Greg Parker has no problem admitting he had no idea what he was doing when he opened his first Parker’s convenience store in Midway in 1976.
The 21-year-old had just graduated from the University of Georgia. He had set his sights on law school at the University of Virginia, but his LSAT score was just shy of the 600 needed for acceptance.
So he went home to Vidalia to figure out what to do next.
“My father was working in gas distribution for Amoco and had started construction on a convenience store in Midway,” Parker said. “It was taking a long time, so I ended up helping finish construction and get it started. I fully intended on going to law school, but I took the LSAT again and missed 600 again.”
So he took on the convenience store, and it became his life. He went on to work three and a half years without a day off.
“I would get up at dark and work until I had to go home,” he said. “I worked Christmas, I worked every day. And I thought, what the hell am I doing? And my friends were all doing these great things … and I was pumping gas.”
But he wasn’t just pumping gas — he was doing everything it took to keep the business going.
“I wore a change belt, and I’d go out and pump the gas, clean the windshield, check the antifreeze, check the air in the tires,” he said.
All were things he had never done before, including running a small restaurant in the back of the store where he did all the cooking.
“I wasn’t good at it,” he said. “But I was smart, and I figured it out, like accounting and bookkeeping. I wish I would have been more clever in my construct of my career in college.”
Parker did, indeed, figure it out.
Forty years after that initial store in Midway, Parker’s employs more than 600 employees with 45 stores throughout coastal Georgia and South Carolina.
With a brand built on fast, fresh and friendly, Parker’s has been ranked on Inc.’s elite list of the top 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. for four consecutive years, and Parker said they plan to build 17 new stores in the next 13 months while adding drive-thru food service to many stores.
Parker’s will celebrate its 40th anniversary from May through Aug. 31 in every town where they operate retail stores. Customers will have a chance to win prizes including a Jeep Wrangler.
‘Fear of failure’
Parker has never been a stranger to hard work. He had worked every summer through high school to save money for college. His senior year of school was spent working full time at the Federal Pacific Electric warehouse in Vidalia.
Parker left Vidalia and attended UGA on a full scholarship. He also joined a fraternity where he said, “Everyone was wealthy except me.”
“I wanted to be wealthy,” he said. “Something I learned at my fraternity in college; I didn’t necessarily want to be like my fraternity brothers, but I wanted to have what they had.”
Parker said he is competitive and wants to always be the best at whatever he does, so becoming the most successful of the college bunch became a goal. When asked whether it was embarrassing to be pumping gas instead of attending law school, Parker paused to consider the question.
He recalled a story about running into a college roommate while pumping gas in Midway.
“He was going to Sea Island and he had this fancy car and custom-made luggage with his initials on it, and he later told me he was embarrassed for me. I never felt that, though. I was kind of proud of myself,” Parker said.
Forty years later, much has changed.
“I wish I could say I had this big grand plan that I wanted to be the best convenience store operator in America, but I didn’t,” he said. “I just put one foot in front of the other. I was terrified of failure, terrified. I thought, if I fail, my family fails; my parents, my sister and my brother.
“I think my success is built on two things … One is a profound sense of insecurity; that I want to prove myself. And the other is the fear of failure. I don’t think those are necessarily good motivators for other people, but they were my motivators.”
“… I never ever expected to be as successful as I am. In terms of taking time to smell the roses … that’s not how I am built. I’m built on continuous improvement.”
But he was quick to note, he’s not perfect by any stretch and admitted that some people find him intimidating or too demanding. Some people may think he’s a control freak, he said, but argues that’s not the case. Just ask his team. And he said he’s working on his patience and tone because he loves the people he works with.
“We get accused of being a cult,” said Parker, who then stopped talking so the laughter of his staff could be heard from the other room.
“If you are passionate and smart and curious and you embrace change and you work with a sense of entrepreneurship and have an optimistic attitude, you will love working here. And we have virtually no turnover.
“… We built that sort of organically, and now we are working on bringing in the best and brightest. … I wanted to create the greatest office anyone can work in so it would create people who want to aspire to work here.
“I didn’t have to be taught to be that person who values women or values talent. It’s just who I was. It was part of my DNA. My CFO (Terri Heidmann) is about to ascend to president of the company. I think about talent, and I want to be around happy people.”
‘I’ve learned to trust my team’
Parker’s donates more than $100,000 each year to public and private schools in Georgia and South Carolina and supports other community programs including the new Parker’s Emergency & Trauma Center at Memorial University Health Center.
And while he still gets excited at handing over a big check to a community cause, he said he is most proud of his team.
“I am hugely and emotionally proud of my team, the people that I work with,” he said. “I really am. I can’t tell you how much the people that I work with mean to me.”
He said he has been fortunate to have surrounded himself with capable people.
“But here we are, I’m 62 … and I want to share that with my team. We are doing some cool things with profit sharing right now. My thing is to make my people wealthy now; I don’t want to create entitled children… I want to share it with the people who helped create it,” he said.
Parker said he is wrong a lot, but here’s where he’s smart: “I’ve learned to trust my team,” he said.
“We’ve redefined the way this industry worked in this part of the world. We’ve given back over $7 million to our customers. And now look at what everyone else has done. Everyone had to come up with a loyalty discount for their consumers. Why? Because they had to compete with Parker’s.”
Despite the success and growth, Parker said he does not feel secure in his legacy.
“No, I don’t feel secure about it at all. I want to continue to embrace it. I want to live a life of significance... I hope to be that person that people miss and the community is better than it was when I got here.
“So, no, I don’t ever feel secure. I’m riddled with insecurity,” he said with a laugh. “As I said, it’s one of my driving forces.”