Stephanie Stuckey—Talking Leadership and Legacy with the CEO of the American Road Trip

Higher Order

Truth Collective Truth CollectiveSeason 2Episode 3Sep 27, 2021

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Josh: Stephanie, thank you so much for joining us.

Stephanie Stuckey: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

Josh: So we always wanna start our conversations and give our audience a kind of a brief glimpse into the, the journey, the origin story of, of kind of both you and your role. And also Stuckey’s little bit, ’cause it’s a brand that was once an American icon, and you’re, you’re gonna return it to greatness, but may have fallen out of the memory of some folks or some people may not have interacted with it. So could you tell us a little bit about kind of both yourself and the origin of Stuckey’s?

Stephanie Stuckey: Happy to. So I’ll start with the story of Stuckey’s, which in many ways is also the story of me because it is my family’s brand. We started in 1937 during the Great Depression. My grandfather had dropped out of law school to work at the family farm, farming cotton, which, anyone who’s ever done that in the south in the summer it’s miserable. And so he was looking for a side hustle, which was selling pecans on the side of the road. It was the bumper crop year for pecans. And Georgia is the no one day for pecan production. So there was ample supply of nuts. And he started selling them. And he quickly realized that he was onto something.

And any great entrepreneur is out to solve a problem that people have. And the problem that my grandfather, W.S Stuckey senior solved was roadside travelers needed a safe and welcoming place to pull over, get gas, get a cold drink, a quick cut snack, maybe a souvenir and some candy and nuts or two and be on their way. And from those very humble origins, he started what was the first roadside retail chain. And it grew in our peak, at our peak, it was 368 stores in 40 states. He owned a billboard company with 4,000 billboards on all the major interstate highways in the US. He had a candy company, and he had a trucking company. So very vertically integrated. He sold the company in 1964, the year before I was born because he lacked capital and capacity to really scale at the rapid growth that they were experiencing. And he was getting older and he made a lot of money.

He remained involved with the company for about a decade after that. And then he died in 1977. And our brand just plummeted. There were a variety of factors, a series of corporate management or mismanagement, and the road trip declined. So we peaked when the road trip peaked. We’re really synonymous with getting on the road and exploring America. People were traveling by road less, flying more. And we were out of family hands. 1985, my father got company back. He was running several businesses, and Stuckey’s was a terrible mess when he got it. He was able to cobble things together by doing a co-branding concept where he would put a store within a store. And he ran the company until he retired in 2011-ish around that time, and left a skeleton crew running Stuckey’s.

And starting in around 2015, we were losing money, and had been steadily losing money. Uh, so that- that’s sort of the background that leads up to me. I had a completely unexpected chance to purchase the company in November of 2019. I call myself the accidental CEO because my background is very different. I’m an attorney. I was a criminal defense lawyer, a public defender for years. I was a state legislator for 14 years. I headed up sustainability for the City of Atlanta. So that was my life, public service. And I got this opportunity to buy my family’s business from my dad’s former business partners. And then later from my dad, and it just… It just happened. Within six months, we started turning a profit. So it’s been a crazy journey, but a lot of hard work.

Bob: Hey, Stephanie, I wanted to just ask a little bit more about that moment when you had the opportunity to take control over, over the family name and business. Can you sort of take us into that, you know, that moment. Like, what were you feeling when, you know, when that conversation happened? You know, and how did you… how did you know that, that this was going to be your, your purpose?

Stephanie Stuckey: Great question. I think quite often, when we have these pivotal moments in our lives, we certainly don’t recognize them at the time. And they’re often not just one moment, it’s a progression. So there were a series of conversations over several months. And the actual moment was literally me sitting at my desk, doing my sustainability work, and getting an email from my dad’s former business partner saying, “We’re selling our shares of Stuckey’s. Are you interested in purchasing them?” It was literally a fi- financial transaction. It was an investment. And it grew from there. I reached out to some financial advisor who I respected. And almost all of them said, “Don’t do this. The company is losing money. It’s a faded brand. To the point in the intro, there are generations of people who have never heard of our brand.”

We peaked in the 70s. So our brand value is minimal, or I think there’s some great brand value there, but it, it had been fading. We had plummeted to 65 locations, of which only 20 were standalone stores. The remainder were the store within the store concept. None of the stores we own or operate. There’s not even a franchise program around anymore. It’s, it’s basically a licensing deal to use our name and they sell our product. What I bought was literally inventory and a warehouse that we rent, and the logo, the trademark. I had the rights to the Stuckey’s trademark. I bought a brand, which is an intangible asset that does not show up on the books.

So trying to get past sort of that more typical M&A merger and acquisition, thought process of, “Well, what’s the company worth dollars and cents?” Versus, “What’s the value of a brand?” That’s the conversations that, that really started to break through for me is this brand is worth something. And I’ve joked about how naivete was my greatest strength in the moment when I did decide to buy Stuckey’s, because I didn’t have a business background. And I think someone with a business background would not have just walked away from this deal. They probably would’ve sprinted away from this deal.

