John Griffin, president of Kelley Williamson Co., constantly seeks new ways to improve the customer experience at the company’s stores and gas stations.

Kelley Williamson Company: Where Customers Come First

The customer experience is everything to this well-established convenience store and gasoline supplier, and each store has the sign to prove it.

John Griffin, president of Kelley Williamson Co., constantly seeks new ways to improve the customer experience at the company’s stores and gas stations.
John Griffin, president of Kelley Williamson Co., constantly seeks new ways to improve the customer experience at the company’s stores and gas stations.

Inside each of the 49 Kelley’s Market convenience stores hangs a framed copy of the Kelley Williamson Company’s mission statement. The first line reads: “To provide the best customer buying experience in the industry.”
To illustrate his commitment to that goal, President John Griffin – grandson of company co-founder Walt Williamson – tells the story of Kelley’s Market. Prior to the 1990s, convenience stores in most Mobil gas stations were branded as Mobil Marts.
“As I traveled the country and I looked around, there were a lot of crummy Mobil Marts,” Griffin says. “I felt that with what we were trying to do, that name didn’t really represent how the convenience store business was evolving.”
So he and his management team started brainstorming. They wanted to tie the store name with the parent company, founded in Rockford in 1926 by Williamson and Nate Kelley. The name Williamson didn’t roll off the tongue very well, so they came up with Kelley’s Market. A brand was born.
Griffin also hired a consultant: Henry Johnson, a semi-retired executive who had worked for Grand Union, an East Coast supermarket chain. Johnson had been recommended to Griffin as a labor management consultant. He delivered a program that Kelley Williamson still uses today to determine its staffing levels. But he quickly delivered a lot more, as he and Griffin talked about presentation and marketing at Kelley’s Markets.
“I had just built the new store on Harrison Avenue out by the post office,” Griffin says. “I was quite proud of it. So I asked Henry to go visit the store with me, and take a walk through it.”
Johnson’s trained eye spotted lots of opportunities for improved merchandising. For one, he noted that the store displayed beef jerky in eight different locations.
“Does everyone in Illinois eat beef jerky?” he asked Griffin. “Based on how many placements you have, they must. Or they should.”
Johnson talked about what shoppers want in a convenience store. He talked about fill-in shopping – things that people typically buy at the grocery store on the way home from work.
“We started looking at our merchandising and we realized that we weren’t very good at any of those things,” Griffin says.
Then, Johnson took his demoralized friend to the East State Street Logli supermarket, pointing out product lines that made sense for the Kelley’s Market format.
“Milk, for example. Milk is a staple of a convenience store. But we were not carrying a full line of dairy products,” Griffin says. “We were only carrying the main products. And his comment was, ‘You’ve got to carry everything. You can’t just carry what you want. You’ve got to carry what the consumer wants.’”
Same with pet food, and ice cream, and cereal. “He went all the way through the store that way,” Griffin says. Today’s Kelley’s Markets reflect those conversations.
“We sell Iams dog food,” Griffin says. “That’s unheard of in a convenience store. We carry a full line of cat food, dog food, dog biscuits, dog chews, because we’re covering the category now. Before, we just dabbled in the category.”
Advertising was the final piece – building the new Kelley’s Market brand and catering to customers’ needs and expectations, Griffin says.
You advertise your cleanliness, your convenience and how fast it is to get in and out, that you carry these products and that you’re not going to rob people when they come in to buy something because you’re a convenience store and you charge twice as much as it costs in a grocery store.”
In short, Johnson’s advice had transformed Kelley’s Market from what was then the typical convenience store – candy, pop, cigarettes – to a place designed for fill-in shopping.
“He changed us,” Griffin says. “The convenience store industry in general – not just Rockford – really hadn’t embraced that very well. He kept pounding that into us: These are the things that you need to do to be successful.”
The Value of Hard Work
Henry Johnson’s wisdom added to a foundation for success that Griffin learned from his grandfather: a commitment to hard work. The second line of that Kelley Williamson mission statement reads: “To work together as a diverse team dedicated to continuous improvement.”
