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Business Spotlight

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by Kris Ann Hegle

SBJ Contributing Writer

Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, made a name for himself by setting up stores in rural communities and later venturing into metropolitan areas. Robert Wilson, founder and president of Rapid Robert's Inc., is using a similar strategy to expand his business.

A native of Crane, Wilson has 19 Rapid Robert's stores located throughout the Ozarks. While Springfield has three Rapid Roberts, most of the stores are located in small towns stretching from Eureka Springs, Ark., to Osage Beach. According to Wilson, the convenience store market is better in smaller towns because there aren't as many competitors and operating costs are lower.

"All of our stores are locally owned and operated," Wilson said. "The people who run the stores live in town, and the profits stay local."

While most of the products stocked at each store are the same, the range of services provided by each Rapid Robert's store varies. Two locations one in Springfield and another in Ozark rent videos under the banner of Rapid Robert's Movie Madness, and three other locations also offer video rentals.

Other Rapid Robert's locations offer services ranging from a coin-operated laundry to an automatic car wash to an in-house fast-food franchise. The trend in the convenience store market is to offer more services, particularly in rural areas Wilson said.

"We try to tailor the product mix and services we offer to individual stores in each market area," Wilson said. "Some of our stores in smaller towns are like mini-business centers. Rapid Robert's might be the only place in town where you can do banking, send faxes, buy stamps or use a copy machine all in one stop."

Unlike some convenience stores, Rapid Robert's only sells name-brand gasoline from Conoco, according to Wilson. Wilson also serves on the national advisory council for Conoco, which gives him the opportunity to voice his opinion on the ways Conoco can increase business among the stores that sell its gasoline.

Because of the store's affiliation, Conoco also works closely with Wilson to ensure quality service. Of Conoco's 5,000 affiliated retail outlets, Rapid Robert's stores have always ranked in the Top 10, according to Wilson.

Recently, Conoco surveyed customers to find out what services they wanted when they visited a convenience store, Wilson said. As a result, Rapid Robert's is undergoing a face lift of sorts.

The fountain drink and coffee service areas are being revamped, and brighter, easy-to-read gas price signs are being installed. Personal safety also ranked as a concern, and Wilson said he is increasing safety measures at each store.

"We're adding security cameras, increasing our perimeter lighting, making our gas pump area brighter and cleaner, and removing items and other obstructions so customers will be in full view of an employee when they're pumping gas," he said.

Indeed, tweaking service here and there can make a lot of difference, Wilson said.

"We compete with everything from local mom-and-pop operations all the way up to big chains like Casey's," Wilson said. "We deal with competition by having a courteous friendly staff, better customer service, a better product mix and better pricing."

One of the bigger challenges Wilson said he faces is attracting career-minded employees to join his staff of 120 people. According to Wilson, it's getting tougher to attract people as more businesses spring up in the area.

"We're constantly expanding, and there's opportunities to move up," Wilson said. "We provide excellent benefits, including health insurance, paid vacations, paid holidays, a competitive salary, a 401 (k) retirement plan and a good bonus program."

To keep employees motivated, Wilson uses open-book management, he said. The system has helped the business and allowed employees to reach their goals in the company's bonus program.

In the future, Wilson said, he is looking to expand the services offered by his stores particularly food services and add new locations. In fact, another Rapid Robert's is scheduled to open before the end of the year, he said.

Rapid Robert's:

Management style: Open-book management

Year founded: 1983

Address and phone number: PO Box 58, 101 N. Commerce, Crane 65633. 723-5251.

Owner's name: Rapid Roberts Inc.

PHOTO CAPTION:

Robert Wilson is following a business strategy similar to that of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

PHOTO CAPTION:

Rapid Robert's sells only name-brand gasoline from Conoco.

PHOTO CAPTION:

Robert Wilson's convenience stores pepper the Ozarks with 19 locations in the region. [[In-content Ad]]

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