So there wasn’t this one moment. It was a progression, but ultimately, it came to, “This is my family’s legacy.” And I thought about something bigger than just making a profit. I thought about the road trip. That’s what Stuckey’s is. We’re the road trip. And I’ve always loved to road trip. And to me, this was an opportunity to champion road trip as well as Stuckey’s. And I guess finally, I just say, we usually regret what we didn’t do more so than things that we did because you, you learn from things that you tried and maybe failed. And I didn’t wanna regret not doing this, but more importantly, I didn’t want kids to regret it, and I didn’t want my grandkids to regret it. And if you have a family business, you think longer term.

You think, “What about the next generation?” I didn’t want my kids to say, “Mom, why didn’t you buy back the family business, which is now completely defunct? Why didn’t you revive it when you had the chance?” So it was beyond me regretting it. It was what will future generations of Stuckey’s think if I didn’t do this.

Devon: Well, And it sounds like with the brand, you also inherited or acquired back the values that your grandfather started when he started Stuckey’s. I know that his sort of motto was, every traveler is a friend. Can you tell us a little bit about what the customer journey is like, and what… You know, the road tripper today, and we’ll get to talking about this a little bit more in, in the storytelling, but what is the road tripper today experience and what do you hope that they experience?

Stephanie Stuckey: Yeah, so values are very important. I think for companies, especially if you have sticking power, again, you have to have something bigger than just making a profit. And that gets to what are your core values? And inherent in everything we do has been every traveler is a friend. We’re a hospitable brand. We’re a place where people can feel welcome. So what I think the road trip experience is today, is in many ways, similar to the road trip experience when I was growing up in the 70s and the 80s. It’s getting in the car, and it’s driving across and pulling over when things look interesting and fun. What has changed for my kids, in my opinion, it’s for the worst is that we have a lot of computer devices and entertainment in the car beyond looking out the windshield, beyond having real personal conversations with your family members.

Yes, as a kid, I remember fighting all the time with my siblings, but I also remember there were moments, these breakthrough windshield moments that I call them today, where you’re having conversations because you’re stuck in a car for days. And that’s where real memories get formed. I think that’s why so many people have this nostalgic attachment to the road trip. It’s not just the road, it’s the conversations. It’s the bonding that happens in the car along the way. And I’m hearing more and more from people today that are trying to move away from all the electronic devices. And I’m not trying to be, a word I’ve used before, naive and thinking that people are going to ditch their electronic devices. But I do think that there’s a hunger, especially now with COVID where we have all felt so isolated, where we want real connections with real people.

We want to feel like we matter. And pulling over on the side of the road to a place that’s different from a chain, and yes, Stuckey’s is a chain, but I don’t know if you really [inaudible 00:10:50], a chain. We’re more personal. We like to be a more intimate brand because we have that history of connecting with people. So to me at his core, the road trip is about building community with other people who enjoy travel and connecting with small town, America, taking the back roads, exploring what’s different and unique. And I think we all want more of that, especially now.

Josh: Yeah, experiences are so important because we live in such a digital world, like, real experiences. And it’s just, as you talk about the road trip, I remember my parents driving from Rochester to Disney World, uh, with my brother and sister in a safari van, towing a pop-up camper. So, and those are great memories. Like, and we stopped at some Stuckey’s. We got some pecan logs, like we know. And, uh, so the, the revival of the road trip is such a great thing to tap into. But thinking about the time that you took over Stuckey’s and the world that we live in today, like, how challenging has it been to revive a brand built around road trips when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and nobody’s supposed to go anywhere? Could you talk a little bit about some of the challenges you’ve faced over the last kind of year and a half, two years?

Stephanie Stuckey: Extreme challenges. So I heard a good word the other day, and I’m going to steal it. Uh, and now I don’t even remember who told it to me. But it’s pivotability. I think that’s important for businesses or just in life, the ability to pivot. So you have these overarching visions, and you remain true to that, but you do have to pivot and figure out how to innovate based on the current situation. And the reality is, you’re right. People were traveling less. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have an experience of the road trip. So that’s where you can use social media and technology as a tool. So you use it, don’t let it use you. And I just started telling the story of the road trip. So there’s many ways to experience things that you love. You can experience it in person, which is in my opinion, the best way. But we’ve all had to adapt and pivot and experience things virtually.

So I’ve been experimenting with videos. I’ve been using a lot of photographs, images, and storytelling. I think is the most powerful, is just telling the story of the road trip. I started posting that on LinkedIn, which is typically very businessy, right? Usually, you see on LinkedIn, the typical CEO at a ribbon cutting, or CEO, uh, talking about their latest quarterly profit report, whatever. And I’m not that typical CEO. So I started just putting out their stories about road trips, and people liked it. I got a ton of engagement on LinkedIn talking the road trip. So I think it shows that there are many ways to convey what a brand is about.

