How Stewart Spinks turned a failing Shell station into a convenience store empire

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photos by Will Crooks

Stewart Spinks knows success is not given, but earned.

And for more than 45 years, the Greenville entrepreneur has fueled his company’s growth with a formula that includes hard work, perseverance, wise decisions, and one other unique quality.

“Why was I able to thrive in the marketplace? Because I was willing to adapt to what the customer was telling me,” said Spinks, founder and chairman of Greenville-based Spinx Co.

“Buying gas is a necessity for having mobility,” he added. “If you want something, we’re going to do our best to give it to you.”

Today, Spinks’ convenience store chain has 81 locations and 1,425 employees in South Carolina.

Spinx Co. has three affiliate companies, including Enigma Corp., the real estate arm of Spinx Co.; Spinx Transportation Co., a freight company that delivers to Spinx stores and other customers; and Ace Energy, a wholesale fuel company founded by Spinks’ son, Stephen “Steve” Spinks, in 2009.

Steve Spinks, who became the company’s CEO in 2012, said Spinx Co.’s revenues in 2016 reached $588 million.

In August, the company announced it was ranked No. 71 on Convenience Store Magazine’s Top 100 list for 2017. The annual list recognizes the nation’s largest convenience store chains.

The company’s headquarters and 75 corporate employees are housed in 15,000 square feet of the Bell Plaza shopping center at 1414 E. Washington St.

Across the street from Spinx Co.’s home office is a sparkling store that replaced the old Shell gas station Stewart Spinks purchased in 1972 to launch his entrepreneurial dream.

Humble beginnings

Spinks was born in 1948 in Charleston. He was raised in Augusta, Ga.

His mother was the hostess at a hotel, and his father was a mechanic and a hospital orderly.

Spinks said his father encouraged him to excel in the classroom. Spinks, however, enjoyed working on cars and spent plenty of time rubbing elbows with mechanics.

“I could relate to a guy who had to work hard for a living,” Spinks said.

In 1965, he turned down an appointment at the U.S. Military Academy and enrolled at the University of Tennessee with a football scholarship.

Spinks earned a Bachelor of Arts in marketing in 1969 and went to work full-time for Shell Oil as a territory representative.

In 1970, he arrived in Greenville after working in Atlanta and the Columbia/Florence area.

“I came here as a 23-year-old and had responsibility for all of the company’s stores in Greenville,” Spinks said. “It was exciting.”

He said the industry was undergoing a massive transition during the early 1970s. Major oil companies were grappling with the early stages of what later became an energy crisis, as well as moving away from a full-service model in favor of self-service stations.

In July 1972, Spinks made the decision to branch out on his own. He decided to lease Shell’s worst performing station in the market at the corner of Washington Street and Laurens Road.

“It was one of the stations on our disposable list, meaning it was marginal and a location the company would like to sell,” Spinks said. “It wasn’t profitable for Shell, but I saw the potential.”

A few months later, in fall 1972, Spinks purchased the heating oil business of Greenville businessman Joe Foster for $50,000. He promised to pay the debt in five years. He did.

In 1974, Spinks purchased the Washington Street Shell station. He then began acquiring more real estate.

Between 1976 and 1981, Spinks formed Spinx Co. and grew the company to 10 stations and about 100 employees. Realizing that customer habits were changing, Spinks decided to implement a self-service island at one of his stores.

He built his first self-service station at the corner of Rutherford and Shaw streets in Greenville. Spinks said he was one of the first operators in Greenville to embrace the self-service model.

While his customers enjoyed cheaper gas prices that were a product of his move away from full service, Spinks said the savings his customers seemed to enjoy the most was in their time.

“People were not afraid of it,” he said. “They enjoyed it. They didn’t have to wait for an attendant to come out and pump their gas.”

Adapting with the market

From the time he invested in his first store in 1972 until the energy crisis of 1979, Spinks said fuel prices at the pump increased from about 25 cents per gallon to $1.29.

Spinks said early self-serve pumps were mechanical. Unlike the pumps of today, store attendants couldn’t control the flow of fuel or even see how much customers were pumping. “It made it really easy for people to steal gas from me,” he said.

Another problem, Spinks said, was that early pumps were only able to register up to 49.99 cents per gallon. As gas prices increased, Spinks said he had to sell gas by the half-gallon, which was a little confusing for customers.

Eventually, the technology improved and pumps were able to register up to 99.99 cents per gallon. Later, the advent of electronic pumps made it possible for store attendants to monitor and control fuel from inside the store.

Spinks said the next wave of pump improvement for his stores came in the late 1980s with the arrival of remote pay.

Remote pay utilized automated teller machine (ATM) technology. Spinks said each fuel island containing multiple pumps could be served by one ATM that enabled customers to pay for their fuel.

