Those of us of a certain age can recall a time when a road trip of any significant distance likely included one or more stops at a Stuckey’s, the blue-roofed stores that dotted America’s highways. They were among the original convenience stores. You could fill up the tank with Texaco gasoline and feed your appetite with southern candies like pralines and their iconic pecan log rolls.
W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey, Sr., founded the company in 1937 as a roadside pecan stand, and by the 1960s he had 368 stores in more than 30 states. He sold it, however, and its fortunes began to slide under corporate ownership. Then in 1984, his son, W.S. “Billy” Stuckey, Jr., bought the company, and it’s been back in the family ever since. Stephanie Stuckey, the granddaughter of the founder, became CEO in 2019.
I was reminded of the Stuckey’s comeback story recently when Stephanie Stuckey posted something on LinkedIn about their “candy crisis.” And while I haven’t stopped at one of their stores in years, I’m now looking for an opportunity. In the meantime, I’m pulling for the company to do well.
Why? Because as a former CEO who has faced the challenges of doing the hard right thing instead of the easy wrong thing, I can appreciate the tough decision Stephanie Stuckey and her leadership team made. After buying a candy plant earlier this year and spending months bringing their candy line in-house, they launched a new product line in hundreds of stores. They had made a huge investment and it was time to reap the benefits in fresh revenues.
Then, as Stuckey put it, trouble hit. “We got complaints about the candy smelling funny,” she said.
As it turned out, there weren’t a ton of complaints and there was nothing wrong with the candy. The issue was related to the new packaging. But she and her team recognized that the reputation of their brand was on the line.
“We had heated debates,” she said, “and I have to admit that I was tempted to just sell through what we had already landed in the stores.” Instead, they pulled and destroyed the candy, “costing us tens of thousands of dollars,” she said.
In her post, Stuckey shared two lessons she learned from the experience, and I’d like to pass those along with a three of my own. (The first and fifth lessons are from Stuckey’s post.)
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First, she noted the practical importance of thoroughly testing a new product line, even when there’s a rush to fill orders. This, by the way, applies beyond new products. Moving fast is important in the modern market, but leaders should never outrun prudence when making decisions.
Second, I would add that we can learn from Stuckey’s example of listening to your customers and taking their complaints seriously. Even though they only got a few complaints, they listened and then investigated what they were hearing.
Third, we also can learn from Stuckey’s example of embracing the reality. Stuckey’s could have closed its corporate eyes (and noses) to the odd-smelling packaging, but instead they diagnosed the problem and made sure there were no healthy risks for customers.
Fourth, they considered their options. A healthy debate where everyone’s voice is heard and considered helps create a culture where people aren’t afraid to say what they believe, even if it might be unpopular. I wasn’t there for the internal debates at Stuckey’s, of course, but my hope is that everyone was treated with respect, regardless of their opinions.
Fifth, they put long-term reputation and integrity above short-term revenues and profits. This was Stuckey’s second lesson. As she put it: “When bad things happen, take the hit, be honest, and do the right thing. If you’re playing the long game in business, this is just a bump in the road.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I’ll add one final lesson worth remembering. Based on my experiences as an executive, I’m willing to bet that Stuckey and her team got this one right because they have a history, individually and as a team, of acting with integrity in their daily lives. When “do the right thing” is a priority on the smallest decisions in our lives, doing the right thing on the bigger, more difficult decisions happens much more naturally.