And the more you’re able to tap into how you can reach the people you want to reach, and not be stuck and rigid, and that approach, and constantly be open to innovating, the more successful you’re going to be. And I’m, I’m still learning every day. (laugh)

Devon: So these road trips that you’re taking, are they to visit Stuckey locations, or are these just personal road trips? Where are you going? And can you take us on a journey with you? What is your sort of typical road trip look like these days? And how do you find what to post about? What are the stories that you’re telling?

Stephanie Stuckey: It’s been organic. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs, their journey has been organic to a certain extent. They didn’t necessarily write out a strategy, although it’s important to have a written strategy. But you see what works, you see what people respond to. And that, in many ways, drives how you shape… how you grow the business, how you grow a brand. So initially, I set out to visit every Stuckey’s. That just seemed like a good goal. This was before COVID, I purchased Stuckey’s November of 2019. And I decided right after that, I’m gonna go travel the 20 states where we’re located and visit our stores. It seemed to make a lot of sense. It drew my political background, actually. When you run for office, the first thing you do as a listening tour, and you have neighborhood parties in every single precinct. So I basically was taking that literal roadmap of running for office and applying it to business.

I’m gonna have my listening tour. I’m not going to these stores to tell people how I’m going to run Stuckey’s. I’m here to listen to them and hear what’s important to them, what we can do, at the corporate level, to support these stores. And it started as a listening tour. And then because there were so few Stuckey’s, there were hours and hours, and even days between stores. And what do you do? It was pretty boring. And I took my son with me. He’s actually walking in the background, so you might hear him. And I thought, “Well, we need to make this a little more fun, but we are in rural America. We’re in…” I joke that we are in exotic places. We’re in Cuba, Alabama, and Baghdad, Florida. So that’s about Heidelberg, Alabama, Mississippi. So that’s about exotic… as exotic and foreign as we get.

So we’re going to these small towns. Well, what’s there to do? Well, guess what? A lot of these places have things like the Lunch Box Museum, or the world’s largest belt buckle, or a llamas-petting zoo. All of these places I’ve been to. And I needed content for social media, and I wanted to use original content. I didn’t wanna borrow other people’s photos. So I just started taking photos, posting them, and talking about it, and it resonated. So that’s how my road trips started. And then I just really incorporate them into my business travel. So it’s rare that I’m just taking a road trip to take a road trip. I am usually going to a meeting. The cool thing that I really wanna stress is that you can literally take a road trip 10 miles from your house. I’ll give a great example.

Five miles from my house is the original waffle house. They’ve turned it into a museum. I posted that on LinkedIn on Monday, it was Labor Day, and it’s waffle house’s anniversary. They were found on Labor Day in 1955. And I said, “Happy birthday, waffle house.” I posted a picture of me at the waffle house museum. Last I checked, it was like 2,900 engagements or likes, uh, the actual, like, views that post were 400,000. So I went five minutes from my house, snapped a quick photo with the tripod, and did a post about how much I love awful house. You can take a trip anywhere. So I, I also wanna redefine the road trip and get out of our thinking that you have to go 300 miles to take a road trip.

Yes, you can do that. That’s epic. More power to you. Most of us can’t afford that. Time-wise or money-wise. So go half an hour and take a little road trip. I take my… so many of my photos are just 30 miles away from where I’m having a business meeting. I just squeeze it in.

Josh: It’s something that the pandemic, I think, is probably really brought around to people too, is, like, as we couldn’t travel as much, like, go explore your, your community, the parks in your area, the outdoor spaces, the world largest belt buckle. And really, I’m sure everybody listening wants to know, because I know I do. How large is the world’s largest belt buckle?

Stephanie Stuckey: Oh my gosh. I can’t believe I don’t remember it. I actually took a photo of me measuring the thing. Uh, it is about… I’m sorry, my arms can’t be fully shown on this. It, it looked to me to be about four feet. And the funny thing is there are actually two places that claim it. One is Quartzsite, New Mexico. There’s a gemstone shop that has this beautiful rhinestone and crusted giant belt buckle. And then Uranus Mi- uh, Missouri, off of route 66 has what they claim to be the world’s largest belt buckle. I don’t know which one is the largest belt buckle.

Josh: Oh, boy.

Stephanie Stuckey: I love these battles of small towns over bragging rights. Like, there’s three towns that claim the world’s largest brick. And so they all came up with these different caveats. Like, “We are the world’s largest brick that sits a on a trailer.”

Josh: Right.

