Remembering Industry Pioneer Hugh Howton

Howton was instrumental in the founding of NACS and served as NACS president in 1965. 

March 11, 2021

Hugh Howton NACS President 1965

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Hugh Howton, 1965 NACS president and a convenience store pioneer, died on Tuesday at the age of 92.

Howton founded the Pik-a-Pak Grocery Corp. in New Orleans, Louisiana, which quickly grew into 16 stores throughout the state and expanded into Mississippi, including the first convenience store in the French Quarter. 

Howton was one of 33 attendees at the first NACS annual meeting in 1961, an event that later became the NACS Show. He was instrumental in defining the course of the industry during its early years, especially related to advocacy.

While the president of NACS, Howton was the first NACS member to testify on Capitol Hill. He appeared before the U.S. Senate’s Labor Committee, which was chaired by the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, on behalf of NACS to oppose certain amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1965.

“One of the main reasons we formed NACS was also to get a political arm in Washington, D.C., because we realized that the legislative part of NACS was going to be a vital part of our industry,” Howton said in a 2008 NACS interview.

Howton also was instrumental in creating a visual “idea share” program called “Ideas, Ideas, Ideas,” which eventually evolved into the popular Ideas 2 Go video series.

“We were all interested in new store designs and in new advertising programs, or anything of that nature. The idea was a way for us to keep up with what was going on across the country. So, it was just a method of us being able to keep up with transitions in the marketplace,” he told NACS.

As the c-store business continued to grow, Howton sold his interest in Pik-a-Pak to Li’l General and served as its vice president and on the board of directors. He helped grow Li’l General to 360-plus stores and gain a place on the American Stock Exchange. Howton retired from Li’l General at age 40, although that didn’t last for long.

After moving to Jacksonville, Florida, Howton cofounded Bell Wholesale Tire Company in 1971. He actively supported military groups, including the Jax Navy League and USO, and served as president for both organizations. Howton’s civic military involvement led him to become civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army of Florida, where he received a courtesy rank of three-star general. Howton was also appointed to Governor Bob Graham’s military advisory committee, where he served for 20 years.

Missing his convenience store involvement, Howton founded the National Advisory Group (NAG) in 1983 to provide education, networking and relationship-building for convenience store executives. During the next 20 years, NAG grew to 200 supplier members and 350 retail members, representing 13,000 stores in 45 states. Howton eventually sold NAG to Penton Media (Convenience Store Decisions) on the NYSE and retired again, this time for good.

Howton was active in his Jacksonville community, serving on many boards and was a past member of Timuquana Country Club, the Florida Yacht Club, Ye Mystic Revellers, Rotary Club, the City of Jacksonville, Chamber of Commerce, Salvation Army and Morocco Shrine Temple and was a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and Meninak Club for 49 years.

“I think from the time we left the first NACS meeting [in 1961], we knew that we had done something special. All of a sudden we were meeting people that we could ask a question to that could answer the question or find someone in the group that could answer the question. I don’t think that we ever looked back,” said Howton

Howton and Fred Lowder, who served as 1966 NACS president, shared their insights on those early years in a video that NACS produced for its 50th anniversary in 2011.

Howton is survived by his wife of 65 years; daughter Leigh Philips (Mike); son Joe Howton (Robin); daughter Hope Eller (John) and six grandchildren: Ashley, Peyton, Anderson, Harper, Baker and Harlee. 

Because of COVID-19 concerns, the funeral to celebrate Hugh Howton’s life on Friday, March 19, at 3:00 p.m. will be private. However, the service will be live-streamed for viewing on the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church website. Following the service, the family will greet friends at a reception at 4:30 p.m. at Timuquana Country Club, 4028 Timuquana Road, Jacksonville FL, 32210. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to be made in Hugh’s honor to the Navy League U.S. Jacksonville Council, 4530 St. Johns Avenue, Suite 105, Box 102, Jacksonville, FL 32210, or to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 4129 Oxford Avenue, Jacksonville, FL 32210.