Convenience store chain opens its own equipment maintenance center

The formerly boarded-up Sheetz convenience store building on North Fourth Avenue in Juniata has become an important cog in the company’s six-state operation.

Closed in mid-2009 when Sheetz opened a new store at the foot of the Juniata Eighth Street Bridge, the building reopened in early 2010 as the company’s equipment maintenance training center.

Remodeled last fall, it now hosts hands-on training sessions for new and current technicians, who are responsible for upkeep on virtually all equipment at the stores from gas pumps to cappuccino machines.

Populated with retired but still-operational machines from renovated stores, the center is a key component in a 4-year-old initiative that has saved a net $1.5 million by eliminating all outsourcing of maintenance, according to J.D. Miknis, the company’s facilities and production manager.

The outsourcing used to cover after-hours and weekend maintenance, Miknis said.

“We were supporting a 24/7 business with a part-time maintenance operation,” he said.

No longer.

Now it’s a fully in-house maintenance operation, supported by intensive best-practice training at the center and a password-protected online site with equipment specifications and standardized troubleshooting guidelines, according to Hank Slicker, corporate trainer.

This helps ensure quick and efficient repairs, with fewer replacements of functioning parts based on guesswork, he said.

Company technicians gathered initially to hash out a curriculum that incorporated their best ideas.

Now techs volunteer to work periodically as trainers at the center, earning their regular wage.

Many do it because they want to give trainees the opportunity for comprehensive learning they did not get themselves, Miknis said.

When Mike Deller of Perryopolis started working for Sheetz, he rode with a tech for a few weeks and was trained by chance on problems they happened to encounter.

Current trainees get a thorough indoctrination, because trainers can simulate most common problems.

That works out better for the trainees, for regional facilities support managers like Deller and for the company as a whole, Deller said.

Trainers routinely challenge their students by strategically disabling machines and asking the students to repair them – imitating real problems the techs will find in the field.

Last week, trainees from Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and North Carolina gathered around a cooler unit on casters, as part of a weeklong refrigeration class.

The techs eventually become generalists, having to answer calls to fix all kinds of machines.

Higher-level techs get certifications and can perform certain kinds of work on certain kinds of equipment, while the more junior techs do more preventive maintenance.

Some are better on some types of equipment. There are refrigeration guys and gas pump guys, said Deller and colleague Fred Campbell of Clayton, N.C.

Sheetz plans to open a second maintenance training center near Burlington, N.C., after it opens its second distribution center there in 2014, Slicker said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.