Stephanie Stuckey: And, “We’re the world’s largest brick that’s made of brick,” because another one of them is made of concrete. And you know, one’s actually made of all these little bricks. So there’s like a million different ways that these little towns can come up with these bragging rights. And I like to say, they’re, they’re hidden and plain sight. These cool things are right in your community and you don’t even know them. There’s a muffler man. I’m obsessed with muffler man. There’s these giant statues that were very popular in the 60s, and there’s very few of them still around. There’s a muffler man, two miles from my daughter’s school.

And, and there’s only, like, 20 of them in Georgia. The are really cool. And so I went and did a whole post on that one day when I picked her up, and we went by and saw the muffler man. And I had so many people post that they were right near… they, they lived right near the muffler man and they never knew it was there. So this stuff is in your community. It’s interesting. It’s fun. It’s got history, and I’m just trying to amplify, like, “Let’s make these everyday things special,” because they are.

Josh: It’s gre- it’s great. And it’s… so many people… like I, I, I use my, my memory of driving a Disney World, and so many people have those fond vacation memories. Stuckey’s is a part of it, for sure. Is… and some of what you’re talking about here is this how you’re gonna reconnect with a new generation that maybe doesn’t have those brand memories, like, how all of these little pieces is this, how you want to connect with them and bring this story to life and, and get an new generation of road trippers out there?

Stephanie Stuckey: Yes. So that is the eternal problem for me. One of the most important things I did not only management-wise, but also brand-wise was I got a business partner. He owns 50%. So we’re equal partners. He’s president I’m CEO. He’s name’s RG Lamar, and he is 17 years younger than me. So RG is my voice of the millennial, who helps me figure out ways that we can reach a younger demographic. But I’m more interested in connecting with people who love to road trip. I’m more interested in defying these demographics based on age, and wanna connect with people who just love to road trip. And I think you can love to road trip if you’re four years old or you’re 80 years old. Now having said that, I do struggle with how to reach a younger demographic. I’m very aware of who responds to my post. I pay attention to that.

We can’t afford a lot of metrics. So I just look at who comments on our Facebook post, who comments on my LinkedIn post. What seems to be the demographic? And it is… it does skew older. It does skew white, although we are getting more diversity. But that is our base. And what I like to do is I, I, I draw on, again, on my political background. When you do… when you’re running political campaign, you start by showing up your base. I was a Democrat, so I made sure I hunkered down on getting the core democratic vote to turn out for me, that was the most important. That was the low hanging fruit. I’ve gotta get them solidly behind me. Then I worked at getting undecideds, and I really didn’t focus on the Republicans, because they tended to vote Republican.

So same with Stuckey’s. We’re focusing on road tripper. So people who love to travel by plane, they, they may not be our demographic. We don’t have to have every customer. There’s enough out there. But to reach the younger audiences and to make sure there’s a new generation that loves a road trip, that will connect with our brand, I’m trying as much as possible whenever I do a post think, “Will this connect with a 20 year old? Will this be interesting to a 20 year old?” So fortunately I live with a 19 year old, my son (laugh). He’s in college, but I do ask him, I ask my 16 year old daughter, “What do you think? What’s interesting to you?” But it’s hard. I welcome your feedback on that. I’m, I’m trying to figure it out. I- I’m constantly learning and trying to educate myself.

Josh: Yeah. And I guess some of it comes… there is a huge movement toward it, like, people want real experiences, real life experiences. It’s like why records are back? And puzzles are big. And, you know, analog film has had a huge comeback. All of those things are, like, experience driven. Like, I need to put my phone down and, and do something else and connect with people and van life. Like, there’s a huge group of people-

Stephanie Stuckey: Yes.

Josh: … who are road tripping everywhere now, living out of their… out of these really cool vans that they’re custom building and all those things. So it seems like you really have potentially a moment to connect with this younger audience that’s searching for things like this. If you had to articulate to kind of, like a 20-year-old who’s on the road right now and say, “This is the experience that we’re gonna fulfill for you. This is why Stuckey’s belongs in the world today.” What would you say?

Stephanie Stuckey: I would say, we offer an intimate experience on the interstate highway system. We are in small town America. So if you pull over and take a Stuckey’s stop, you’ll find not your typical souvenirs at your typical truck stop. We have just some of our classics, but they’re classics for a reason because they’re just fun. We sell things like rubber alligators and Mexican jumping beans and kin skin caps, but they’re not real for anymore. Uh, just fun stuff. And T-shirts that say things like eat here and get gas. (laugh) we kind of make fun of ourselves. We have good hot, quick food. We’ve never been a full-service sit-down restaurant. So if you want to get something to eat when you’re on the road, but not take a ton of time, we do have seating.

