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Consistent Message Fuels Gate Corp.s Service Philosophy

The Gate Corp. is a multi-state company based in Jacksonville, Fla. The company owns concrete plants, a fuel delivery service, convenience stores and real estate including Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and three other private clubs. The convenience stores, collectively known as the Petroleum Marketing division, sell food, gasoline and items for travelers and local customers who want to make quick purchases.

The stores have been the companys core business since 1960, when Herbert Hill Peyton opened the first Gate service station in Jacksonville. He chose the name Gate from the local Chamber of Commerce slogan Jacksonville Gateway to Florida.

Gates 225 convenience stores are located throughout Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky. The retail business is divided into two operating divisions, with head offices in Jacksonville and Charlotte, N.C.

Gate Petroleum Marketing has a corporate goal thats easy to remember but not as easy to achieve. We want to be the premier convenience provider, explains Teresa Thomas, Gates director of Training and Development. Thomas has worked in the industry for 25 years, the last nine for Gate.

She and her staff refer to the 1,200 Gate employees who work in the convenience stores as their internal customers. Thomas explains that first we take care of our internal customers; then our employees can focus on the external [regular] customers.

When employees have questions or need anything to perform their jobs, Thomas and her staff members return their calls and send whats needed as soon as possible. Thomas thinks that providing her internal customers with attractive and comfortable uniforms is a key way of helping them take care of Gates external customers.

Satisfying the external customer is essential to Gate Petroleum Marketings philosophy of doing business. With help from At Work Uniforms of Irondale, Ala., Gates uniform supplier since January 2005, Thomas has been able to please both Gates internal and external customers.

Uniforms worn by the store employees reinforce the most important lesson that they learned during their training: customer service is their main priority. The uniforms even say so.

On the uniform shirts front left side, at heart level, is the Gate logo. Above it, stone-colored threads spell out Customer Service. Below the logo, it reads Priority #1.

Cashiers and team leaders wear burgundy, short-sleeve golf shirts with collars and banded sleeves. The shirts are a 50/50 blend of cotton and polyester. This fabric blend was chosen for comfort, durability and easy home care, explains Randy Hutcheson, sales manager for At Work Uniforms.

Assistant managers and managers, the higher levels of employees, wear the same shirts in stone or black. Instead of a manufacturers label, each shirt has the red and white Gate corporate logo sewn to the inside back of the collar.

Its very important that employees get consistency in their training, Thomas says. With the logo in front of them, we hope they will be caring and will treat customers well. We want customers to see the logo too.

Employees wear white plastic identity badges on the right front sides of their uniform shirts. The badge pins pass through sewn-in tiny padded eyelets, which prevent holes from developing in the fabric.

Hutcheson says his company designed those eyelets to help Gate get longer life out of the shirts. At Work, which was founded by Chuck and Shannon Campbell in 1991, develops uniforms to enhance a companys image, but also to give them a durable product for a reasonable price, according to Hutcheson. The company sells similar shirts to other firms, with construction details to meet their particular specifications.

On the name badge, the employees first name and last initial are embossed beneath the Gate logo and the words Thank You. Using only one name allows the type to be larger, thus easier for the customer to read.

Both male and female employees wear the same shirts, which are stocked in sizes small to 5XL. Employees in the more northern stores may wear long-sleeve shirts in the same colors during cold weather.

During training, each new employee is provided with three shirts. When he has been with Gate for 90 days, he receives three more shirts. Replacements, if needed, are supplied immediately.

Employees wear their own trousers in navy, khaki or black. They have flexibility in footwear as well, but dark is preferred and shoes must be either closed-toe leather or a good-quality sneaker. Most of them are very good about that, Thomas notes, referring to the dark shoes.

With one exception, hats are not permitted because they and sunglasses make it more difficult for the customer to see the employees eyes. Part of making the customer feel welcome is smiling and making eye contact.

The rules exception is male employees who have long hair. For safety reasons, they are required to tuck their hair back under baseball caps. At Work supplies the soft brushed twill caps of 100 percent cotton, which are made by Port Authority. They are burgundy, with the same red and white Gate logo and Customer Service Priority #1 sewn in stone-colored thread on the front above the bill.