In 1989, Spinks decided to sell 90 percent of his company to BP. He briefly retired.

By 1991, he had caught the bug again. He made a comeback and quickly started to rebuild the Spinx portfolio of stores.

Spinks adopted pay-at-the-pump technology in 1992. Unlike many other operators, Spinks said he made the decision to accept cash payments at the pump.

“Why would I discriminate against a cash customer?” he said. “We were one of the only companies in South Carolina to do that.”

Rise of the convenience store

During the mid- to late-1990s, Spinks said the industry began going through another transformation.

Gas retailers began merging their fuel sales by offering food, drink, and other items.

Consumer demand gave rise to new, creative strategies aimed at capturing market share. The convergence of fuel and retail items for customers on the go aptly became known as the convenience store.

For the first time in his career, Spinks said he felt out of his depth.

“I had learned the value of promotion and customer loyalty,” he said. “What I didn’t know how to do was sell convenience store items.”

With the company growing, Spinks said he started to focus on attracting talented employees who could help him take the company to the next level.

One of those recruits was his son, Steve.

Steve is the eldest of four boys born to Stewart and his wife, Martha Spinks. Their youngest son, Whitney Spinks, is also involved in the company.

Some of Steve’s earliest memories include visiting his dad’s first store and being allowed to operate the hydraulic car lifts.

Steve graduated from Darlington High School in Rome, Ga. He attended Rhodes College in Tennessee, where he played soccer and earned a degree in philosophy.

After graduating from college in 1991, Steve moved back to Greenville and went to work with his dad. He later earned an MBA from Duke University.

In 2011, Steve helped his father complete the sale of 20 percent of the company to an employee stock ownership program. Employees who have been with Spinx for at least three years have the opportunity to buy company shares.

“We always try to go the extra mile for our employees,” Steve said. “But one of the things that has truly set us apart from our competitors is Dad’s commitment to his customers.”

Despite their crisp matching dress shirts embroidered with the Spinx Co.’s logo, father and son are different in many ways.

Stewart speaks with candor and has always preferred to be a man of action. Steve is a little more reserved, intellectual, and analytical. Both men are intelligent, polite, and exceedingly gracious.

“Dad is such an entrepreneur,” Steve said. “He’s always learning, but he loves to teach. I’ve tried to fill in the gaps where I can.

“We’ve got a very good foundation,” the son added. “I think we have a good balance.”

The one thing both men have in common is a love for Greenville and a desire to make an impact across the state.

According to the company’s website, Spinx donates 10 percent of its annual profits to charities in the communities it serves.

The next wave

Stewart said Spinx is currently the largest privately owned convenience store operator headquartered in South Carolina.

He said the company offers more alternative fuels than any other retailer in the country.

The operation of Spinx Co. was officially handed over to Stan Storti in 2014, as Storti was promoted from CFO to president and Stewart Spinks was named chairman.

In December 2016, the company opened its remodeled store near the Village of West Greenville at the corner of Pendleton and Academy streets. The store features a community garden.

Steve said the company plans to continue to add to its portfolio of stores.

Future stores will feature modern design, state-of-the-art technology, and an ever-expanding selection of fresh foods.

Stewart told the Upstate Business Journal that fuel sales comprise about one-third of the company’s gross profits. The remaining profits come from the sale of food and beverages, lottery tickets, and car washes.

Steve said the company has stores to date that sell more than $1 million in prepared foods per year.

In the battle for market share, Spinx’s competitors, including Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip, have continued to expand in South Carolina.

The company also has to contend with the likes of Walmart, Costco, and other grocery story chains that have fueling centers.

Steve and Stewart said they welcome the competition and believe the future for Spinx remains bright.

They plan to continue to listen to their customers and provide services and products that increase loyalty to their brand.

For example, the Spinx Xtras reward card allows customers to earn 5 cents off per gallon for every $25 they spend in a Spinx store. Xtraspecials items in the store help customers earn more savings on fuel.

Customers who enroll their Xtra Card as a debit card can get a 5-cent-per-gallon discount every time they fill up.

A Spinx Xtras app, available for Apple and Android devices, enables customers to check their rewards balance, pay at the pump, or pay inside the store.

A new HQ

Stewart and Steve said they are in the planning phase for a new corporate office on property adjacent to their current headquarters.

The company leaders said they weren’t yet at liberty to share specific details about their plans, but they did say they hope the facility will convey their commitment to Greenville for many years to come.

“As the largest retailer [of fuel] headquartered in South Carolina, we want our corporate office to reflect our evolution and our leadership,” Steve said. “We want to show our customers that we’re here to stay. We plan to deepen our roots here. We started here, and now we are planning for the long haul.”

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