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Casey’s Turnaround CEO on the Lessons of West Point

Darren Rebelez
With leadership skills developed as a USMA cadet, Casey’s CEO Darren Rebelez is pulling off one of the tougher tricks in the C-suite: turning around a company that isn’t an obvious turnaround.

When Casey’s CEO Darren Rebelez heads to West Point as one of the keynote speakers at our upcoming Talent Summit April 10-12 (join us!) it won’t be as a stranger, that’s for sure. It’ll be a homecoming.

Rebelez is U.S. Military Academy class of 1988, and, he admits, he’s more surprised than anyone that he’ll be back, high above the Hudson, talking about leadership. As a newly-minted infantry lieutenant, he never anticipated that he’d someday be running one of the fastest growing, most beloved chain stores in the U.S. But he is, and what he learned at West Point, he says, is a big part of his playbook for doing so.

“West Point was where I learned leadership,” he said in a recent conversation with Chief Executive. “A lot of people think of it as a liberal arts school or an engineering school, but it’s really a leadership school that teaches you all that other stuff. It’s the foundation of my leadership.”

That leadership is certainly working for Casey’s. If you’re from the American Midwest, chances are you love Casey’s. Known for pulling off the remarkable culinary trick of paring convenience-store, well, convenience, with delicious, hand-made pizza, the publicly-traded chain has been on a tear over the past five years under Rebelez, with shares up more than 138 percent, far outstripping the performance of giants like Starbucks and McDonalds. It’s now the fifth-largest pizza restaurant in the country—and the only one that also sells gas.

That success was hardly predestined. When Rebelez, who had been running IHOP, took the top job at Casey’s in 2019 and settled in at the company’s Ankeny, Iowa HQ, he found a solid business that had been around for 50 or so years but had lost more than a bit of its mojo. So he set about trying to pull off one of the tougher tricks in C-suite leadership: turning around a company that isn’t exactly an obvious turnaround.

To do so, he refocused around the stores, where 42,000 of the company’s 44,000 employees work, scattered across 17 states. He dove into M&A, buying up smaller chains across the Midwest and South and working hard to make them all play as one team. And he focused on shifting the culture to one where the leaders become more deliberate listeners, and where everyone—from Ankeny HQ to the cash registers—is more “guest” focused in ways that remind you of best-of-breed companies like Chick-fil-a and Four Seasons.

As we prepared for his upcoming panel at our 2024 Talent Summit, I asked Rebelez what it was about West Point that had stuck with him, how that played out in his day-to-day leadership, and what we might all learn from how he keeps a business as fast-growing and sprawling as Casey’s cohesive and mission-focused. Here’s some of what he had to say, edited for length and clarity:

What is it about West Point that shaped your leadership style that you took away with you that you’re now using as you’re running Casey’s?

What I’ve taken away primarily is that leadership is not about you, it’s about them, and it’s about the people you lead. Fundamentally, the way you lead people is by building trust in them. How do you build the trust? Well, you provide them with what they need to do their jobs and do it well and you have to be there, you have to be present.

I’ve kind of said that 80 percent of leadership is just showing up. If you’re not there, you can’t lead. I’ve really learned over the years that you have to be on the ground where the action is, you have to talk to people, you have to treat people with respect, you have to listen to them, and give them the tools that they need to be successful in their job. When you do that, you start to build trust. And when you build trust, then when you need to get the job done, they believe in you and they’ll follow you.

When you took over at Casey’s, what did you find and what did you do?

What I found was it was a good company. It had been around for 50 years, very successful, but it kind of hit a flat spot. In some ways they were a victim of their own success and felt like, “Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

In that process, the leadership had become a bit disconnected from the stores and from where all of our people are. We have 44,000 team members, about 42,000 of them are in stores. So if you’re going to lead this company, you better be leading in the stores and be in touch with what’s going on there.

We needed to have a fundamental pivot in terms of how we showed up at work every day and where our focus was—and the focus needed to be on taking care of the stores, listening to what the stores needed, and [to have] everybody else get on board and try to figure out how it is we provide the stores with the tools that they need to be successful and take care of our guests every day.

One of the first things that you did was you had a big town hall—and the fact that you had a town hall at all was kind of a big deal. Can you talk a little bit about that, that first get-together, and what you did and what you said?

