Monday, July 29, 2019

Fueled for Success: Q&A with Tiger Fuel President Gordon Sutton

In 1982, Gordon Sutton’s father, a successful lawyer, found himself in the unlikely position of running a fuel company. At the time, the company was a small short truck distribution business in Charlottesville, Virginia, selling three and a half million gallons of heating oil a year.

Today, Tiger Fuel is a large-scale operation with an employee count of 270. The company is no longer just about fuel – although the fuel business is expected to distribute approximately 124 million gallons to customers across Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina this year. Still headquartered in Charlottesville, the company now includes nine convenience stores with delis and operates 10 car washes under the All American Car Wash brand.

If you live in Charlottesville – and especially if you’re close to The Market at Bellair on Ivy Road – chances are you know about the gourmet-to-go experience that’s popular there. “We hear all these crazy stories about people driving two hours out of their way to get our sandwiches,” says Tiger Fuel President Gordon Sutton. “The line will be wrapped around the inside of the store and coming back out the store into the lot during UVA game days!”

Gordon, alongside his brother Taylor, runs the business now. Gordon is humble, unassuming, grounded, and articulate. Though he grew up in the business – at 15 years old, riding his bike to go pump gas, wipe windshields and check oil – he once dreamt of a life out West chasing fish. But it’s “Pickle People” he and his team chase today. Here’s more about this soft-spoken, inspiring young entrepreneur.

 

Q: Tiger Fuel is really diversified. Can you break it down for us?

A: It really breaks down pretty cleanly into three equal buckets. There’s the retail company, which has the stores and the car washes; then we have what we call the short truck or home heat side of our business, which is propane and heating oil [this side of the business serves customers from Appomattox all the way to Culpeper, Virginia]; and then there’s the commercial and wholesale fuel distribution side of the business. This business unit serves the whole state of Virginia into North Carolina, West Virginia and parts of Maryland through a vast network of dealers.

Q: You clearly love Charlottesville, but at one point you thought seriously about living out West. Is that right?

Yes. So I was born and bred here in Charlottesville – went to school here and the University of Virginia – so I’m very passionate about UVA. Charlottesville is a very important part of who I am, who this company is, and what we’re all about.

After UVA, I went to Wyoming. I was a fishing guide out there for three years. I thought that was going to be my “astronaut job,” you know – that I was going to die doing that. And I thought that’s why I was on this earth. And I pretty quickly realized that I had turned the thing I loved the most in the world into work. I also realized I wasn’t realizing my full potential or taking advantage of the gift of a solid education that my parents gave me. So I moved back. 

Q: What sets Tiger Fuel and The Markets apart from your competitors?

A: If you think about it, our business, our products, are very generic. You know, nobody’s buying propane from Tiger because it’s better than AmeriGas’s. Nobody’s buying Budweiser or gas or Gatorade at our stores because it’s better than what’s at Sheetz. They’re buying them from us because of our people and our culture and our service. We try to make each customer feel like a celebrity – giving them what we call Tiger Way Service.

That said – and as much as I said our products are generic – we are really, really good at food. In fact, Bon Appétit magazine credited us with being the first gourmet-to-go gas station. I mean, we’re selling poached salmon and seared steak. Our chefs come from the nicest restaurants downtown and get paid really well. So I’d say what sets us apart is our people, and our commitment to our people, and to the food and service we give.

Sutton with pickle stickers and Tiger Way button.

And I realize that sounds pretty generic, but we really believe that, and it’s baked into our DNA. It’s how we define ourselves. We have a really dynamic, amazing human resources department, and we’re really, really focused on hiring what we call Pickle People.

Q: Did you say “Pickle People”?

A: YES. Part of our onboarding training, or Tiger Way Training, is a half-day training, and there’s a video in there about a successful restaurant. The whole mantra is just, “Give the customer the pickle,” you know? Like, do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. And so we’ve carried that over. I mean, I have pickle socks, we have pickle badges and stickers. It works its way into our hiring process.

Q. In the last few years, you’ve opened three new retail stores and hired 70 employees. How do you find and retain employees?

Again, we have an amazing HR department. They go above and beyond the call of duty. We also pay well, and we have amazing benefits. For example, we just built our own primary care facility with a partner that’s exclusively for our employees. We offer that to part-time hourly folks in the stores. So we’re very, very committed to our employees.

We are also very community minded. The philanthropic work that we’re doing at Tiger is something I’m super, super proud of, and I think it also really helps our ability to recruit and retain, as well. And I think, more importantly, it makes the team feel really great and makes them want to stay and feel good about what they’re doing. It makes them happy at work, which makes them give that great service.

Sutton and his forum at VACEOs Annual Retreat

Q: How has your VACEOs Forum helped you?

I’ve found that it’s been very, very rewarding on a personal level more than anything. When I first got in this role, I was sort of overwhelmed. Nobody wants to hear you complain, and I get that. It’s hard for people to be sympathetic, because they look at you and they’re like, “Oh, you’re at the top!” I totally understand it. But it has been valuable and useful to me to be able to get some stuff off my chest. Sometimes you just need to have somebody to whine to and have them not scoff in your face. The people in my forum group understand what you’re dealing with and are sympathetic.

So it’s been the most beneficial from a personal standpoint – making me a better husband, better father. And I think that correlates to being a better boss and happier person in general, and all of that has an effect. And there are some really, really smart, seasoned, capable people doing some exciting things, and so I’ve learned a lot, too.

“I think if you’re not growing, you’re dying. I know it’s a cliché, but I believe it.” – Gordon Sutton, President, Tiger Fuel

 
Q: What’s next for you?

A: Continued investment in solar energy projects and diversification into real estate development. We have invested heavily in solar, and we will continue to do that. We’re also developing 33 acres at Zion Crossroads, which will be more of a traditional big box development with a big-name grocery store, a hotel, a couple of restaurants, and apartments and townhomes. That’s a departure for us.

I don’t want to look back on my career and think I just sort of took this gravy opportunity and coasted. I want to look back and say, “I really made a difference. I have that. I made it bigger and better. I created more opportunities for more people.” And so that’s an important part of our future – continuing to grow. I think if you’re not growing, you’re dying. I know it’s a cliché, but I believe it.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Gordon! 

Learn more about Tiger Fuel and The Markets.

About VA Council of CEOs
Virginia Council of CEOs members represent a wide range of industries and business sizes. Hundreds of SMB CEOs in Virginia have found the Council to be a critical resource in growing their companies – and themselves. Learn more about the benefits of VACEOs membership.

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