Lessons from Corporate Innovators

Mary Beth Green – Chief Innovation Officer, Sheetz

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If you live in Pennsylvania or one of the surrounding six states, you’ve likely pulled into a Sheetz Gas Station not to get gas, but to order & eat food.  That’s right high-quality quick serve food customized to your preferences. Sheetz pioneered this “made to order” quick-serve style food in a gas station. On this week’s episode of Agile Giants Mary Beth Green shares her experiences building a team and putting an innovation process that is working to re-invent the category again.

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Sean Ammirati (00:08):
Welcome to Agile Giants – Lessons from Corporate Innovators. I’m Sean Ammirati, your host, co-founder and Director of the Carnegie Mellon Corporate Startup Lab, and partner at the early stage venture capital fund Birchmere Ventures. Each week I’m going to talk to guests who are experts at creating startups inside large corporations. I believe fundamentally a startup within a company is the same as one inside the proverbial garage. A group of entrepreneurs, trying to make the world a better place, using new ideas and inventions. However, I also believe some of the techniques and processes are just inherently different. This podcast is going to explore those similarities and differences.

Sean Ammirati (00:56):
So I first became aware of Sheetz as a college student. Where I grew up there weren’t Sheetz, but when I got to college, many of the local gas stations/convenience stores were these things called Sheetz. And I remember walking in for the first time and just being blown away that there was basically this quick serve high quality food that I could customize on an iPad like device. I mean, this was before the iPads, but this tablet like device where I could customize my order, and less than five minutes later, hot high quality food will be ready to consume. And when you were studying late, or doing other extracurricular activities, Sheetz was just a go to.

Sean Ammirati (01:35):
Well today I sit down with Mary Beth Green, the relatively new Chief Innovation Officer at Sheetz. And we’re going to talk about how Mary Beth is building on that legacy to again help Sheetz re-imagine the future. We’re going to talk about some things that she’s borrowing from her earlier experiences as both a corporate entrepreneur, working with startups, even an entrepreneurship professor, where she’s helping Sheetz evaluate customer needs and turn them into actionable initiatives. We will also talk about how she built out her team and how she was intentional doing that to build out a diverse and inclusive innovation team. I think there’s a lot of lessons here for corporate innovators trying to transform their industries, and for those of you who’ve also experienced a Sheetz, probably have some fond memories that you’ll be excited to see how they build upon. Hope you enjoy this week’s episode.

Sean Ammirati (02:24):
One other programming note before we get to the episode, just a reminder again that if you’re listening to this right when it comes out, so that’ll be in the fall of 2020, we have the Corporate Entrepreneurship Forum at the Corporate Startup Lab. Again, I’d encourage you to go to corporatestartuplab.com, click on the CSL forum link at the top, and register for a free ticket for this virtual event. Thanks so much, and again, hope you continue to enjoy Agile Giants.

Sean Ammirati (02:54):
So Mary Beth, thank you so much for joining us on Agile Giants here. I wanted to start with just talking a little bit about what you did before you got to Sheetz, because it was quite a storied career before that. We’ll get to what you’re doing at Sheetz, but let’s just talk a little bit about what came before your current role.

Mary Beth Green (03:10):
Thanks, Sean. It’s really great to be here, and having this conversation with you. Prior to Sheetz I was working as a consultant, and really using my experience to help companies in all aspects of new product and business innovation. Throughout my career I’ve been involved in launching or commercializing over, we’ll say 12 very complex products and solutions. This has been both as part of two major corporations, Fortune 2000, one in the 500, also as part of a startup from very early stages as an early customer. And really, this is where I played some key roles in technology and market disruptions in mobile apps, health tech solutions, big data, before that was a term, supply chain software, and then manufacturing across all the major industries you can imagine.

Sean Ammirati (04:12):
Yep. So you’ve had this big company innovator, you’ve partnered with startups, I guess also worth saying you’ve also been a faculty member and taught others how to do this. And so you’ve had all these hats, and then Sheetz comes knocking. And certainly for those who are in markets where Sheetz exists, they’ll know who that is, but it’s probably worth just a minute on who Sheetz is, and then what your role within Sheetz.

Mary Beth Green (04:40):
Absolutely. So Sheetz is about a $7 billion convenience store chain. We’ve got store locations, over 600, in six States. So Pennsylvania, and then all those surrounding states on the circumference. So being a known innovator in the space, Sheetz really had a strong recognition that there’s lots of disruption coming from many different angles over the next 10, 20 years, changes in mobility and gas, on a very basic level, likely changes in those areas, as well as just different channels that consumers are using to have convenient experiences, and really wanted to take innovation to the next level.

Mary Beth Green (05:32):
And so hired me about a year and a half ago to form an incubator that really focuses on that future scenario. What does Sheetz look like 10 years down the road? And one of the stated missions is, and ambition of the organization, is to put the Sheetz as we know it today out of business, which I think is a great provocative statement, that dead center captures where this incubator is playing, focused on what does that Sheetz look like 10 years down the road?