But, you know, you want a good quick meal, we have that to offer. We always have gas. We have clean restrooms. Now having said all that, I want to be very clear. I stress that we are a fixer-upper, that we… Some of our shores need TLC. I’m not going to paint this picture that every Stuckey’s store on the road today is absolutely wonderful because some of them are in need of help. And we’re doing the best we can. So if you want to be part of a comeback journey, stop at Stuckey’s because that’s us. We are a scrappy comeback fighter brand, and come along for the ride. Join us. Our candy is delicious. Our nuts are delicious. That is a differentiating factor for us. We, we have bought a candy plant and a pecan shelling plant, so that’s something that we did when I took over the plant and brought… the company was… we bought a manufacturing facility.

So we’re now making our product ourselves. That’s how we’re driving our profit. And so that is something that’s unique about Stuckey’s that you don’t find in most of the retail outlets on the roadside. They… Some of them do have branded products, but they don’t make it themselves. It’s outsourced, but we actually make our Pecan Log Rolls, our prey liens, our divinity, our chocolate gophers, our pecan snacks. We shell those ourselves onsite. And they’re absolutely amazing.

Bob: That sounds delicious. I’m wondering, do you guys still sell those books with, like the, uh, invisible ink? Like, it, it came with a yellow marker?

Stephanie Stuckey: The yes and no books?

Bob: Yeah. I remember doing that in the back of my dad’s LeSabre.

Stephanie Stuckey: Yeah. I love those. So Lee Publications is the company that makes those. We have been doing business with them for decades. They are going out of business. So we bought out as much of their inventory as possible. Having said that, I would love to find another vendor who will make those books. I love those. And the-

Bob: Those are great.

Stephanie Stuckey: … frustrating thing about them was that that ink… You had to have that special marker to-

Bob: Yeah.

Stephanie Stuckey: … go about and read what was in the blank. And it always dried out (laughs).

Bob: True. True.

Stephanie Stuckey: So you were stuck with these books if you didn’t go ahead and use it up pretty quickly.

Bob: Hey, a couple of minutes ago you were talking about… um, you were describing sort of the, you know, the, the real state of Stuckey’s, you know, the scrappy sort of fixer-upper. You know, some are great, some are a little rough around the edges, maybe. Something that I, um, I read in one of posts recently, is it your R.E.M fan. Being from Georgia, you probably have to be. So I’m curious, like, you know, if there’s a R.E.M song that best describes the future of Stuckey’s for you, what would that be?

Stephanie Stuckey: Well, I have so many R.E.M songs I love, but one that resonates with me, and maybe not literally every single word, but just the whole concept is, I Believe. If you know that I believe in coyotes and sound, uh, dah, dah, dah. So, uh, just that whole vibe of that song of, of expressing what are your core values. What do you stand for? That song, to me, is, like, an anthem for who I am. It’s like, Whitman’s song of myself. It’s just this joyful expression of knowing yourself. And for me, knowing your brand. If you know your brand and everything resonates from that, then I think you’re going to succeed. So… And, and if I don’t remember all the words, that’s perfect for REM cause they mumble everything. That’s part of their shtick, like-

Bob: Yeah. Yeah.

Stephanie Stuckey: It used to frustrate me. And I actually know they’re… yeah, they’re long-time manager and attorney Bert Downs is a friend of mine. And I asked him that once I said, “I, I can’t understand the words.” And he said, “It’s okay. Like, what do the words mean to you?”

Bob: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephanie Stuckey: That’s what the band wants, is what does it mean to you? They’re putting it out in the world so you can find meaning, and that’s what brands do too, right? So there’s so many analogies with music and art and business, and I wish more CEOs would tap into that creativity. And so R.E.M just puts it out in the world and they say, “Find something that is personal, resonates with you, with what we’re putting out.” And so that’s what I want for Stuckey’s. I know what it means to me. I, I, I want others to find meaning that is special to them.

Bob: I think your description of that and why that song resonates with you is exactly why, um, you’re being, you know, sort of, so engaging on social media, even on a platform that’s, you know, like… I think it’s time to make LinkedIn interesting, personally. (laughs) And so you’re, you know, you’re, you’re, you, you know who you are and you’re good with who you are and that’s exactly, you know, the article that you… that you share with everybody. And I think… I think that, you know, is a way to sort of reach younger audiences too. And so you’re, you know, you’re, you’re not the typical CEO by a long shot. Like, I think the first… the first post I saw you was, you know, you were wearing like a kiss T-shirt or something like that. And I’m like, “Man, who is that? Like, could it be the same Stuckey?” And then, you know, start, start digging around, and of course,

But I think that… I think that your comfort with who you are, I think when you put that out into the world and you share that, then I think… I just think it attracts… it and attracts the right folks to that stuff. So I think it’s pretty cool.

Stephanie Stuckey: Thank you. And I love that. It’s time we make LinkedIn interesting.

Bob: Isn’t it?

