At the age of 7, Bob Sheetz would sit in the office of the Sheetz Dairy Store at 2601 Fifth Ave. and listen to his father, Gerald, and grandfather, J.E. Harshbarger, talk about the business.
"Dad had a two-sided desk. He put me on the other side of his desk. Until I was 15, I listened to those two. I heard all of the decisions being made and saw the results. Most of them were good," Bob Sheetz, 78, recalled from his home in Florida.
Bob Sheetz, who retired from Sheetz Inc. in 1984, said he received a different kind of education than many people.
"I saw what worked and didn't work, how they handled people. I got to see all of that at a young age," he said. "When I took over, I wanted to make changes. I changed the structure of the business."
After graduating from Altoona High School in 1952, Bob attended Penn State Altoona, but he didn't like it, said his younger brother Steve, now chairman of the board at Sheetz.
Bob decided he wanted to go into business for himself and approached his father about buying the dairy store, where he had been working on Fridays after school and on weekends.
He thought he could improve on the groundwork his father had laid.
"I told my father the changes I wanted to make. He said the store never showed a profit. I said, 'I know how to make money at the store.' He tried to talk me out of it," Bob Sheetz said. "I had $990 in my savings account at First National Bank. I went to the bank and pulled out all of my money. I came up with $1,006."
His father advised him to pay $900 and said, "You keep the $90 that was left. You will need it for cash to open the next day."
Sixty years ago this month, that's how what has become a convenience store empire - with 431 stores throughout six states - was born.
Sheetz took over ownership of the first Sheetz store on Nov. 1, 1952. The building today houses the office of Magisterial District Judge Todd F. Kelly.
Bob made some changes so the store was more than just a dairy store. It also included a restaurant and deli.
"We had a deli and a little kitchen where Aunt Bess was the cook. She was a great cook. She made potato and macaroni salad and baked ham, which led to a catering business in the late 1950s and early 1960s," Steve Sheetz said, adding his sisters Nancy and Marge worked in the dairy store.
Steve, who had started working for his brother while in junior high, said the brothers were always looking for new ideas to make money. Bob and Steve were later joined in the business by brothers Joe, Charlie and Louie.
"We knew the lunch breaks at A&P, Butterick and Veeder Root. We had a panel truck to serve lunch at the car shops in Hollidaysburg. We had sandwiches and chocolate milk," Steve Sheetz said. "We had a tricycle with an ice cream cooler. It was hard to pedal, but we filled it with novelties and would go to A&P to sell novelties."
Bob Sheetz said revenue for his first year in business was $38,600. In the most recent fiscal year 2011-12, which ended Sept. 30, revenue was $6.5 billion.
Bob Sheetz started to expand by opening the second store at Pleasant Valley Boulevard and 22nd Street (near Bishop Guilfoyle High School) in 1962 and opened a third store in Hollidaysburg on Blair Street in 1968.
Steve managed the Hollidaysburg store while he was a senior at Penn State, where he graduated in 1969 with a degree in business management.
From 1 to 100
Growth continued, and Sheetz doubled its number of stores from seven to 14 in 1972.
"It was in Bob's head to open 10 stores," Steve Sheetz said. "When we opened number 10 in Huntingdon, Bob said, 'Brother, let's open 100.'"
His brother was driven to succeed, Steve Sheetz said.
"Of all the qualities he had, the most important was he was driven to win, and there was no stopping him," Steve said. "People said you couldn't be open 24 hours, you couldn't sell gas and food at the same location. The things we were told we couldn't do, Bob was the guy who was driven to win and made it happen. He found a way."
Bob's son, Stan, now the company's president and chief executive officer, called his father "a great businessman and entrepreneur."
"He was very driven to grow and succeed in the business," Stan Sheetz said. "We also found he was very goal-oriented."
Bob admits he's a competitive person.