Sean Ammirati (06:09):
Yeah, and I think people’s minds are probably racing, because we can imagine, at the high level, the trends you’re talking about, and how that would transform both a gas station, and for those who aren’t in the Pittsburgh, or Pennsylvania I guess, and the surrounding state markets, the other thing is, relative to maybe what you’re thinking when you hear convenience store, the food is actually very good at Sheetz. So people actually have a lot of loyalty to quick serve food there too. So there’s all these industries that are being transformed, food delivery, automotive, gas, all these things, and this mission to put yourself out of business. You called it an incubator that you’re doing, how would Sheetz talk about an incubator? Because I think that’s a term different companies use, and mean slightly different things with it.

Mary Beth Green (06:58):
Yeah, definitely. Yeah, and absolutely, appreciate you reviewing the various portfolio of businesses that the organization is part of, that the organization has built. And as you said, it’s not just fuel, there’s a strong brand, a brand around convenience items, but mostly as a leader in establishing this made to order quick service restaurant model in a convenience store,

Sean Ammirati (07:25):
Right, if you went to college in Pennsylvania, you know Sheetz because it was a pit stop on the way home at night, or on a late study break where you went to fuel up for the rest of your all nighter. I’m sure not all of the audience did this, but if you went and had an adult beverage or two, it was often a pit stop on the way home there as well. So it’s got this memorable brand for those of us who went to college there, but when people live in Pittsburgh, it’s also just decent, quick serve food you can get on the way home. You’re trying to put the Sheetz of today out of business in 10 to 20 years with this incubator, and so I think you were going to define what incubator meant inside of Sheetz.

Mary Beth Green (08:14):
Yeah, so incubator in the Sheetz context specifically is on a mission to identify great ideas that we can vet and develop into potentially working businesses, or product, or service lines. And that’s a strategy really to just make sure that the ideas we’re evaluating have an order of magnitude of impact and potential, and it’s also a way to just respect that innovation is alive and well throughout the organization at Sheetz. The core business, they are all innovators, and are the ones that really keep the engine moving and growing as we know it today. So that business is expanding into new markets and is on a path to continue to do that. But this is really a way to just go further and bigger in looking at what, really beginning to shape lifestyles of the future in an even bigger way than what Sheetz has an influence over today.

Sean Ammirati (09:25):
Yeah, which make total sense. So if you think about that strategy, one way that often, I’ll try to kind of segment these strategies, it’s not as an either or, but often a little bit of this, a little bit of that, is some amount of it is outside in, and some amount of it is inside out. So outside in, partnering with startups, investing in startups, first customer programs, like the programs you were part of in some large established companies. And then inside out, are you creating brand new products and services using the assets of Sheetz and launching them out into the world? How do you weight the amount of inside out versus outside in innovation at a place like Sheetz incubator?

Mary Beth Green (10:13):
So that’s a great question, and as you know, we’re about a year into this new mission. So it’s early stages of beginning to set that up. But what is important to know is that as a brand, we are definitely an inside out brand, sort of identify with the values and the ultimate one-stop shop, the promise of safety and cleanliness, and almost a fun vibe. And so that is an element of what we consider as we begin to ideate. But the incubator in particular really is designed to look broad, look out in the world, and explore what are some experiences that might spark something that matches with that inside out excellence that Sheetz already has.

Mary Beth Green (11:15):
So the mix, at this point, still kind of remains to be seen, but again, from a strategy of just operating with really good business development excellence, really a focus on how to shape that idea into something that in theory could be standing on its own.

Sean Ammirati (11:39):
Yeah, that’s great. And you are just starting out, one of the things that I’ve watched you, we’ve known each other for a long time, as people probably have picked up, but one of the things that I’ve appreciated watching you put this together is how thoughtful you were about the team that you put together for this as well. And so other folks who may be at their own companies thinking about building their own version of this, what encouragement would you have for them in terms of how they should approach building out a team for an initiative like this?

Mary Beth Green (12:10):
Yeah, so one of the things that I think is really important to operate in a unique, innovative way is to consider building a team with a lot of diverse expertise, and that’s the first step that I have taken in this first year of building the innovator is looking at a diverse set of expertise, from research to customer experience, et cetera, and hiring so that this group can come to the table and represent a diversity and inclusion simply on that level.

Sean Ammirati (12:53):

Mary Beth Green (12:53):
Of course there are many other ways to incorporate that as well, but that’s really one of the first steps that I think is, I’m excited to have that come together and see what that does for our innovative outlook.

Sean Ammirati (13:08):
Yeah, I mean, that was actually literally going to be my followup on this, so it feels like you guys have done a great job with diversity and inclusion, along lots of different obvious visible examples of that, but also just knowing the people involved and the skill sets they bring, the way they think and approach these problems too. The people on your team I think are complimentary, but diverse thinkers as well.