Stephanie Stuckey: Absolutely. And people want that. And as we try to get younger people on LinkedIn and engaged, and let’s hope they are because there’s so much learning that young entrepreneurs can have by connecting with CEOs who’ve had decades of experience and those connections can happen on LinkedIn. But they’re gonna be turned off if you just scroll and see people sharing Forbes magazine and Wall Street Journal articles. And I read both those publications, but it’s… there’s so much to sharing and regurgitating on unoriginal content. There’s a thirst for originality. There’s a thirst for authenticity, a word that is so overused. So I’ll say realness and honesty and vulnerability, and you can put that out there on social media.

People are more interested in, in that, and I’m living proof. You can just look at the metrics of who responds. If I put up kind of a rope post, ’cause I’ll put up different stuff just to… if that’s my test market is, I’ll just put out different types of content, the stuff that’s just sharing an article, even if I do a little comment on it, it’s one, 100th, the engagement. People want originalality.

Bob: So, Stephanie, one of the… one of the things that I thought was really interesting when I was reaching out to you about joining the show was, I’ve been thinking about the CEO of today, right? And, um, we talked a little bit about it in our call last week, but I sort of think about the CEO of today is the chief everyone officer. From the standpoint of like when… the more, um, the more your organization grows, right, the more people you have. Like, the more you actually report to them as a leader, and so it seemed… it seemed to me based on your, you know, your, your ethos, that you might have some thoughts on that, or you might have a, you know, sort of a common view on that. So I’d love to just sort of get your take on, you know, how do you CEO, if you will?

Stephanie Stuckey: I love that. I’m going to remember that. I’ve, I’ve often thought of it as chief everything officer, because you wear so many hats, chief brand officer, chief sales officer, chief storyteller, but chief everyone officer is a great spin on that phrase because it’s not just you filling these roles, it’s all people around you. How can you empower them to fill those roles? I think it’s wonderful to work for a smaller company. Just like when I was in politics, I always wanted to volunteer for small campaigns because if I was volunteering for governor’s race or US Senate race, they would have you just leafleting houses. But if you’re volunteering for a county commission race, they’ll probably make you campaign manager at age 20 (laughs).

Bob: Right. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephanie Stuckey: That’s how you learn. So with a small company, like a Stuckey’s, we have a vice-president, and I joke… We, we just have one vice president. He is vice-president of so many different aspects of the business. He helps with buying. He helps with selling. He helps with marketing. He helps with logistics and shipping and finances. So you have to empower the people around you, if you are going to be successful, not only with the small business, but big businesses too. Really effective CEOs know they can’t do it alone. And I’m saying this just out of less experienced, but my reading. I have been reading all the journeys of CEOs I admire and they all have different character traits, but the one consistency I’ve seen throughout the 30 books I’ve read in the past year on leadership and business are that they surround themselves with a team that fills their gaps.

So if you’re good at branding, you better have someone really good at finances on your team and you better make sure you’ve got someone who understands the logistics, and you gotta have everyone at the table. You gotta make… You’ve got to empower them and support them and have their back 100%. They’ve got to know that you are going to be there for them.

Bob: Right on. Trust is everything, right? And, um, without trust, there’s very little, very little good, very little productive- productivity can happen, for sure. So it’s very cool.

Devon: So Stephanie, along those lines, you know, in some of the conversations that we had leading up to this, I know we talked a little bit about your relationship with your customers. And, you know, you were saying that if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of the customers. And so it’s this chain that keeps going. Can you talk a little bit about that, some more from your perspective, but also how this 50/50 split you have with your partner, which is quite an unusual arrangement? Um, how that works to, to fuel that chain of care down, downstream, if you will.

Stephanie Stuckey: Yeah. So the customer interaction is interesting to me because I think so many leaders talk about how the customer comes first. But I looked at how my grandfather did his business, how he grew Stuckey’s. And he was all about his employees and having the strong relationships with employees. He had Aesop’s employment… employee stock ownership plans before it was really a thing in the 1950s. He made sure that his employees felt not only that they belonged in the company, but they owned part of the company. His stores were independently owned and operated. So the franchisees were owners. It was there many small businesses. They actually lived in the stores. Talk about feeling a sense of ownership. All of the old Stuckey’s, even ones that are no longer Stuckey’s, there’s a lot out there that are different businesses. These days they’re living quarters in the back. It’s really cool.

And it’s interesting to me, from an architectural standpoint, I’m getting a little off tangent, but to see what, what they’ve done with them, there’s been some creative uses. There’s one in Illinois, Johnston City that is a video poker lounge, and it’s the old bedroom. So how much ownership would you feel with the business if you had a franchise that you owned and you live, there and that your living room was actually the retail front (laughs), the showroom? So I think it’s-

Bob: I think we should have that here.

Stephanie Stuckey: Yeah.

Bob: I mean, we should all live here. Why don’t we just live here?

Josh: Uh, we got to go (laughs).

Bob: I think it’s a great idea, Stephanie.

