. For retailers that can emulate these values, hiring veterans can be a win-win for all.

“Former enlisted candidates are disciplined and bring core values, like leadership, duty, respect, selfless service, honor and integrity,” said Phil Hall, vice president of human resources and training at Speedway. “They are also adaptable, have a sense of urgency and can make decisions under pressure.”

Veterans are integral to Speedway’s growth plan: Following the $2.8 billion acquisition of Hess Holdings, the company doubled in size and now requires a larger workforce. Today, Speedway employs 500 veterans and hopes to hire many more.

Core military-type values are also important at Tulsa, Oklahoma-based QuikTrip. Loyalty is so high that full-time, store-level turnover is just 11%, said Mike Thornbrugh, spokesperson for the company. QuikTrip likes to promote from within: 90% of vice presidents began their careers at store level, including veterans. “But there are exceptions where we hire outside,” Thornbrugh added. Regardless of background, though, “fitting [into] corporate culture is the first thing.”

One of QuikTrip’s “exceptions” came three years ago when it recruited a veteran with advanced security systems credentials. “We were developing a new store design, so timing was perfect,” Thornbrugh said. “He knew way more than we did” about how best to secure our stores.

Like the security expert, veterans often have white or blue collar skills that are applicable to retail. Somebody who operated a tank may drive a tractor trailer. Hall said many veterans also have experience in logistics, IT, supply chain, project management and engineering, “to name a few.” Other areas include foodservice, fuel pump repair, fuel transport and even retail merchandising (including grocery and convenience stores).

Translating Experience
Despite correlations, some companies are just not aware of all the job functions and expertise inherent to the military. For starters, it is the world’s largest distributor of everything from food and weapons to building materials and trucks. This is so paramount that the Army operates the Army Logistics University (ALU) in Fort Lee, Virginia, to provide military and DOD logistics leader education.

But even when skills match, many military titles are non-existent in corporate America, leading to unemployment or underemployment. “Challenges veterans face are a corporation’s inability to understand and translate the skills of military service into a meaningful private sector role,” said Robert M. Gates, former Defense Secretary and a Starbucks board member. “Veterans and military spouses represent one of the most underutilized talent pools.” Gates’ comments followed Starbucks’ 2013 announcement that it would hire 10,000 vets and their family members over the next five years.

Haskel Thompson, president of Fort Myers, Florida- based Haskel Thompson and Associates, believes in matching backgrounds, not titles, particularly with veterans. Sometimes, human resource managers impede this process. “They discuss what the job is rather than what objectives they’re hiring for. Usually, the job description is a wonderful wish list that doesn’t really work,” Thompson said. His firm recruits convenience store and petroleum industry executives. Speedway understands this. “It’s not about title; it’s about determining the skill set, experience and ability,” Hall said. “A company may not need an electronic warfare technician.

But they may want somebody skilled in maintaining computer-controlled electronic equipment.” Knoxville, Tennessee-based Pilot Flying J’s approach is similar. Dave Parmly, employee services manager, said most skills translate, regardless of title. “We take veterans as they are and try to match opportunities with what they’re looking for. Unless your experience was highly specialized, we can likely leverage it.”

Thompson, a recruiter for 40 years who also worked in the c-store industry, rewrites job descriptions and travels to meet with the supervisors of prospective employees—not with HR departments. “We require candidates to take the job description—what we call a red line—and describe in spades how they could do it. It’s very effective.”

Thompson applauds Utah-based retailer Maverik, which efficiently matches skills to mindsets. Its most profitable store is run by a veteran with no retail background whatsoever (see “A Soldier’s Story” sidebar). But he has excellent management skills, is attentive to detail and is goal-oriented in a team setting. He understands efficiency, which is crucial in an environment where merchandise constantly flows. “He draws against so many disciplines with his military background,” said Bob York, executive director of employment adventure at Maverik. “And he was interested in retail. It was kind of a marriage of the two.”

Another retailer, Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s, believes that one way to match competencies was to place a veteran in its HR office. A military helicopter pilot with the Iowa Army National Guard, he was also a recruiting specialist in Iraq.

“We felt this was very important in our efforts to conduct outreach, interpret military resumes and relate experiences back to open positions and understand the transition process for those leaving the military,” said Casey’s Human Resources Director Cindi Summers. Of the retailer’s 34,000 employees across 14 states, almost 1,000 are veterans.

Other chains also employ veterans in human resources. Bob Graczyk, vice president of human resources at QuickChek, is a former Navy Commander. “It’s a great example,” Thompson said. “He recruits from West Point. People [he hires] have tenure and stay until retirement.”
In other instances, veterans founded or head the company and dictate corporate culture, emulating military values. This is true at Casey’s, 7-Eleven, Pilot Flying J and QuikTrip (see sidebar). “It’s an instinct that carries over and tends to attract veterans,” Thompson said.

Veterans Programs
Some retailers use government, nonprofit or other programs to find qualified veterans—and help veterans find them. Like many people, some veterans’ only familiarity with retail comes from their shopping experiences. “The myth is that c-stores just run cash registers all day,” Thornbrugh said. “[But] we need all kinds of expertise.”

One popular initiative is the Army Partnership for Youth Success (Army PaYS). Under this Army-run program, retailers guarantee job interviews to any future soldier who selects that company as his or her PaYS partner at enlistment time. PaYS involves 500 companies, including Speedway, Sheetz and Casey’s. “PaYS provides the opportunity for soldiers to serve their country and prepare for the future,” Hall said.

7-Eleven and Walmart each contribute more than $500,000 annually (raised through fundraisers) to Hire Heroes USA, which employs former military and business professionals to teach veterans self- marketing. A highly trained staff supports job searches and helps veterans overcome hiring obstacles. Hire Heroes also runs workshops and connects candidates with veteran-friendly companies.

Kroger, another Hire Heroes supporter, has recruited more than 29,000 veterans since 2009. Kroger also helps the USO through Honoring Our Heroes. Through in-store and online activities, Kroger has raised more than $11.9 million since 2010.

Retailers also work with local organizations to find and hire veterans In several states, Maverik partners with Workforce Service, a state employment agency that works with the military, York said. Casey’s has hired many veterans through Home Base Iowa, another state-run recruiting operation, Summers added.

Pilot Flying J is a member and financial supporter of the Tennessee Veterans Business Association and participates in its job fairs. The association provides business development assistance, networking opportunities and employment services. The retailer also supports and recruits at VET JOB, a job fair hosted on military bases, Parmly said.

QuikTrip and the nonprofit Folds of Honor have sponsored NASCAR for five years. Through fan donations, they provide educational opportunities for deceased and injured soldiers’ families, Thornbrugh said. The initiative grows stronger every year.

When retailers choose veterans, most say they gain a sense of “giving back.” This is particularly true at Casey’s, which recruits many veterans and openly acknowledges their efforts at store level, via charities and by displaying a huge flag at headquarters around Veterans Day. Casey’s believes supporting veterans gives consumers a good feeling about the chain.

“We simply have a soft spot in our hearts and utmost respect for anyone who has served our country,” Summers said. “Members of our community see the Casey’s brand and know we’re committed to veterans, which may be a natural draw for those who come work for us.

Debby Garbato, the former chief editor of several publications, is an independent business journalist and research report analyst who has covered retail for 25 years. She can be reached at dgarbatocheers@aol.com.