Tropical Storm Debby, the June 2012 squall that deluged half of Florida, delivered the first crisis for Jacqui Al-Nasser in her unusual entrepreneurial career shift.
It was only one year earlier that Al-Nasser, 47, traded in a busy nurse practitioner job to become a 7-Eleven franchisee. Al-Nasser previously ran a women's clothing boutique, and she and her husband also co-owned a Subway store in Dunedin. “We had dabbled a bit,” in franchises, Al-Nasser says. “We liked the way 7-Eleven did things.”
That experience and admiration, however, didn't do much for Al-Nasser when she arrived at the 7-Eleven she ran on Seven Springs Boulevard in New Port Richey a few hours after the storm. She had to park a mile away, for starters, given the flood. And water was so deep people from the neighborhood, Al-Nasser recalls, went tubing through a nearby apartment complex parking lot.
The good news was the power was still on at her 7-Eleven. Al-Nasser and an employee gave water to police and emergency personnel. A flood of local residents then streamed in and out the next four days, when nothing else nearby was open. “We ran out of Bud Light in the first four hours,” says Al-Nasser. “Then we went to work on everything else.”
The storm did more than provide a temporary sales boost. It also left an entrepreneurial lesson in a key skill for all business owners: flexibility. Al-Nasser has since grown her 7-Eleven stake to four local stores because she learned being nimble, and adapting to changes quickly, is essential.
A mom of five kids ages 8 to 16, Al-Nasser says another factor in the success is Dallas-based 7-Eleven does the payroll, business licensing, accounting and other back-office tasks for franchisees. Not all large franchise outlets do that, but it's invaluable to Al-Nasser. “They take care of the other stuff,” says Al-Nasser, “so I can focus on the business.”
Al-Nasser owns two 7-Elevens in Palm Harbor, one just outside downtown Clearwater and the New Port Richey store. She says there's been a steady annual rise in sales, though she declines to release specific figures. The average up-front investment for a 7-Eleven franchisee to open one store is about $239,000, according to company franchise documents. That includes inventory, supplies, business licenses, permits and a franchisee fee.
The convenience store chain has about 8,200 stores worldwide, including about 6,000 in the United States. Marty Frohlich, a local field consultant for 7-Eleven franchisees, says about two-thirds of the stores in the Tampa market are franchised-run locations. The corporate office runs the others.
Al-Nasser says her biggest challenge, a common theme for any business owner, is hiring and retaining top employees. She uses a three-step process to weed out bad hires, which starts with the corporate office application. A store manager then interviews the candidate, and after that, Al-Nasser does her own extensive one-on-one query.
It's a significant effort for one hourly worker. But Al-Nasser wants every employee to think like a sales person, one who sells Slurpees and taquitos, instead of cars or couches. “A lot of people think a convenience store job is just being a cashier,” Al-Nasser says, “but it's not.”
Al-Nasser says another potential challenge, additional local competition from chains like Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons and Pennsylvania-based Wawa, doesn't scare her. She will count on customer loyalty — the kind that comes from staying open after a storm.
“I have friends and customers who will go out of their way for 7-Eleven,” says Al-Nasser. “People will stay with 7-Eleven.”