A Conversation With Jacob Schram

Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc.’s group president for European operations shares his thoughts on leadership at the NACS Insight Convenience Summit–Europe.
June 16, 2017

LONDON – Jacob Schram, group president for European operations at Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., and this year’s European Convenience Retail Leader of the Year, has an impressive 20-plus years in the convenience and fuel retailing industry. Since September 2015, he has been instrumental in Couche-Tard’s implementation of a refreshed Circle K global convenience brand throughout the market, replacing existing Circle K, Statoil, Mac’s and Kangaroo Express branding on stores and service stations across Canada, the United States, Scandinavia, and Central and Eastern Europe.

Schram, who recently published “The Essence of Business,” shared his thoughts on leadership at the NACS Insight Convenience Summit–Europe this week in London, taking pages from his new book on leading several companies, his journey from Statoil to Circle K, the global Circle K rebranding, and what he believes is the essence business.

To explain ROCE—return on capital employed—Schram used a peach to metaphorically connect how business relies on its core (the stone of the peach) to bring life and growth to a company. He shared how strategy, execution and people encase the “flesh” of the business and drive ROCE. And like a peach, “you don’t want bruises, you want it to shine so people will join you as employees and as customers,” he said.  

Next, Schram described how retailers today should operate on two clock speeds: current and future. “Retail is changing so fast,” he said, noting the convenience retail industry will look and operate completely different in 10 years, and move from the traditional S-curve of the trial, growth and decline phase, to an entirely new S-curve. “There’s always been a fuel pump and a c-store box. What we’re seeing now is not a huge change in the current S-curve model, but a new S-curve entirely, and you should be in that S-curve,” he said.

Schram cited electric vehicles, autonomous technology and ride-sharing as transformative forces that will—if not already—affect the traditional c-store and retail fueling model. In the next few years, automakers could be manufacturing more EVs worldwide for several key reasons: the vehicles are more cost effective than combustible engines, the driver experience is about 6 to 7 times higher than a gas-powered vehicle, and politically it’s a “win-win” regarding pollution and climate change. “I don’t see why [EVs] won’t succeed, and it’s a massive change for fuel retail,” he said.

“Personally, and within Circle K, I want to sell fuel to the last drop,” said Schram, adding that Circle K will not stop focusing on fuel as a core business component. “But if you’re going to be a winning company in the future, you have to run on two clock speeds and constantly develop the current business with new products and service, but at the same time focus on the future, or the next S-curve.”

And during that transition, Schram stressed not to lose the customer. “From a combustion engine to an EV, that customer will have less reason to visit you.” While loyalty programs are a good way to keep the core customers engaged with your brand, he noted that concept is even becoming “old-fashioned,” noting that loyalty is evolving to building personal relationships with customers.

Another market force on the next S-curve is automation, which is expected to impact retail worldwide by replacing traditional human-only tasks with advanced artificial intelligence. Schram shared an example of a hotel where 90% of its “employees” are robots, including the concierge at the registration desk. Circle K is also testing automation in customer service, he said. “Is this the future we will have, or even want to have? I’m not sure. I’m sure I don’t want that future, but I’m not sure I can stop it,” he said, adding that in retail, people are a company’s greatest asset. “I strongly believe in people leadership,” he added.

At Circle K, Schram continued that he focuses on the following areas in relation to people:

  • Attracting: “This is about your employer brand,” he said. Whether it has or has not been formally established, companies have it. “You don’t decide it…the only thing you can do is affect it.”
  • Developing: Companies can measure performance, KPIs, etc., but what they often neglect is measuring behavior. Someone may deliver on results, “but bad behavior means they are not an asset to your company.” 
  • Retaining: As a leader, Schram backs off from making career track promises and instead motivate employees by communicating their potential. “Telling people what they could be is a huge motivation.”
  • Challenging vs. Resisting: “I believe every leader needs to be challenged,” said, noting that he’s cognizant to not having people on his team who only say yes. “That’s like saying come follow me off of this cliff! I them to challenge me when we’re in decision mode. And once a decision moves to implementation, Schram cited the pitfall of resistance. “When you go from decision mode to implementation, it’s about mobilizing, action and making it happen. When obstruction starts to happen, that’s resistance. I cannot live with resistance.”

In closing, Schram shared that leadership is very individual and personal, adding that what works for him is to have an off switch between his private and work live. “If I don’t have a private life, I’m a bad leader,” he said,” sharing that his family “unplugged” on holiday to Italy where the only task they focused on was helping their children with their school work. “We came back with enormous energy and were totally recharged,” he said.

And lastly, he shared that it’s important to have fun, and ask yourself whether a company is energizing you, or taking energy from you.

Prior to his comments, Schram accepted his award for European Convenience Retail Leader of the Year from NACS President and CEO Henry Armour, and Rick Brindle, vice president of industry development at Mondelez International, sponsor of this year’s award.

Now in its fourth year, the NACS Insight Convenience Summit–Europe brings together convenience and fuel retailing industry professionals from around the world to discuss new ideas and gain new commercial connections. This year’s event kicked off in Zurich on June 10 with education and store tours and ends on June 15 in London.