Paying tribute to Virgil Vonder Haar, a father, grandfather and master of the art of empathy

By Joe Vonder Haar

Relationships in the convenience-store industry are very personal. From the C-suite to individual c-stores, personal interactions matter. The c-store channel’s way of doing business puts a premium on personal interactions. Who would keep coming back to a place that did not make them feel good about their daily spend of time and money? Long-standing relationships at the store and along the full demand/supply chain has made this industry resilient and highly adaptable.

Amid looming threats from e-commerce, c-stores have had some immunity from the likes of Amazon. The emergence of Uber Eats, Grubhub and new technology to conquer the challenges of the “last mile” for convenience items can be cause for concern about tougher times ahead.

The Tough Sell

I recently came across a nearly 10-year-old article in Selling Power magazine that spoke to the very idea of how relationships can affect sales.

The 2010 article, “Selling Tips From Someone Who Sold in the Great Depression,” was written by Ira Hayes, a name familiar to me. Hayes was one of the greatest influences on my father, Virgil Vonder Haar, and a superstar salesman at NCR. Like my father, Hayes shared the ideals and practices of Dale Carnegie and led a very successful business career by, in Carnegie’s parlance, “winning friends and influencing people.” It made me smile to recall some of Hayes’ wisdom that Dad shared with me when I started my career:

  • “Write it down! Great ideas get lost if you don’t capture them every day.”
  • “Always say thank you. Write thank-you notes as often as you can. When they have that personal note in their hands, it makes it easier for your customer to give you that next order.”

The single most important lesson that my father practiced daily: “Never start a conversation or open a sales call without smiling.”

“Be cheerful and optimistic,” Hayes wrote. “Whenever anyone asks ‘How are you?’ always smile and say, ‘Just fine,’ or ‘Great’ or ‘Wonderful.’ Never tell anyone you are struggling or business is bad. People want to do business with successful people. Negative comments indicate something is wrong with the product or with you.”

Positive Notes

My father, a World War II Navy veteran, took Hayes’ point further with this simple approach: You have a choice to be a positive influence in some small way with every person you encounter. The worst case of you being positive is indifference, but the best case has tremendous upside.

Throughout his career, including as owner of the Vonder Haar Concrete Co., people gravitated to Dad because of this. He always showed genuine interest in others and excelled at the art of empathy and making friends.

After Dad retired, I had the opportunity to drive with him on short business trips. Even in retirement he practiced this positivity. For example, on a visit to Kwik Trip in La Crosse, Wis., Steve Loehr, vice president of support center operations, welcomed the two of us. Loehr, who at the time was also chairman of NACS, asked Dad how he was doing as we came out of a driving December snow. My then 88-year-old father gave a warm smile and said, “Great!”

The competitive advantage of speed of service, product selection, price and location are all susceptible to competitive forces. The personal relationship developed with our customers every day may be the most significant barrier to entry for impersonal technology. Treating our customers with a positive attitude every day will keep them coming back, and we will continue to not only own the last mile but also the last foot, where loyal friends are made.

Note: While I was composing this article, my father passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 93. He was a tremendous influence on my personal and professional life, and I can only hope to honor his legacy. When I see you next and you ask how I am doing, the answer you will get from me: “Great!” because of this.

This column ran in the October issue of CSP. Click here to view the full issue.