Stephanie Stuckey: I mean, if you… if you had a franchise, it came with your housing, and they were nice. So I guess the whole point is those employees felt like they were part of Stuckey’s. It was a family. And that passed along to how they treated the customer. Now, fast forward to today, it is more challenging for us because we do not own or operate the stores. We do not have a franchise program. We have a licensing program. And the relationship with the licensees, the store owners, and managers has been sporadic. It’s taken a lot of effort and we’re still working on it every single day, but we have a small, but very enthusiastic sales team of three individuals. And they are our front lines to get out there and talk to the store managers.

And I talked to them too, but I can’t visit them as much as I’d like. Roadside retail, what I’ve learned is that there’s incredible turnover. So I can get to know a manager and have a relationship, and then six months later, there’s a new manager. So it’s challenging in this work environment, honestly, to empower employees sometimes. But I do what I can. I make sure that the ones that are full-time Stuckey’s payroll feel a sense of belonging. And yeah, just the second question.

Devon: Well, I was just curious, I’d love to learn more about your management, sort of, leadership management style and set up with this 50/50 split with your partner, which is quite unusual. Um, so how does that relationship foster the future of Stuckey’s and this sort of pipeline to the customer?

Stephanie Stuckey: Part of the arrangement that I have with RG was just necessity. When we were negotiating merging our companies, and he actually had a healthy Pecan Snack company. So he merged with Stuckey. So there were all these negotiations about, well, which name should we have the brand? Tes, Stuckey’s is more established, but we’re dusty, you know. He has a new brand that is… it’s called Front Porch Pecans, and he’s in some whole foods, he’s getting traction, he’s, he’s sales were solid. He had a great-tasting product. So there was all these back and forth negotiation. So it was part of the negotiation. He agreed that parent company is Stuckey. Stuckey’s now owns from Front Porch Pecans, and we’re go… We’re running through the packaging for Front Porch Pecans.

So out of necessity, we’re still producing that brand, but it will eventually become Stuckey’s. So there were concessions. And his advisor said, “Well, you should have 51%.” And my advisor said, “Well, you should have 51%.” (laughs) So what do you do? We did 50%. And I will say a business that I very much admire that’s based in Atlanta, where I live Home Depot, their founders, Marcus, and blank, uh, they had 50/50 ownership. So it is a model that has worked. And I even listened to a podcast where there was a serial entrepreneur who had all of these businesses. I need to pull up what his name was, but he deliberately negotiated where he had less ownership of his businesses.

He had a minority ownership, and he said that fosters trust, that fosters people really having, getting back to the employee question, a sense of ownership, wanting to have this succeed. If you’re always the majority, if you have this heavy hand, that’s not really fostering consensus-building and collaboration. So RG and I are 100% equal in this. We’re in it together. We rise and fall together. And I frankly wouldn’t have it any other way. And going into it I had my doubts and I’m sure he did too, but I- I’m just so blessed really. ‘Cause, he’s just a wonderful person and we mesh not only business-wise, but personality wise. He’s, he’s a little more chill than I am, a little more deliberative, and I need that balance for my personality.

It’s, it’s, it’s been terrific. I, I would just say, if you do a 50/50 model choose wisely, it’s just like a marriage only frankly, a marriage is easier to get out of than a business partner (laughs). So be careful who you go into business with. And, and our families have known each other for decades. So there was… there was a long history there of trust and relationship building.

Bob: I like that you do the 50/50. I like that you just went in all in together. And, you know, there’s, there’s plenty of… There’s plenty of advice out there, you know, that’s… to your point, that’s going to steer you in a, in more of a power position. But, um, I don’t know. I think there’s a lot to be said for, for just going all-in with each other at the same time. So I like that a lot.

Stephanie Stuckey: But there’s also good models that don’t get elevated enough for this 50/50, this, this fostering, the building a true partnership. So there are models out there for everything. I think the important thing is, it’s just like a business strategy. Any business can have 20 different strategies that would lead the business to profitability. You have to figure out what model makes sense for me, for my business. And then once you… once you make that decision, then you do it. I’m not sitting there wringing my hands, “Oh, what if I have done 51%? How would…” Like, done? I made the decision. We’re, we’re all in. No, don’t look back. Don’t, don’t fret over it just… that’s our decision it’s working.

Josh: It’s fantastic. This has been a great discussion. I know we’re running out of time. We want to be mindful of your time. Um, I have one really important final question. What is the origin of the Pacan Log? Where did it come from? It’s a wonderful, uh, confection. I’m a big fan. W- where did it come from? We must know the secret origin.

Stephanie Stuckey: There’s a story. My grandfather was sitting on the side of the road in the depression era, and just selling pecans initially. And he just had a sign that said, you know, con’s for sale by the pound. And he decided one day that if he made the pecans into candies, that his sales would pick up. And he was like me a bit impulsive. And if he had an idea, he would just act on it. The smart thing about him, which I learned from him and I probably inherited from him is that he also would recognize if something didn’t work and just say, “Okay, that didn’t work.” I learned from that, next? So he had this idea, I’m gonna make candy, and he just acted on it. And he ran to the… our house, his house, just is about a mile away, and interrupted my grandmother’s bridge game.