The town hall was a pretty big deal, that very first one. I’d only been in the company about two months, but, you know, I’ve always believed that transparency is important if you’re going to build trust with people. So right after an earnings call we have about the most freedom we have to be able to share our results and what’s going well and what’s not going well. So we had a town hall with a primary purpose of sharing our results and communicating some direction. Being the new leader of the company, I wanted to set a couple of what I would call ground rules, but I didn’t call them that, just a couple of elements that we wanted to make sure that we operated with.

One of those—and most importantly—was that we were going to be focused on stores. So I decided to rename our corporate headquarters the Store Support Center. Unbeknownst to the team at the time, while we were talking about that, our facilities team was out front changing the sign on the corporate headquarters to say Casey Store Support Center. So we had the town hall, we talked about that, and then everybody drove home that night and drove right by the sign and saw that the sign had changed. That was a symbol that we were moving forward with that and that wasn’t a flavor of the day. There was some permanence to that.

The other thing we said is we’re going to refer to each other as teammates because this is a team sport and we all have to work together and there’s going to be a spirit of collaboration that it takes so that we can be more effective in taking care of our stores, and our store team members can take care of our guests—that was the other thing we changed was referring to our customers as guests. Because we’re in the food business I think of ourselves in the hospitality business and we refer to customers in the hospitality business as guests because you’re welcoming them into your environment, your home.

We prepare food from scratch in our stores every day, and so there’s a different level of care and a different level of execution that’s required to do that consistently and with quality. So if you think of those folks coming into your store as a guest in your home, you put that extra care and love into everything you do and that translates into a better satisfaction.

The big strategy in the last few years has been a lot of tuck-in acquisitions. What’s the playbook there for making sure that the places you take over, the people come in and become part of the Casey’s culture?

I give all the credit to our acquisition integration team. The first thing is we have a dedicated team that does this. They’re very good at what they do, they’ve got a lot of practice at it. Every acquisition is going to be a little bit different. But when we take over a business, that acquisition team really leads with our values. We call them Casey’s CARES: commitment, authenticity, respect, evolving and service. That team starts off by onboarding those team members from whatever business that we’ve acquired and teaching them those values and really letting people know that this is the expectation of all of ourselves and this is the expectation of you as a new team member in Casey’s.

Setting that expectation upfront is very important. A lot of times in acquisitions, people aren’t very clear about what’s expected of them, and so those new team members, they just do what they’ve always done because they didn’t know any better. We set that expectation upfront and then we follow through. We really do a lot of work to make sure those stores are part of the family. We don’t treat them like a stepchild. We don’t have them off in a separate group anywhere. We get them integrated as soon as possible. We remodel those stores. We put our processes and systems in place.

Many times, because these are smaller businesses, there’s a lot of change, but there’s a lot of improvement. We put a lot of technology in place that makes their jobs easier. We change some processes in place that make their jobs easier. We give them new products to sell, which is kind of fun for them. So their guests are happier. Pretty soon they start to realize, “Hey, this is pretty fun. This is a better way of working.” So they buy in.

This is obviously a tricky time for talent, for cultural cohesiveness. You’re doing it at scale, 42,000 people across 2,600 locations. Any tips from how you make it feel like one company?

For me, it’s all about leadership and making sure you have the right leaders in place. I’ll be completely honest with you: We’ve had to go through a couple of iterations with different leaders in different roles that really weren’t embracing the culture and weren’t embracing our values—and very talented people, by the way, but they didn’t want to embrace the culture.

I’m always reminded of Lou Holtz. He was doing an interview and they asked him, “How do you always have these teams at Notre Dame that are so…all the players are so positive and so motivated, so fired up?” He said, “It’s real easy. I just eliminate the ones that aren’t.”

I’ve always reminded myself of that. That’s not the way we like to lead, but ultimately we’re going to have a certain culture that we’ve embraced and that our team has bought into, and we’re having success. So if people don’t want to buy into that culture, then they can go somewhere else, that’s okay. But we’re not going to tolerate bad behavior or bad leadership.

One of the other things that has really helped our culture is when our team members more broadly see people that aren’t living up to that culture, that we hold them accountable. Hopefully, that’s through coaching and they get better. Sometimes coaching runs out, then you have to make people changes. And we’re okay doing that too, if that’s what it takes.


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