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Little General Store chain turns into a big business

BECKLEY - The next time a natural disaster like last year's derecho or Superstorm Sandy strikes, the Little General Store Inc. chain will be better prepared.

Greg Darby, president of the 110-store, West Virginia-based chain of convenience and gasoline stores and restaurants, said the company is installing generators so at least one Little General can remain open and serve as a hub in each region the company serves.

"We're in the service industry," Darby said. "I think it's important we're doing that for the consumers. By doing that, we're protecting the customers."

Following the June 29 derecho, 78 Little General Stores were without electricity. After Superstorm Sandy swept through the region on Oct. 29, 47 stores were without power.

"As we build new stores, we're putting generators in them," Darby said. "We're also putting some on trailers, to move around."

A generator that is large enough to power a modern-day convenience store and gas station costs $50,000 to $60,000, Darby said. Even that doesn't guarantee a store can remain open.

"If we can't keep fuel coming to a store, that's a problem," Darby said. "After Sandy, the fuel terminals were out of power and some roads were too bad for trucks to get to our stores."

Becoming better prepared for emergencies is just one of many challenges Darby has faced in the convenience store business.

Twenty years ago, a typical store was 2,000 square feet. "Now it's 6,000 square feet with a restaurant on the side and there are 10 pumps instead of four," he said. "The survivors have changed to survive.

"I think customers like to go to what's new, bigger, brighter, safer and has more to offer - more convenience, more restrooms. We spend a lot of effort on our interstate stores, building huge restrooms for our customers. Our Flat Top store has the biggest restrooms I've ever built."

Little General tries to rebuild one store every year.

"If it's a good location that could be better, you try to expand it or put a restaurant in with it," Darby said. "I think the life of a store is about 20 years. Then it needs redone."

The convenience store and gasoline business is crowded. Competitors include Go-Mart, Sheetz, 7-Eleven and One Stop, to name a few.

Darby said what sets Little General apart is that it's a branded company, meaning it sells name brand items.

"We sell branded gas, branded food. We sell BP, Exxon, Sunoco and Marathon gas. We operate 70 restaurants, and they're all branded food concepts."

Little General has become a major restaurateur. The company has 29 Subways, seven Arby's, 16 Godfathers Pizzas, four Taco Bells, two Steak Escapes, and 11 Sam's Hot Dog stands. Little General also operates the 79er Restaurant off Interstate 79 in Burnsville.

Most of the restaurants are either inside or attached to one of the company's convenience stores, but 14 are freestanding units.

Darby believes the company has a good reputation, which also helps.

"We're local," he said. "We try to participate in all of the local areas where we operate."

He is chairman of Remember the Miners, an organization that supports coal miners and their families with scholarships and events. During the holidays, Little General was a major contributor to the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program. The company is a big backer of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and it provides scholarships each year to high school students in communities where it operates.

Little General supports West Virginia University sports and is a major advertiser. Darby gets kidded a lot for looking like WVU head basketball coach Bob Huggins. They are best friends. Darby's Beckley office contains autographed mementoes and photos of Huggins as well as head football coach Dana Holgorsen.

The company is the sponsor of Taylor Made, a trio of country music artists from Taylor County.

"We have them in Nashville now," Darby said as he handed out the group's latest compact disc.

Over the years, Little General has weathered some difficult times.

The worst occurred on Jan. 30, 2007, when a propane gas tank exploded at a Little General store in Ghent, killing four people and injuring six.

The accident occurred when technicians were attempting to transfer propane from an existing tank to a new tank. Propane escaped from a faulty valve and filled the store. A spark of undetermined origin set off the explosion.

"It was one of the worst days of my life," Darby said. "Several of the people were my friends, people I went to school with, my employees.

"I got there within 30 minutes," he recalled. "I was amazed at the emergency vehicles on site. Gov. Manchin called. Nobody knew what had happened or the impact of what had happened. It's one of those things you see on the news and think, 'It'll never happen here.' We didn't hide. We tried to help all of the families. It was a freak accident."

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board's inspectors subsequently determined that a 500-gallon propane tank was too close to the building and there had been a lack of training for technicians and emergency crews. National fire codes were amended to require specific training and testing for all people who handle propane.

"Looking back, we're going to donate the property where that happened to the deceased's families and build a memorial there," Darby said. "It is in process as we speak. We did not build that store back."

Darby has worked for Little General since 1980, when he graduated from West Virginia University with an accounting degree. At the time, the company had eight stores. In 1999, when Darby and Cory Beasley bought Little General from Robert Workman and Harold Wilkes, the company had 42 stores.

Darby is president of the company and runs the day-to-day operations. Beasley is chief executive officer. The company now has more than 1,400 employees and is the 29th largest employer in West Virginia.

In a crowded market, "you've got to pick good locations," Darby said. "We're looking at rural or interstate."

Rural locations like Harts, Bradshaw and Pineville don't always have a lot of competitors. Off the interstates, there's more opportunity for volume because the traffic counts are much higher.

Little General is currently building a convenience store, Shell gas station and Arby's in Quincy that is scheduled to open in April. The company also has a convenience store, Sunoco gas station and Steak Escape under construction at Exit 132 off Interstate 79 at Fairmont.

Darby said the company is moving in several directions.

"Our northernmost store was in Weston until we began building in Fairmont," he said. "We want to fill in between Weston and Fairmont. We would like to grow toward Kentucky. We are not in Kentucky today. We are currently in southwestern Virginia and would like to grow in that market. We just opened our first store in Ohio, at Albany - near Athens."

Some convenience store operators are concerned that a number of their customers want to pay at the pump and never come into the store.

"I think we have two kinds of customers," Darby said, "the kind that don't want to go in the store and the kind that want to go in the store. We try to be everything to everybody.

"We have the customer with a baby in the car who told me she wouldn't go in the store," he said. "But you'll see some people pay at the pump and then go in the store and buy something else."

Darby is keenly aware that people get upset when gasoline prices rise. The irony is, "we make a lot less money when the price goes up than when it goes down."

As for gasoline, "It is like insurance: It's something you don't really want to buy, but you've got to have it."

Contact writer George Hohmann at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.

 


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