"I was the most competitive guy you would be around in your life," he said. "I had to be the best. If I wasn't, I drove everyone crazy until I got better at it. I was definitely driven to win. I thrived on competition. I wanted to give our customers a better offer than our competitors. I wanted our employees to treat our customers with the greatest respect - be fast, friendly and show respect."
Many changes have been made over the years, which have led to success.
Self-service gasoline was added in 1972 at Sixth Avenue and Lloyd Street. By 1975, all Sheetz locations were selling gasoline.
The decision to add gasoline stemmed in part from the elimination of the blue laws, which prohibited larger stores from doing business on Sundays.
"We did a massive business on Sunday. We were exempt from the blue laws because of the number of employees," Steve Sheetz said. "The grocery business went away with the blue laws. We began to search for a new source of revenue, so we looked at gasoline. We had to re-invent ourselves after the blue laws went away. The blue laws were a big deal in affecting our business thinking."
Sheetz stores became operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the mid-'70s.
Adding gasoline pumps provided additional income, but the gas pumps played an even bigger role after MTO - made-to-order food - was introduced in 1987 and rolled out in all stores in 1991.
"We did a revolution to a new model," Steve Sheetz said. "It was more about immediate gratification: Food and drinks made to order. We put more gas pumps in to attract more people.
"To this day, we fight the image of being a gas station in some markets. In new markets they don't know the breadth of Sheetz. They just see the gas pumps."
Sheetz hit the 100-store mark in 1983, and Bob retired a year later, handing over the leadership of the company to Steve and later to Stan.
"I gave them anything they needed. I never second-guessed them," Bob Sheetz said. "Those guys [Steve and Stan] are good and know how to run the business."
Sheetz believes the company's people have been a key to success.
"We've got a great team here at Sheetz. We've been very fortunate to have my father get this started the way he did and run that growth period up to 100," Stan Sheetz said. "Then Steve led us. We went through some major transitions, the entrepreneurial phase my father was king of."
"We are nothing without our people, hiring and training people in the Sheetz culture," Bob Sheetz said. "We have to give customers what they want and give them the best service we know how to give. We have to continue to be inventive and creative. They tell us what their needs are. In the old days we had a jingle that said, 'We keep on changing for you.'"
Sheetz has been listed among the best places to work in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina.
Sheetz officials admit there were some struggles over the years - such as 1972 when the number of stores doubled from seven to 14 and in the mid-to-late 1980s, Steve Sheetz said.
"In both cases we tried to grow the business faster than we grew our people. That got us in trouble. We went from seven to 14, and we weren't ready for that growth. We found out how much we didn't know, and we had to get good trained people to open stores," Steve Sheetz said.
In 1987, Steve said he and Louie Sheetz, now executive vice president of marketing, visited Hagers- town, Md., to get input from convenience store customers. They talked to 80 customers - 40 who used Sheetz and 40 who used the competition.
"We found out that people wanted fast service, friendly people, quality products and clean locations," Steve Sheetz said. "They said, 'We want you to be open when we want you.' People wanted a clean appearance with lots of lighting. We took what the customers wanted and made that our mission. We really had our eyes opened."
Constant change and re-inventing itself have been keys to Sheetz success. Today, the company has 15,000 employees across six states - Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina.
"We started with food and beverages. Then we added convenience items, health and beauty products, newspapers and dairy products. In 1972, we added a third leg. We added gasoline," Steve Sheetz said.
Today's modern Sheetz stores are called convenience restaurants, with the first one opening in 2004 at 17th Street and Pleasant Valley Boulevard.
"What defines us now is the convenience restaurant. That is the best of the convenience store, while keeping the gas and core products. We will continue that with quality food and indoor and outdoor seating," Steve Sheetz said.
As the company has moved well past 400 stores, officials are now talking about a much higher goal.
"We are well on our way to 1,000," Bob Sheetz said.
"We expect to open 34 or 35 stores a year for the next five years. Maybe eight to 10 of them will be rebuilds, a net of about 25 a year. Our plans take us to 2018 without pushing geography," Steve Sheetz said.
