Creating C-Store Leaders of the Future

Ready Training Online helps customize your c-store training program to set managers on the path to success.

Creating C-Store Leaders of the Future

May 2024   minute read

It is one thing to hire a c-store manager. It is something else entirely to train one.

In the multibillion-dollar world of c-stores, the store manager stands head over heels as that key person who keeps the machine running. Yet each store manager’s training can be anything from pedestrian to unpredictable.

“The store manager is the heart of the company,” said Jeff Kahler, CEO of Ready Training Online (RTO). “They can make or break a business.”

That’s why RTO created Gears to Your Career®, an online digital training program for c-store managers in training. The system offers a way to verify, guide and support a structured path for the store manager to learn new skills, said Tom Hart, director of business development at RTO.

“Today’s managers are running $2-million operations and have to deal with everything from regulatory issues to leading a team, from labor shortages to product shortages,” Hart said. “The store manager is the hardest working person in the store, but sometimes they just don’t have the skills to succeed.”

Times are always changing, and our training changes too.”

The online training program is designed to educate employees from “the day they’re hired until the day they retire,” said Kahler. According to Hart, the system is customized and can focus on anything from how to merchandise a new product to how to go out and write your own grocery order. The program then requires that the store manager meet certain milestones, such as passing online quizzes, that demonstrate a solid understanding of each section before moving on to the next one. Each milestone also includes a recap and a progress report on how the newly trained store manager is doing. Programs can stretch from 10 to 14 weeks but are flexible enough to adapt to the needs of any c-store.

“Gears to Your Career is really a philosophy for how we think about learning, training and supporting the manager. It’s a philosophy to implement tools and content that deliver insights to people on the team,” said Kahler.

Fostering Future Leaders

Training milestones aren’t just there for managers to check off their list—for RTO, the heart of the initiative is continual learning and development.

“I think most managers have enough training to get through the day and be pretty good at what they do. But in order for them to really succeed and be the type of leaders we want to take us into the future, we need to really focus on making sure we’re thinking about them in every aspect of their development,” said Hart.

“The c-store manager of the future simply can’t be shortchanged on development,” said Hart.

“This isn’t just about training someone on how to write an order or a schedule. We need to have coaching and mentorship opportunities from district managers, and from other store managers within that district. At RTO, we create a learning path that supports mentorship along the way, so trainees know they’re not in this by themselves,” he said. “It’s not just about trying to learn the fundamentals of the job, but about how to succeed as a leader.”

RTO isn’t just listening. It’s responding. The company is focusing on creating more on-demand training tools, like QR codes and other job aids, for on-the-job situations or anything that might arise in the field.

For example: Using specialized skills, like interviewing, for the first time takes advanced learning. To prepare for this, RTO not only recommends they assign their best practices interviewing video, but also confirm their understanding through an activity assignment with the training manager. “It’s a lot of responsibility and we want to get it right and build their confidence,” said Hart.

RTO also leaves room for honest feedback. “Let’s encourage employees to say, ‘I’ve never had any training on that’ and then use a tool to identify, ‘Here’s my deficiency, let’s work on it.’ No one is ever fully developed because something could change tomorrow, so this is really a process of improvement and continuous education,” said Kahler.

Kahler estimates that RTO already has helped to train store managers in as many as 25,000 sites. And as the leader and culture driver of that location, the more successful a manager is, the more successful a store can be.

“The Gears to Your Career program was designed to inspire employees so they know there is a bright future in convenience,” said Kahler. “It’s not just about career potential. It’s about mentoring our store leaders in their journey—after all they are the foundation for our future success in the industry.”

A Customized Curriculum

RTO can create customized programs for c-stores, with everything from step-by-step training modules for how to complete tasks to video courses on specific topics. When RTO rolled out its newest safety module, training employees on how to de-escalate difficult situations, earlier this year, “it was our most popular release in the company’s history,” said Hart.

“Times are always changing, and our training changes too. We want to support store managers and their teams to be prepared for whatever they might encounter on the job,” Hart said.

The company also teaches how to handle everything from loss prevention and robbery deterrence, harassment and DEI, as well as responsible age-restricted sales like tobacco, alcohol and lottery.

We built the program based on our knowledge of the industry.”

These are extremely sensitive issues, of course, and often lead to the most common legal issues faced by overwhelmed store managers. But specialized training can help to nip that in the bud.

RTO starts with a training template, and then helps retailers customize their program by moving module topics around based on priority level. For one client, this might mean they want employees to learn about loss prevention and safety first, while others might want to focus on culture, facility care and customer service, said Hart.

“I try to build learning paths that create a cadence to instill confidence in people. The more an employee feels like they’re getting their footing in week one, the more success they’ll have. So, I recommend starting with critical areas that deal with safety and compliance, but quickly move on to areas that are going to build confidence and competency,” he said.

With its own production studio and 3,000-square-foot mock c-store set, RTO can customize training modules to a specific brand and mimic its store—the actors can wear a convenience retailer’s apparel, use props like branded coffee cups and have logos visible on TVs or signage.

The studio includes familiar c-store brands including Hershey’s, Five-Hour Energy, Clif Bars, Utz and Stuckey’s, so that most of the products and imagery seen in the training videos appear genuine.

“This way, the content of the video is relatable to everyone who sees it,” said Kahler.

Built on Experience

While Kahler’s c-store experience is limited, his retail experience is expansive. He worked in the restaurant and pizzeria business for 27 years and is familiar with training pizzeria store managers from his time at Mustang Pizza & Subs.

Kahler said he got the initial inspiration for the training videos on a flight way back in 1997, when he listened for the first time to a video featuring the president of American Airlines thanking each passenger for flying American. “I remember asking myself: How could I speak to each frontline member of my pizzeria?”

His life passion has always been in developing people. Though only 17 years old at the time, he found himself running Mustang Pizza, a then-$1 million per unit pizza chain, that was competing for delivery against industry giants like Domino’s and Papa John’s. Training his employees—particularly the store managers—to be the best in the business was critical.

“I learned how to train by listening to my employees,” he said.

The leaders we mentor today are the foundation for our success in the future.”

He discovered that finding out what a store manager doesn’t know can be just as important as finding out what they do know.

Then, in 2009, while at a NACS event, he met Tom Hart—who, along with his operations team, had previously developed a manual version of the Gears to Your Career training program.

The initial training content was developed by Hart, who has extensive convenience retail experience from his time working at Store 24, a 90-store convenience chain in the Boston area. Hart served as a Store 24 store manager, and then became a district manager before eventually working his way to chief operating officer. Through his experience, he personally learned about the need for consistent training videos for all c-store managers.

“We built the program based on our knowledge of the industry, not based on our knowledge of software,” said Hart.

“The leaders we mentor today are the foundation for our success in the future. We feel a sense of urgency as we see the challenges unfolding. The expectations are so high in technology advancements, foodservice innovation, customer experience, along with new safety challenges – and that all centers around the person leading the store team – the store manager. That’s what gets me so excited when I start each day here at RTO. The opportunity to support their career success in convenience. It’s both a calling and a privilege.”

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