How do you build a business from one gas station in 1958 into the largest operator of travel centers in North America with more than 750 locations and the 14th largest privately held company with annual revenue of more than $2 billion dollars a year?
That is the question I asked Mr. James Haslam II. I met Mr. Haslam when I spoke at the Pilot Flying J’s annual leadership event at their headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was speaking to all of their general managers. Before the presentation I was seated in the front row next to an American icon, Mr. Haslam II. At age 86, he was bright-eyed, full of energy and the epitome of an American dream come true.
When we first met, instead of being aloof or distant, he immediately took an interest in me by asking, “So Mr. Mark, tell me something about yourself. Where did you start?” I have always been impressed with leaders who are more interested in others instead of playing the “Aren’t I interesting?” card.
I asked Mr. Haslam the simple question, “How do you build a company from one gas station into the premier travel center company in North America.” His answer was right on point:
Mr. Haslam stated, “To tell you the truth, a lot of damn luck. I worked hard, but you need some luck. Plus, at first, I thought I needed financial capital, then I figured out that if I really wanted to grow, I needed intellectual capital. That was a big turning point. Surrounding yourself with the right people. The other thing I learned was to ask the customer what they wanted. Our livelihood is professional truck drivers. I asked them: “What would bring you back?” and they said “Showers – a nice, clean, hot shower.” We built nice, clean hot showers and they came back. It ain’t rocket science son.”
I am not minimizing the effort to build a thriving business. However, leaders who take the time to truly understand their customer’s needs and fill those needs better than any supplier will jump way ahead of their competition.
Great leaders don’t always have to have the answers. According to Mr. Haslam, they need the right team and ask the right questions to truly lead the way.