A lot of that growth will be in North Carolina, where Sheetz has swelled to 47 stores.
Today, Sheetz ranks 28th in the number of convenience stores in the United States, according to the latest figures from the National Association of Convenience Stores.
The company's vision is the same as it was 60 years ago.
"We are transforming to the next generation of Sheetz stores - the convenience restaurant. We need to continue to create the business that will put the Sheetz as we know it today out of business. We need to stay in touch with customers to see where they want us to go," Steve Sheetz said.
Sheetz Inc. is about more than just stores. The company added a distribution center in 2001 at the Walter Business Park near Claysburg and followed that with Sheetz Bros. Kitchen in 2008.
The distribution center enabled Sheetz to control when its trucks could deliver products, and by making its own baked products and sandwiches at the kitchen, it wouldn't run out of products.
Fresh deliveries are made from the $46 million 140,000-square-foot Sheetz Bros. Kitchen next to the Sheetz Distribution Center to more than 350 stores in six states.
Innovative, ready-to-eat food products are made at the kitchen, as well as bakery items and MTgo! foods. Meanwhile, Sheetz will build a second distribution and food production center in Burlington, N.C., which is expected to open in 2014.
The opening of the $32.8 million center is expected to create 254 new jobs. The move is a key element in the company's rapid expansion plans for new convenience restaurants, particularly in its North Carolina and Virginia markets. The distribution center will be similar to the company's facility in Claysburg.
"Once North Carolina opens, we will be set up to distribute to every store we open within that area, and that adds to our efficiency," Stan Sheetz said. "Once the new center opens, we will serve about 120 stores from there. There will be many more new stores in the southern end of our operating area than the north end. They will see more growth than the one here in Claysburg."
A 10,000-square-foot Sheetz Health and Wellness Center designed to benefit Sheetz employees is under construction and expected to open later this month. The center will include a wellness center, fitness center and conference center.
The wellness center will provide high-quality primary care, health assessments, lifestyle coaching and disease management services.
The fitness center will include treadmills, bikes, cardio equipment, free weights and more, and the conference center will include two rooms and be able to accommodate about 100 people.
Friend to the community
Supporting and giving back to the community has always been important to the Sheetz family.
"When we grew up, every Sunday, the routine was to go to church and go to the store on Fifth Avenue. We had a list of shut-ins and women living by themselves. We would take a week's worth of groceries to them," Steve Sheetz said. "Mom and Dad were always about helping people."
For example, earlier this year an estimated $400,000 was raised during the 14th annual Sheetz Family Charities "For the Kidz" Golf Classic. The money will be used to provide Christmas presents for more than 6,200 children this holiday season in conjunction with the Salvation Army.
Each year, Sheetz donates more than $2.5 million in cash and products to worthwhile community endeavors and is the largest contributor to Special Olympics in Pennsylvania, having donated
"about $1.5 million over 20 years," Steve Sheetz said.
Joe Hurd, president and CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce, calls Sheetz a "shining star" in terms of recognition for the area.
"Not only have they built a business that is incredibly well known because of the tremendous growth they have had, but they also have done it so well. When trying to identify to people who aren't familiar with where you are from, you can always mention Sheetz. They have an incredible reputation not only for the service they provide but it is unparalleled in the way they provide it," Hurd said. "From the chamber standpoint I can tell people that aren't from here that Sheetz, of all of our businesses, they are stellar."
Many customers cite convenience as their main reason for being Sheetz customers.
"I don't go inside too much but my wife uses it a lot as she travels the area. You can get the same stuff at every store. It is all about brand recognition and convenience," said Jeff Englert, Altoona.
"I travel 60,000 miles a year. Everywhere in my territory they have a Sheetz. I pop in twice a day. You can get your gas and are on your way," said Dave Reimer, Altoona. "Sheetz is like one-stop shopping. They are always trying to get better and change is inevitable. I tip my hat to them. They do a phenomenal job."
Customers have mixed opinions on Sheetz's decision to sell beer at their 1900 Pleasant Valley Blvd. convenience restaurant.
