Global Partners: Innovation from Behind the Frontline
President and CEO Eric Slifka shares how Global Partners is innovating for good
COVID-19 has changed how we define phrases such as “front line worker,” “community,” and “family.” These concepts have taken on new meaning since the pandemic began. Though COVID-19 has introduced new obstacles for businesses and individuals, it has also created incredible opportunities for humanity to shine through.
Some of our clients are leaning into their internal cultures to bring valuable resources and actions to their communities as the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the inspiring stories we heard was that of client Global Partners, an independent owner, supplier, and operator of gasoline stations and convenience stores throughout the United States. They deliver the energy products and services that people need for everyday life. As we talked with them, it hit us that sometimes innovation happens through actions as opposed to products or services.
We spoke with President and CEO Eric Slifka to learn how communication is at the heart of how Global Partners is Innovating for Good.
Tell us about Global Partners and how you initially reacted to COVID-19.
Global Partners is a family business. My grandfather started his retail home heating oil business in the 1930s, delivering five-gallon pails of K1 kerosene. In the 1950s, my dad, a gregarious character and lover of life, started consolidating retail home heating oil companies, and from there, we just grew.
Family businesses can be complicated, but charity has always been at the core of what we do and communication is at the heart of it all. Since the pandemic, we have made a point to widely communicate and share internally each of the inspirational accounts of aid from our teams, in hopes that it motivates more of our employees to take action. Whether it’s senior staff, managers, or store associates, the COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged our initiatives around giving and has changed how we communicate within our company, forever.
Early on, we realized we needed to focus on frontline associates in our convenience stores. These are the essential people facing our guests every day. It was complicated because we have over 1,500 retail stores in 15 states, each with different safety guidelines and regulations. As such, we created a specialized task force that met multiple times per week to figure out how to take immediate action.
To us, the call during this pandemic is taking care of those who work in all the communities we touch, who are out there 8-10 hours each day.
One of our teams came up with an idea of feeding all 3,500 of our store employees and terminal operators. They have been on the front lines from the start. Whether it is making sure that we are supplying 10,000 gallon truckloads of diesel fuel to first responders or delivering that cup of coffee to a worker who needs an extra bit of comfort, it’s all about making lives better in the communities we serve.
What was it about the culture at Global Partners that allowed you to make the quick pivot to the way you’re communicating now?
During this crisis, one of the reasons we have been able to innovate is because we have so many great people in the company who continually push us to be better.
Senior staff has been very supportive of what we are doing, and that’s allowed us to empower our store managers to reach out to their communities and specifically decide where they want to lend support with their time and money. When you take the approach that all business is local, it’s hard not to be supportive of that.
Though Global Partners is headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, some of the communities your organization supports are in Oregon. Can you share a little about that connection?
When I first started traveling to Oregon, I was fortunate to interact with businesses at a local level. Previously, Global Partners was a very inward organization, and the Oregon business community taught me the value of putting yourself out there and communicating clearly and regularly. It changed the lens through which I interact with our terminals and with other regions. It’s been eye-opening to see how a positive and constructive local connection directly impacts the success of business.
I think one of the outcomes from our community initiatives is a good understanding of the needs on the ground. For example, it’s our terminal operators going to local restaurants and buying gift certificates during a tough time and then handing them out to local families who have been laid off. It’s being able to reach out when it’s difficult and help, even if it’s just a little bit. It’s very local and it’s very connected.
We’ve been involved with the Boys & Girls Club for a number of years. Recently, our local representative asked if we’d like to run a fundraiser, which we were more than eager to do. [It] resulted in not only raising funds, but tripling efforts as Global [Partners] matched the total amount, which led my cousin to say, “Well, I’ll match it too!” It has been a way to help a lot of people who have been laid off and provide resources at a critical time in their lives.
How has the concept of community influenced your decisions as a business?
First, we’re in the oil business: from storage tanks to storage facilities to terminals that store upwards of 11 million barrels of petroleum products. We buy it in bulk and it goes out by trucks to homes, gas stations, and commercial industrial accounts. This is ultimately the fuel that supplies hospitals, ambulances, the police, and fire departments.
It’s actually one of the most fundamental necessities of life and the gas stations are a means to deliver that necessity to people.
At the end of the day, we’re providing the energy that fuels the hospitals and allows doctors and nurses to get to the hospital daily to care for those who are in need the most. We’re fortunate to be in a position where we can afford to take care of others and have the flexibility to do things to support causes and people.
Can you share some of your internal stories?
We have a store manager whose story almost brought me to tears. It was about an 80-year-old lady who would always come into our store to get her coffee. When the pandemic began, our manager said to this woman, “I’m going to deliver the coffee to your doorstep.” Our employee took the time and delivered coffee to this woman’s apartment every day. This was at the beginning of the pandemic, when nobody really knew what to do, but it was about keeping this woman safe and in her home. That’s an act of kindness that you can’t train for—our employee just did it—and these stories abound throughout our company.
One of the other great stories is from the beginning of the pandemic, when masks were really hard to get, we had a couple of people internally make a whole bunch. Sarah and Megan, two of our associates, made 400 masks on their own—no one asked them to do it. And one of our managers in New York did the same—she made masks for all of her associates.
We’re all part of the communities that we support, and everybody supports their communities in their own, best way. We’ve been really lucky to have so many great people to connect and work with.
In the beginning, I was calling around trying to source masks myself, talking to everybody I know. So were my friends, and it was one of them that connected me. He said, “Hey, I have a friend in the shoe business, and you should talk!” That connection helped us get three hundred thousand single-use masks to our frontline associates.
We have a manager up in New Hampshire who runs a restaurant that is adjacent to an RV park. When we were in the height of hospitalizations, doctors and nurses were coming in and looking for places to stay, so the state opened up this RV park to them. The manager said, “I want to provide them cooked meals. They’re working 24/7 shifts and I want to be able to provide them with meals when they come home.” It’s one of those things that’s small but so meaningful because our frontline employees and first responders worked together to provide for a basic need.
How would you encourage other companies to leverage their unique products, talents, or services for the common good at this time?
Communicate. Reach out to those you’re surrounded by and ask what you can do. Give them the structure to provide and the ability to execute.
As an example, we started with a simple email chain that encouraged all employees to share their ideas. Encouraging creativity leads to innovation, and the concept that no idea is too small is a big part of innovation at Global Partners.
Our teams were empowered to reach out to their communities and decide where to support—and then give time and money. It’s my hope that we will continue to communicate in an effective and efficient way because our people want to hear from all voices in all communities.
Want to see other client features on innovation? Explore Schwabe's Innovating for Good series.