For cold weather wear, managers and assistant managers have a black nylon windbreaker with snap closure and white flannel-type polyester lining. The Gate logo is on the left front side.

The previous uniforms, also supplied by At Work, were navy. But since burgundy and stone are the stores colors, Thomas says she and her staff wanted something for the associates to wear that blended well. Using the same colors also reinforces corporate identity and helps customers find employees quickly when theyre in a new Gate store.

Selecting the new uniform began in late September 2006. Hutcheson and Ralph Kunsberg, sales representative for At Works Florida accounts, first met with Thomas and her team to solicit their ideas.

They sent a number of shirts to Thomas who sent them out to various stores. We had a number of the employees wear them. We asked how the shirts looked, how they felt, did the employees like them, Thomas explains.

The managers truly wanted the black shirt, but the stone shirt was of a thinner texture, and they didnt like that, Thomas says. So Ralph brought in a stone shirt of woven cotton. It feels like silk, yet it handles the wear and holds the color. If I tried to take it away from them, theyd be upset with me, she laughs. External customers also have voiced positive opinions about the new uniforms. Thomas says, We get many letters from our customers praising the internal customers.

The shirts are holding up well, so Thomas isnt sure when Gate might make another uniform change. Were where we want to be. Perhaps well alter the design slightly, but were not going to back away from stressing customer service.

Deciding that the holidays were not the right time to introduce the new uniforms, Thomas hoped that At Work would be able to meet a Jan. 1, 2007, deadline. Then she could send the new uniforms out gradually starting in early January.

Not only did they deliver them on time, but Randy drove them from Birmingham to Jacksonville in a U-Haul during the holidays! People dont do that anymore. That is phenomenal service! Thomas declares.

Hutcheson and Kunsberg had allowed enough time to ship the uniform shirts in time to meet Gates deadline. Then they discovered that an unforeseen manufacturing delay erased the expected time available for delivery. This was the busiest time of year for all delivery services, which increased the chances that the uniform shirts would arrive after the agreed-upon date.

Breaking At Works promise to Thomas was not an option. Hutcheson booked a U-Haul truck, glad that a white Christmas wasnt possible on his route. Thats one example of why Thomas says of At Work, Theyre not a vendor; were partners. Ive never met a more service-oriented person than Chuck. I can call Ralph or Randy, even on a Friday evening, and theyll be there for us.

Kunsberg, a native of Jacksonville, has enjoyed working in the uniform business for 43 years. His family has one of the first uniform manufacturing facilities in Florida, which was started in the 1930s. He worked for Fechheimer Brothers Co. and then Champion Uniforms. At Champion, his responsibilities were sales to industry and major municipalities across the Southeast. He stayed on with J.W. Outfitters when the company purchased Champion in 1993.

Hutcheson, who has worked in the uniform apparel business since 1978, enjoys meeting people and seeing the inner workings of different types of businesses. He became general manager for At Work in 1994. He currently oversees the sales staff in the Eastern United States and the production team in Irondale, Ala.

Gate is an extraordinary company, he says. There are not many companies that are as employee-oriented as Gate is. They not only talk the talk, they walk the walk.

Of his own employer, Hutcheson says, At Work doesnt have all the red tape that sales managers and reps have to go through to solve problems. Chuck lets you make decisions at a street level. That makes it a lot easier to solve problems for a customer.

Thats especially true if you need a U-Haul to move some uniform shirts from Birmingham to Jacksonville during the busy holiday season.

She (Teresa Thomas) and her staff refer to the 1,200 Gate employees who work in the convenience stores as their internal customers. Thomas explains that first we take care of our internal customers; then our employees can focus on the external (regular) customers.

Gate is an extraordinary company, he says. There are not many companies that are as employee-oriented as Gate is. They not only talk the talk, they walk the walk.

Randy Hutcheson
At Work Uniforms

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Fall & Winter 2007 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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