Joe Sheetz steps in to lead Sheetz, where the line between family and employees blurs

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Joe Sheetz, the latest Sheetz to head Sheetz Inc., has worked for more than 20 years at various roles in the family business from managing a store to CFO.
But it was his seven years at a Philadelphia consulting company where he learned the most.

Sheetz says it wasn’t the work itself; it was that he was able to observe the inner workings of many different industries, management and ownership groups.

“I can look back now and go, ‘Oh, I remember that guy.’ I remember how they handled that situation, and it just blew up in their face, and so I learned a lesson and we will never do that,” he says. “Or, I remember this company and everybody was so happy. Here’s a couple little things they always did that seemed to work.”

Since he took over as president and CEO last year from his cousin, Sheetz is doing his best to follow in the footsteps of the company’s three former CEOs who are all still part of the family ownership group.

And the company, which considers itself more of a fast food restaurant chain than gas station, continues to grow at about 30 stores a year. It has 15,000 employees and 475 locations in six states.

Here’s how the Sheetz family turned a small store that was part of the family dairy in Altoona, Pennsylvania, into one of Fortune’s 100 best companies to work for in America.

 

Not your typical family business

Family businesses often generate strong emotions such as resentment and entitlement. Generational conflict can arise, as well as succession issues, but that’s not the case at Sheetz, where ownership has been kept separate from leadership.

Sheetz says he gets calls from people who run family businesses, seeking advice. Sheetz, however, is not a typical generation-to-generation  business.

The company was started in 1952 by Sheetz’s uncle, who had five brothers and two sisters involved with the company, to various degrees. To further complicate matters, there were 27 years between the oldest and youngest siblings.

Having so many family members involved helped create a culture where the company comes first.

“It’s been run much more by an executive committee and a board, rather than a dictator — rather than having one person firmly in charge and everybody just bows to what that person wants to do, and then the next person takes over, and everything changes,” Sheetz says.

In addition, historically, people walk away from leading day-to-day operations at fairly young ages, which is important in retail, where catering to customers and having boots on the ground every day is critical.