5 Questions with Cindi Summers – Facing HR Challenges in the Convenience Industry

Cindi Summers is the senior vice president of human resources for Casey’s General Stores Inc., a publicly held company which operates more than 2,000 stores across 16 Midwestern states with 37,000-plus employees. She has spent much of her career at Fortune 500 companies in the retail, manufacturing and financial services industries. She has directed human resources, payroll, training/development, and technical writing functions with extensive and demonstrated experience in leadership and consulting roles involving compliance, talent management, engagement, employee relations, succession, compensation and benefits. 

Summers holds a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification and SHRM-CP (Certified Professional) designation through the National Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), where she is an active member of the National Chapter, the Central Iowa Chapter of SHRM and the National American Payroll Association. She also serves as a deputy on the Iowa Business Council and Board of Directors for the Des Moines Area YMCA, and she is a member of the Convention Committee for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). Summers holds an associate degree as a legal assistant, a bachelor degree in management with a minor in entrepreneurship, and has a master’s degree in business leadership. 

1. What is the No. 1 attribute you believe successful c-store operators should have?
A passion for people. Anyone providing a service or product to the public, especially convenience stores, must possess a natural motivation to put their customers and employees first. The concept of caring for people is what c-store operators are all about. We provide convenience. To do this, we must value our employees and they in turn will look after the customers. Remaining in tune to the wants, needs and concerns of people (no matter what role to the organization) gets to the very heart of what we do and will be the key factor for an operator who wants to remain competitive in this market.  

2. What is the biggest human resources challenge?
The biggest HR challenge today is talent management. The methods used to attract employees have become much more competitive and complicated than ever before. With the U.S. unemployment at the lowest rate it has been in 17 years* and the demographics of our country continuing to change, the means in which we communicate and appeal to applicants must adapt. Moreover, the c-store space can be difficult—a heightened sense of security, fast paced environment, having to work evenings, weekends and holidays—often don’t sound attractive against other options. We don’t just compete with other c-stores when applicants are looking for a job or employees are motivated to the leave the organization; people will go work at a neighboring retailer, grocery store or another office if the conditions are even slightly better. I also believe that c-stores don’t tell their story very well as to what a meaningful and enjoyable career in this industry can be. Far too often an applicant may simply be looking at the short term and not see that they could experience much success in their future with a c-store organization. There is a lot to consider when developing a strategy to tackle attraction and retention. It also isn’t a subject solely owned by the human resources department. Everyone in the company must embrace this challenge and understand what their part is.
* CNN November 3, 2017.

3. How has the labor market changed over the last 5-10 years and how does that affect a human resources strategy?
I’d like to think that I haven’t been in the workforce long enough to see a significant shift. However, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I actually have! I’ve seen the shift throughout my own career, as well as in my personal life as my parents retired, others have made shifts in their careers through succession or desired change of pace, and even as my children begin their careers. It is very apparent and statistics support, that a smaller share of Americans are working; the workforce is aging and becoming more diverse, and U.S. jobs are shifting more toward services.* That said, the strategy to attract and retain valuable employees is much more than where you advertise or place the sign in the window. I often use the analogy of “spokes on the wheel,” meaning that each spoke represents a piece of the puzzle to keep the wheel turning.  A spoke may be weak and the wheel could still turn with the support of the other spokes; however, if we don’t pay attention to all of the spokes, they may break and the wheel won’t turn at all. The stronger all the spokes are, the faster and more efficient the wheel turns. 

Using this analogy, I recommend that an organization should set its strategy with a variety of spokes on the wheel. Begin by looking at the broader picture first and then contemplate the reasons employees are attracted to a job and want to stay. Ask yourself, “What do I want from my own employer?” and identify the areas that need improvement, or where there is opportunity to grow (i.e. conduct a SWOT analysis). Using this information, you can create “buckets” of focus. For example, buckets that often affect attraction and retention are compensation, benefits, branding, diversity and inclusion, recognition, onboarding, training, leader development, etc. You should also identify key performance indicators, or goals that you wish to meet in each area. For example, increased applicant flow, reduction in unemployment claims liability, increased EEO-1 Report ethnicity and gender results, etc. are some examples. In my opinion, all of these things are an important part of the end result and some may just need more attention than others. 

Building forward-thinking and creative initiatives in each of these areas and any others you identify will create the best blend of strategy for your organization. One of my mentors earlier in my career used to tell me, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” I haven’t been able to trace this great insight to anyone specific, but I’ve used this saying a lot in my career and it certainly pertains to HR strategy. 

* Bureau of Labor Statistics Labor Force Predictions, 2016.

4. What is the biggest misperception about HR?
That we say “no” far too often. In my career, I’ve certainly heard my share of feedback, like “don’t go to HR,” “HR will just say no,” or “HR won’t like that.” I hate that, but I certainly don’t take it personally. The truth is that the HR function is guided by many rules and regulations in just about every facet of what we do—recruiting, discipline, benefits, compensation, leave of absence, etc. In this case, it isn’t HR making the decision, it’s a rule or regulation. If there isn’t a rule or regulation, there is often a court case that will guide a decision based on precedent. In these cases, the company has to decide how much risk they are willing to absorb in operating contrary to the court case. Regardless, HR must obviously pay attention to these things when consulting with others. It may seem strange to think this way, but we are lucky to have clear guidance on what is right and wrong in many of these areas to help us make good decisions. 

The manager and HR staff member must both come to the table with an open mind about the situation and be receptive to each other’s position. If the manager understands his or her options within the confines of the law and/or case law, and the HR staff member can provide various ethical options to help the manager, a healthy relationship can be cultivated between them. While every manager inquiry may not be so easy, the organization’s cultural support of human resource feedback and input is certainly important in overcoming this misperception that often exists with HR departments.        

5. When you’re on the road, which items do you always grab for in a convenience store?
Casey’s pizza (of course!) or a plain baked cake donut, like my grandmother used to make when she worked for Casey’s in the 1980s. If I’m stuffed from too many visits, I move to Anderson Erickson (it’s an Iowa thing!) chocolate milk and red licorice for the road. On a more serious note, I love having the opportunity to visit our stores. It helps me stay grounded so I know what our employees are truly thinking and care about. The c-store industry has a lot of hard working and dedicated people, which is very impressive. At one time, a 92-year-old donut maker worked at Casey’s for 34 years. She mentioned that the best part of her job was interacting with the customers. In fact, she retired once and returned because she missed the customers so much. Most recently, we implemented a new HCM system. I was traveling to a conference and took an afternoon to visit several stores on the way. My quest was to inquire about the system and how the managers really felt about the changes and training. The entire situation was very enlightening and I couldn’t wait to get back to the office to make some changes. The best part of visiting our stores is hearing heartwarming stories about our employees and receiving honest feedback about our processes.



For an extended version with more information about how to run a successful convenience store, check out our downloadable guide, Creating and Sustaining the HR Function in a C-Store Company.

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