By Sara Counihan
ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Convenience stores are community stores, and when the war in Ukraine began, Circle K Europe moved to support its teams, operations and community members in Eastern and Central Europe.
“Things have changed radically over the last number of months since the war broke out in Ukraine on the February 24,” said Niall Anderton, senior vice president operations for Central Eastern Europe and Ireland for Circle K, on this week’s NACS Convenience Matters podcast episode.
Circle K has more than 15,000 stores across the world, and in Eastern Europe, there are about 600 stores, primarily in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The company has 6,500 team members in those countries.
Circle K also had small operations in Russia—38 locations with 350 employees—and the company made the decision on March 7 to suspend its business in Russia, but exiting the country has been a challenge, according to Anderton.
“The Russian population were told this was a special operation, so the word ‘war’ was not allowed to be used,” he said. “So, when we announced to our team that we were suspending operations in Russia, we were finding it very hard to actually announce that to them.”
Anderton said that they couldn’t get a Russian translator to communicate to them. The company had to use a third-party translator based in Belgium because of the difficulties in acknowledging the war.
The market most impacted for Circle K was Poland. One reason was because of miscommunication—a message coming out of Poland was that there wasn’t going to be any fuel. So within 24 hours, half of the company’s Polish stores had run out of fuel. However, this stemmed from panic buying, Anderton said, as the refineries were still fully stocked.
There were also 3 million Ukrainian refugees coming across the border into Poland, and there were initiatives that Circle K implemented to help. Many Circle K employees currently have refugees living with them, Anderton said. The company also gave refugees SIM cards for cellphones at the border so they could use the Polish mobile network. In addition, Circle K facilitated transport routes, with many Circle K employees taking their own cars to the border to pick people up. The chain gave free fuel to one company that was driving people from the border back into Warsaw as well.
Circle K also introduced food corridors where refugees were arriving, not only in Poland, but in other countries and provided them with sandwiches or a hot drink. The company figured out a way to employ refugees, too.
“If you’re coming across the border, you have no means and people don’t like taking handouts; they want self-sufficiency. So, what we have done is see how we can reduce the red tape and also lobbied many of the local governments to see how we could take these people into employment,” said Anderton. “It’s been largely successful.”
Don’t miss this week’s Convenience Matters podcast episode No. 344 “Circle K Europe Steps Up to Support Ukraine.” Hear more on how Circle K exited Russia, including not sourcing any fuel from the country, and how the rest of Europe is adapting to the war in Ukraine.
Sara Counihan is contributing editor of NACS Magazine and NACS Daily. She can be reached at [email protected].