Sheetz began beer sales Feb. 1, 2007. After several stoppages in sales stemming from opposition from the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, sales resumed May 6, 2010, and have continued since.
"I don't like them selling beer. We have enough bars," said Larry Ramsey, Altoona.
"I don't see a problem with selling beer. Pennsylvania is behind the times anyway," said Jamie York, Hollidaysburg. "What is the difference whether you buy beer here or at TK Subs? A six-pack is a six-pack no matter where you buy it."
Sheetz is well thought of on a national basis.
"I think that if you look at reputations within the industry, Sheetz is unquestionably in the top 10 for innovation and execution," said Jeff Lenard, vice president, Industry Advocacy, of National Association of Convenience Stores.
Stan Sheetz was recently named a 2012 Golden Chain Award winner by Nation's Restaurant News. The award recognizes leaders in the restaurant industry who have consistently demonstrated improved overall business performance and growth.
He said he did not see it as a personal award.
"To recognize a company that came out of the convenience store business as a national operator of restaurants is great. It is a validation of what we have been trying to be here for years, to make us a food destination for our customers," Stan Sheetz said. "We were included with Bonefish Grill, a national chain; it is really an honor to be included with big operations like that. It is for the company and everything we have done, not for me."
Bob Sheetz, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., remains actively involved as part of the company planning team.
"I still spend part of every day thinking about our family business," he said. "I still love it. It will be a part of me until the day I die."
The Sheetz family is poised for the future.
The company recently announced that Joe Sheetz Jr., executive vice president of finance and store development, will advance to the position of president and CEO at the conclusion of the current fiscal year in October 2013.
Current president and CEO Stan Sheetz will move into the role of chairman, while Steve Sheetz will leave his chairman seat to fill a newly created position of family council chairman.
The new position will allow Steve Sheetz to represent the Sheetz family shareholders in company-related issues while remaining as chairman of CLI Transport, Sheetz's dedicated fuel carrier, and keeping his seat on the Sheetz board of directors.
"The future looks very bright," Stan Sheetz said. "We have great people here at Sheetz, a great culture. We have a drive to improve on everything we do and a drive to grow and continue growing.
"We serve a million customers a day," he added. "Why shouldn't we serve 2 million?"
Some younger members of the Sheetz family, including Adam, Bob's grandson and Stan's son, and Ryan, Louie Sheetz's son, will also help lead the company business into the future.
"These younger guys are real involved in the business. They are on our planning team. They have master's degrees - Ryan from Penn State and Adam from Emory University," Bob Sheetz said. "Those two young guys are as sharp as anybody in the company. They are good thinkers and planners, and they are creative. They have the pulse on what we need and how to keep changing for our customers. We think the company is in good shape."
Adam and Ryan Sheetz, both 29, are glad to be a part of the family business.
"I always wanted to join the family business. I felt it would be a pleasure to work for my family. I feel extremely lucky to work for a high performance company and my family every day," said Adam Sheetz, director of store operations for North Carolina. "I feel a lot of pressure, not externally, but internally there is pressure on how we perform."
"I didn't think there was an expectation to join the business. I just had a natural interest. I had a great deal of respect and admiration and pride in my father and his generation on how they grew the business," said Ryan Sheetz, director of supply chain. "There was no pressure or expectation. If you made that decision, you needed to get your hands dirty and earn your keep. I wouldn't have it any other way. You want to prove to yourself and the rest of the organization you are good enough to belong here and earn your spot."
Both are excited about the future of the company.
"We need people to consider the Sheetz name when they need a meal on the go. We need our name to be recognized like McDonald's and the like. Around here you can probably say we have already achieved that. In the newer markets, it is a bigger challenge," Adam Sheetz said.
"Adam and I are focused on what we are doing today. We have aspirations to advance to a significant leading role," Ryan Sheetz said. "Our focus is doing a good job today to try to add value to the company and do the right things. The bigger picture will take care of itself if we work hard today."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.