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How the owner of Jacksons Food Stores built a c-store empire

Jacksons founder John Jackson talks about his company’s early days

John Jackson talks about the early days before Jacksons Food Stores grew into a gas station empire.
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John Jackson talks about the early days before Jacksons Food Stores grew into a gas station empire.

John Jackson was 20 years old when he ran his first service station in Caldwell in 1975. It was a Texaco station soon to be displaced by construction of Interstate 84. Jackson took a semester off from his junior year at Boise State University, where he was studying accounting, to run the station for the final six months of the owner’s lease.

Jackson, now 61, never went back to school. Instead, he bought two stations in Canyon County. His company grew into Jacksons Food Stores, the Meridian-based gas stations and convenience stores that now dominate the Treasure Valley’s gasoline market and are found throughout the West.

Over the years, Jackson started new companies:

▪  Jackson Oil, a Boise company that distributed 850 million gallons in 2015 to Jacksons Food Stores and about 525 other stations.

▪  Capitol Distributing, a Meridian wholesaler that sells food, beverages, cigarettes and other items to Jacksons and other convenience stores.

▪  Jackson Jet Center, a Boise company that offers charter-aircraft fuel, maintenance, sales and planning services.

Jackson’s wife, Bonnie, serves as chief information officer for the four companies. The older of their two children, Cory, is Jacksons Food Stores president and also oversees Capitol Distribution. The younger one, Jeff, is president of Jackson Jet Center.

Q: What led you to take over that first service station in Caldwell?

A: My dad had a Texaco where I grew up in Homedale. Texaco had a dealer they were transferring to Boise because the freeway was coming, which was going to wipe out that site. They were going to be paying rent and had nobody there. They wanted my dad to take it for six months, which really didn’t make any sense. But I thought it would make sense for me to take off a semester from school and to learn the business. The idea was to go back and finish.

$2.5 billionTotal sales of John Jackson’s four companies in 2015.

Around 3,000 Employees

Q: How did things go at the Caldwell station?

A: The operator was more interested in working on vehicles than selling fuels. He worked limited hours. When I got it, I extended the hours and got it priced more competitively. It performed very well. When the six months were up, I renewed the lease because the freeway was delayed. It was  5 1/2 years later before the freeway was built, and by then, I’d bought the site and added another one in downtown Caldwell, and maybe one in Nampa.

Q: How did your time working the counter in Caldwell benefit you as the company grew?

A: It taught me about customer service and cleanliness. It was a good way to learn what was important and what isn’t, to manage people, manage the facility. On a scale standpoint, it was very small, which was a good way to learn. I think it was good for my character to clean public restrooms.

You either grow or you get out. That’s part of our culture. We started with one station. Clearly, growth is part of our DNA.

John Jackson

Q: How many gas stations fall under the Jacksons umbrella today?

A: Our total network is about 850 sites. About 225 are Jacksons that we own and operate. Approximately another 100 we own and lease to independent parties. Some lease one site. In others, they might lease 10 sites. The remainder are sites that we sell to but they own the site.

Q: How are your core businesses affected by volatility in the oil market?

A: We’re not a producer. We’re a marketer. We like cheap fuel. Customers have more money to spend at our stores, and we make the bulk of our gross profit from store sales, not from fuel. We’d rather sell groceries than sell gas anyway.

Q: How has technology changed the gas station game?

A: It’s been profound. Back in days when I started, we had very little IT. It was all manual. The pumps were more reliable. We have so much software downloaded into our systems that the platforms are inherently unstable, I believe. We have sites completely shut down for hours. It’s very frustrating. But that’s what happens when we rely so much on IT. When it breaks, it paralyzes us.

On the positive side, transactions are so much faster. Fraud is such a big expense. It used to be if a card was lost or stolen, it was hard to [prevent fraudulent purchases]. Now, you can cancel a card and it won’t work.

Q: How do you plan where to build future stores?

A: Since a lot of our business is wholesale, we’re very careful that we don’t move in next to a customer. If we’re supplying a station, that’s off limits. We look for markets that are underserved. We don’t go in and try to build right next to somebody to run them out of business. It’s a growing market all over the West. There are opportunities in underserved areas.

Most of our growth has been through acquisition. It involves a lot of remodeling, and in some cases, we just tear them down and start over.

Q: How far in the future do you look in terms of acquiring property or stores?

A: Maybe 12 months. On the grocery-distribution side, we have to be a little more strategic. If you outgrow your distribution center, you can’t build a new one in a matter of months or even years. We’re reaching our maximum for space, and we’re running out of land. That’s a two- to three-year process.

But on the convenience side, you can be pretty nimble. I can get a phone call in the next 30 minutes with an opportunity I don’t know about. How do you plan for that? You can’t. You have to try to be ready for opportunity. I try to keep our balance sheet in good shape so we have the ability to grow.

Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @IDS_ZachKyle. This story appears in the Sept. 21-Oct. 18, 2016, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine. Click here for the e-edition (subscription required).