Walt Williamson never graduated high school. He learned on the job, as he and Kelley built a successful oil distribution business and group of Socony Oil stations. (“Socony” was short for Standard Oil Company of New York, one of 34 independent companies that emerged from the 1911 breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly. In 1963 the company would change its name to Mobil.) Williamson bought out his partner in the 1950s and remained Kelley Williamson’s president until his death in 1974.
He built notable hotels all over Illinois and Wisconsin – including the renowned Wagon Wheel Resort in Rockton. Yet, even with all of his business success, Williamson lived in an unassuming home on Rockford’s Huffman Boulevard. He always drove a Cadillac, but it wasn’t anything close to new.
“He drove that Cadillac until the doors fell off,” Griffin says, smiling. “He didn’t believe in new cars. His home was very modest, like all the neighbors’ homes around him on Huffman Boulevard. That’s just the way he chose to run his life. His value system was, work hard, work more, save, do something with what you can. He believed if you had an hour available to you, you probably ought to be at work. That was very much instilled in me from a very, very young age.”
When Griffin was 11, his grandfather put him to work – so John would be able to buy feed for the pony that had been his birthday gift. At the Wagon Wheel, John mucked out stalls at the riding stables, worked on the golf course and cleaned rooms at the resort.
“Any job that he thought was a character builder, he would get me involved in,” Griffin says. “So that was my introduction to how he viewed what we were supposed to do. We were supposed to earn our keep and go to work.”
As he got older, Griffin worked in the company’s warehouse on Harrison Avenue, and rode shotgun on delivery trucks – dragging hoses through the snow to pump heating oil into homes and businesses. He worked on crews that would salvage items out of old buildings his grandfather had bought, and store them in a warehouse at the Wagon Wheel.
Griffin’s parents divorced when he was 12 or 13. His father, Chuck Griffin, eventually started his own company, Griffin Oil. John continued to work for his grandfather’s company, eventually becoming Kelley Williamson’s third president in 1990.
The Customer Comes First
Today, Kelley Williamson and its 530 employees cover three business entities: First, the company owns and operates 49 Kelley’s Markets in Illinois and Wisconsin. Second, it supplies wholesale fuel to 39 Mobil stations it doesn’t own. And third, it supplies wholesale lubricants to a wide variety of businesses: car dealers, factories, auto repair and quick-lube shops, trucking companies and more.
Unlike many wholesalers, the company deals only in Mobil products.
We’re single-branded in the fuel business and we’re single-branded in the lubrication business,” Griffin says. “I think that’s a unique thing about us. A company our size typically would represent multiple suppliers. And we do not. … We started with Mobil in 1926, and they are a very good company. I’ve just found over the years that it’s easier to serve one master.”
Bottom line: It’s what customers want – and there’s that core value again. All new Kelley Williamson employees go through a week of customer service training before they wait on people. The emphasis, Griffin says, is on treating customers as guests – the way they’d want to be treated if they were invited into someone’s home.
Near the cash registers in each Kelley’s Market there’s a stack of postage-paid, mail-ready surveys, addressed to Griffin. They’re for customers to send feedback.
“They can tell me what they’re thinking,” Griffin says. “I would say 80 percent of what I receive is telling me about something exceptional that has happened from a company employee and how they were treated. And about 20 percent of what comes to me is someone having concerns about something that we’re doing or not doing. And we take those pretty seriously.”
Kelley Williamson also prides itself in support of community charities. That includes having donated more than $380,000 over the course of its “Nickel Tuesday” promotion, which takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas annually and benefits the Salvation Army. The company also actively supports Rosecrance, the American Cancer Society, Special Olympics, The Muscular Dystrophy Association, March of Dimes, Carpenter’s Place, the Rockford Pro-Am and many more.
Not a day passes when Griffin, now 59, doesn’t think about his grandfather’s continuing influence on the company – particularly in customer service.
“It’s a different world today,” he says. “But, I think his values are alive and well, because he always believed that the customer was first – that if you took care of the customer, the customer would take care of you by coming back to you.”