And he said, “Ethel, we should make candy.” And my grandmother, Ethel did not know how to make candy, but her bridge team, some of her bridge club members knew how to make candy. So they went in the kitchen, my grandmother and her bridge club. And they came up with this classic Southern confection. So it was prey lanes, and divinity and fudge. And the Pecan Log Roll was actually already a thing. I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve said they had a Pecan Log Roll recipe in their family that dated back to like the early 1900. So it was a local confection that people made. And so we didn’t invent the Pecan Log Roll, but we certainly popularized it.

And she tinkered around with it. She put maraschino cherries in it, and there’s a science to how you have to dry out the cherries so it doesn’t turn the nougat pink and how you get the flex just right so the taste isn’t over-powering. So there were a lot of things that we had to learn. We make the caramel from scratch, which I think is really important. But how do you get the caramel just hard enough, enough thickening agent, so it’s going to wrap around the nougat and hold its shape? So all of that was just iteration, but I love that it was the bridge club. And for the first several years of Stuckey’s, it was my grandmother’s bridge club that made the candy. The bridge club became a candy-making club and the only Jewish family in Eastman, Georgia, Sylvia Rubin was in the bridge club (laughs). So that’s kind of interesting to me like this wonderful Jewish lady who I knew help make a classic Southern confection.

Josh: It’s awesome.

Stephanie Stuckey: [inaudible 00:48:47].

Josh: So it seems like… It seems like there’s an opportunity to create the world’s largest Pecan Log.

Stephanie Stuckey: Oh, they’re, they’re…. the largest Pecan Log Roll, I have thought about that. And I’m just going to be a little real here. It’s unfortunate that our main image, what we’re known best for the Pecan Log Roll, it’s either phallic or looks a little turd-like (laughs). [crosstalk].

Bob: Hash tag, turd-like on LinkedIn

Stephanie Stuckey: We’re like, “Oh, do a Pecan Log Roll on my T-shirt.” And we’re like, “Not so sure.”

Devon: This is going to make LinkedIn-

Bob: This is definitely going to make LinkedIn interesting, turd-like.

Josh: Yep.

Stephanie Stuckey: You know, I, I can’t help it. I’m just going to go there that, that baby Ruth moment in caddy shack, right. (laughs) I mean… I… maybe that… I think that may have helped baby Ruth. It might’ve been, you know-

Bob: For sure.

Stephanie Stuckey: It’s, it’s, it’s a challenge.

Bob: We went there. It’s very good.

Stephanie Stuckey: Yeah.

Josh: So, so to close out, where can people follow kind of your road tripping adventures? Where can they learn more about Stuckeys, find a Stuckey’s near them? Tell, tell our audience kind of where they can connect with you and connect with the Stuckey’s brand.

Stephanie Stuckey: Thank you. stuckeys.com. Very easy. And actually, if you scroll on stuckeys.com, it should be on the top of the website. It, it has all of our links. We have a, a blog, we call it the Pecan Blog Roll, and you can sign up for our email newsletter, and you’ll get news about our promotions. We run a promotion pretty much every week, we’ll have something on sale. So if you want to get the coupon, codes, or know what’s on sale, sign up for our email newsletter on our website, LinkedIn. It’s Stuckey’s corporation, or Stephanie Stuckey, Facebook is Stuckey’s corporation. And then Twitter and Instagram were Stuckey’s Pecans because somebody had taken Stuckey’s Corporation, unfortunately, and it’s a completely defunct site, but the name was taken.

And then I’m on social media as @StuckeyStuck, So Twitter and Instagram. We’re also on YouTube. Oh, and Pinterest. Pinterest is Stuckey’s Corporation. I think I got it all. I’m trying TikTok, but not totally there yet. I’ve got like one video posted. So give me a few weeks on TikTok. trying to… I’m trying.

Bob: Josh can help you with TikTok.

Josh: Yeah. We’ll put all the links in the show notes for people to follow along and connect with you through all of the different social channels you mentioned. Um, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a great conversation.

Stephanie Stuckey: And I would seriously welcome TikTok help (laughs).

Devon: And, uh, Stuckey’s Pecan Blog Roll, not turd-like.

Stephanie Stuckey: Not.

Devon: So audience go to the blog, get on the comeback… road trip come back train. ‘Cause everyone loves a comeback story.

Stephanie Stuckey: That’s right. Actually, get on the road trip, comeback Woody station wagon-turned van, we’re into the van life. These days.

Devon: Love it. Stephanie. Thank you so much.

Bob: Thanks, Stephanie.

Stephanie Stuckey: Thank you.

Outro: Great talking to you again.