Casey’s Serving More Communities–And Pizza–Across Heartland

COO Williams leads expansion of operations and c-stores as iconic regional chain grows its footprint.

Casey’s General Stores are a fixture at many intersections throughout the heartland, a consumer oasis that offers the usual c-store provisions of gasoline, Twinkies, bags of ice, energy drinks and cigarettes – but also catapults past competitors by preparing and serving A-game pizza right on the premises. The company has grown to become the fourth-largest convenience-store retailer and, actually, the fifth-largest pizza chain in the United States.

Now, the Ankeny, Iowa-based operator with about 2,240 stores in 16 states has pushed past Covid and entered an expansion mode that already has included two major acquisitions. Casey’s is focused on organically adding another roughly 200 stores over the next three years, filling in its existing footprint in small cities, suburbs and rural towns, and entering a few adjacent states in flyover country.

Organic growth includes acquiring mom-and-pop gas-station locations as well as building Casey’s on fresh real estate. The company also is constructing a $62-million, state-of-the-art warehouse, logistics and distribution center in Joplin, Missouri – Casey’s third such facility – to supply 400 to 600 of the stores it’s adding.

In doing all of this, Casey’s is doubling down on its original mission of providing necessities to shoppers in the markets it serves, with a point of view from which many companies could learn: Keep finding new ways to serve your communities, and you’ll grow.

“We’ve proven that we’re a necessity in smaller communities, and we don’t take that lightly,” Ena Williams, Casey’s chief operating officer, told Chief Executive. “Certain communities are under-served, and we fill that gap very well with pizza and our other fresh-food offerings: sandwiches, salads, doughnuts, pastries. And we offer other groceries as well, and fuel. There’s still a big need out there for our presence.”

Williams joined Casey’s last year in a newly created position after a decade of experience at 7-Eleven, headquartered in Dallas, where she was senior vice president and head of international. Before that, she spent more than 15 years in retail operations with ExxonMobil and was CEO of medical-equipment provider National HME.

Her arrival at Casey’s—along with that of a new chief financial officer, Steve Bramlage—helped CEO Darren Rebelez, who joined Casey’s in 2019, plot and initiate a new growth strategy. Casey’s acquired Buchanan Energy, owner of the Bucky’s Convenience Store chain, last year for $580 million and, earlier this year, 49 Circle K stores from Canadian parent, Alimentation Couche-Tard, for $39 million. Casey’s is trying for greater concentrations in its central-U.S. footprint where, in its home market of Des Moines, the chain has about 200 stores.

“The acquisitions allowed us to make a big dent in our commitment to add new stores right out of the gate, helping us to fill out some of the geography,” Williams said. In Oklahoma City, for example, Circle K’s long have proliferated. “We could do it in a big swoop rather than taking years with a new-to-industry approach.”

The construction of the Joplin distribution center, adding to the company’s existing warehouse operations in Ankeny and Terre Haute, Indiana, is aimed at leaning into one of Casey’s great competitive advantages: being self-distributed versus relying on third parties. “We’re able to control giving our stores whatever they need, when they need it,” Williams said. Unlike some rivals, Casey’s is “not bound by someone’s schedule.”

Yet for Casey’s, uniquely in the c-store business, success still goes back to the pizza. Since opening its first store in Boone, Iowa, in 1968, Casey’s has made its own pizza in a full-service kitchen on site, formulating dough, using whole-milk mozzarella cheese and adding sauce and toppings from scratch.

During Covid, Casey’s managed to obtain “essential retailer” status and was able to maintain its pizza-making operations, putting safety measures in place for employees, eliminating self-service in some stores as well as fountain drinks, adding curbside delivery, and enhancing its own as well as third-party delivery services.

“We wanted to do everything we had to do to serve guest and make them comfortable,” Williams said. “That accelerated some of our plans, such as on the digital side. And we had to add labor here and there. But we did what we had to do to help our team stay safe, whether it was masks or other precautions.”