Will Alexander, VP, RaceTrac | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND.

Putting the "IT" in Pit Stops

By Karen Rosen, ATLANTA TREND™


Will Alexander stays organized and process-oriented by making a lot of lists.

“In an ever-changing, fast-paced industry and company, if you don’t watch out, you can lose your focus on process and kind of start shooting from the hip,” says Will, who is Vice President of IS and Special Projects at RaceTrac. “And that typically doesn’t bode well long term.”

Will says that just as important as making a good decision is “making sure that everybody knows the decision that was made.”

He learned this lesson growing up in the small town of Tennille, Ga., “the true one-stoplight town.” Because there were only 37 students in his graduating class, Will played football, basketball and baseball, an opportunity he wouldn’t have had at a larger school.

“I can remember a basketball coach saying if you come down the court and you’re not sure what defence the other team is playing against you, you can’t just not call a play, because then you’re going to have people doing all kinds of different things,” he recalls. “So even if you call the wrong play, at least the team is working together. Obviously you want to call the right play, but keeping the team on the same page -- having that communication -- gives you a better chance for success.”

Will went to college at Georgia Tech, which had more students than the county he grew up in.

“At first it was a challenge, just coming from a small town to a big city, but I got used to it and loved it,” he says. He pursued a degree in mechanical engineering because of the different options it gave him for his career.

After graduating, Will took a job with Milliken & Company, a privately-held textile and chemical manufacturing company. “Great company, tough industry,” Will says. He stayed with Milliken for four years, working in three different locations and holding four different jobs including Process Improvement Manager and Senior Production Manager.

At about age 27, Will realized his next career move would be to plant manager, but probably not for a few more years. He had always split his time between the small towns where Milliken had plants and Atlanta, where his friends and his girlfriend – who later became his wife – still lived.

Drawn Back to Atlanta

Will decided to attend the Georgia Tech Career Fair, where he was introduced to Atlanta-based RaceTrac. He started in Special Projects, which leads large initiatives involving multiple departments. He was given an initiative to implement a back office software solution for stores to make modifications to the point of sale.

For example, instead of recording that a soda was sold, the point of sale would now be capable of recording that the soda was a 12-ounce Diet Coke. This helped stores know what was driving sales.

The successful completion of that project opened the door for Will to move into the Information Systems department, where he became the director of the retail systems team.

A couple of years later, Will moved over to become director of IT and began establishing a process management system there. He says not having a background in IS or IT was beneficial for him. “It’s hard for me to micro-manage because I can’t tell you how to code something,” he says, “but I can tell you, ‘This is where we need to be. You take us there.’”

Also, since Will had worked on both major sides of the department -- IS and IT – he was able to understand how the two 20-member teams needed to work together and what they needed from each other.

“I was able to see where the pain points were and how we could alleviate those so we could get things to market faster,” he says.

At the same time, Will was also earning his MBA in finance from Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business.

In January he became a Vice President after running the department as an executive director since last year. Will also took over the Special Projects team, which has about 10 people.

Ways to Win Loyalty

The IS team is tasked with coming up with innovations to control costs and be more efficient while providing a safe environment.

“In this economy, you’re fighting for every bit of business that you can get,” Will says.

He says the company can win customers – which RaceTrac calls guests -- the first time with the price of the fuel, “but then you’ll keep them with your consistency, with your product offering, with your guest service. We’ve got to win our guest every time that they drive by our store. If you buy a laptop, you might make that purchase once a year, but how often do you buy gas? So we’ve got to be consistent and win that consumer, that guest’s loyalty.”

RaceTrac, which relies on volume, has 562 stores split between 279 RaceTracs, which are company-owned and operated, and 283 RaceWays, which are company-owned and contract-operated. RaceTrac, whose major markets are in Georgia, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana, hopes to build about 50 stores this year, after opening around 25 last year.

RaceTrac doesn’t drill for oil or refine it; it is an independent retailer and has contracts with major oil and gas companies. Most RaceTracs feature 20-24 fuelling positions and a 5,000-plus square foot convenience store offering more than 4,000 items.

The convenience store industry over the past couple of years has been emphasizing food service, especially in the areas of fresh food and coffee.

“But you still have the same key metrics,” Will says. “As an IS department, what we can do is give that data to our users faster so they can make quicker business decisions.”

That can come from more timely sales information and using analytics, such as when a person buys a cup of coffee, what else is he or she buying?

“I think over the last few years it has become easier to store a lot of data and have access to different data streams,” Will says. “Now, the challenge is getting it, compiling it and presenting it in a timely manner and in a manner in which someone can make a decision on it.”

The IS group also makes sure everything runs smoothly as far as computers, telephones, etc. “But that’s just meeting expectations,” Will says. “If you just stop there, you can’t be successful long term. You’ve got to be able to show your senior management that you’re adding value; you’re not just keeping the lights on.

“Our motto is to be a business partner, not just a utility.”

Secrets to Success

1) In whatever you’re doing, you’ve got to have metrics. You’ve got to be able to measure your performance. It’s the old adage that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth measuring.

2) Listen to your team and provide them with the tools they need to be successful. When you set up these metrics -- this is where we are and this is where we want to be -- then you’ve got to make sure that you give them all the support and the tools that they need to get there.

3) Have process and communication. “Understand what your team members are doing so you’re not getting your paths crossed up.”

4) Empower your teams to make decisions and then hold them accountable.

Will Alexander is Vice President of IS and Special Projects at RaceTrac. ATLANTA TREND
expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Will Alexander for sharing his thoughts with us.


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