Sean Ammirati (13:36):
This is an important topic right now, and it’s a topic that I think rightly is getting a lot of attention right now. I’m not sure everybody’s having quite the same success, to be honest, at least a lot of the off the record conversations I have with other groups that can remain nameless, it doesn’t feel like they’re having the same success right now. How did you have the success you did along a diverse and inclusive group to work with you?

Mary Beth Green (14:05):
Well, I have to give full credit where it’s due, and as a starting point, I had entire buy-in and support from Sheetz leadership, and the strategy group leadership by Emily Sheetz in particular, but really a lot of buy-in and support to take the time necessary to think that through, put in a process that actually was a little bit unique to any standard practices that were in place, and really think about not just what does a diverse expertise represent, but also I think it’s really important to think through what does an innovator need to have the skills do?

Mary Beth Green (14:52):
So there were really a couple other lenses that I would encourage others in innovation, other leaders in innovation to think about, and that is, has someone spent time in different industries, had exposure to different product lines, market segments. Has someone had some functional versatility, got a technical background, moved into business or marketing. What full-scale experience of being involved in a business have they had? And then in addition to that I would suggest that if, in my case this was a new team, new function, so having somebody who’s been part of a highly collaborative, flexible, versatile experience to go broad and deep where necessary, whether that was part of an RD group or a creative group, or a startup, perhaps, that was really key and a final piece of evaluation.

Mary Beth Green (15:56):
So I’d almost call it capacity to be innovative in a collaborative, flexible way was part of that mix as well. And I think that those elements, in addition to the expertise, they’re very hard to find, but getting clarity on that makes all the difference, and over time, really pleased with how that’s come together. But that’s just the first step.

Sean Ammirati (16:20):

Mary Beth Green (16:21):
In the midst of the work of storming, forming, and norming, and getting the set up in place to really make all this work. And I’m sure we’ve all read, and as you said, it’s very topical today, thinking about diversity and inclusion, the challenge but opportunity that I’m looking forward to is it can take longer to develop those rhythms and routines, but really want to hold on to what those different viewpoints bring, and leverage that healthy tension to come up with new and different ideas that then serve as a spearhead to the overall strategy of innovation at Sheetz. So those are some of the things that I did to move that along.

Sean Ammirati (17:08):
Yeah, that’s awesome, and I think there’s a lot there for other folks trying to do this as well. This is important work and it’s not work that’s going to be done anytime soon. So we all need to remain committed to this. So let’s move beyond the team a little bit, because there’s some other unique things about Sheetz innovation that I think are lessons for other people as well. One of them is just, you’ve taken a unique approach, so headquarters is in central Pennsylvania. You’ve spent quite a bit of time there, you’re obviously based in Pittsburgh, for people who haven’t pieced that together. So you’re in Pittsburgh, headquarters is in central PA, and you’re building this group out in the Pittsburgh market, but with these strong ties back into the rest of the organization. And I’m curious, some lessons and some takeaways rom getting that set up.

Mary Beth Green (18:08):
Yeah, great question. As I think about thought leadership and innovation, I think this idea around connecting to ecosystems is extremely powerful, and that’s not a a win lose-game, that’s a win-win game. And so that really came about somewhat intentionally, but also a big part of what I brought to the table was my own position in the ecosystem, I’ve been in this really help build and grow it in many different ways through working and living here, and really just being a strong connector was really how this all came about.

Mary Beth Green (18:52):
It wasn’t actually on the radar right away, but circumstances began to unfold and, I think very quickly joining the team demonstrated some of the value of the connection to our ecosystem. And it’s really been great in terms of opening the door for recruiting talent. And then also really just diversity comes in so many different ways between cities, different cities of different sizes, and different communities of different shapes and sizes. And so putting them all on the table, and putting yourself in someone’s shoes and understanding those experiences, is part of what’s important for our, as we think about understanding customer needs, what’s unique and what we can continue to do different there, across different types of ecosystems. Small ones, big ones, new ones, well-developed ones.

Mary Beth Green (19:54):
I’m very proud of the Pittsburgh ecosystem and what I have been really privileged to see grow over the past several decades. It’s just been such a great pool to be swimming in. And so, yeah, very proud of having the opportunity to be part of opening an office here for Sheetz and creating that as our home base for our incubator. It’s been great already connecting with the universities. We’ve had a couple different touch points and many more, both at the major universities here, as well as thinking about, beyond that, other universities as a priority in our ecosystem. There’s great ecosystems everywhere to connect with, and that, I would say, is a top low-hanging opportunity for any leader in the innovation space to identify what ecosystems they have access to.

Sean Ammirati (20:54):
Yeah, absolutely. That was awesome. So let’s just turn our attention a little bit, and knowing that it’s only a year end, and so some of these questions, you should feel free to say, “Well, it’s a little early to weigh in on that.” But I looked at your LinkedIn descriptions and I thought I’d ask you a specific question there, and then step up a level and talk about Sheetz and how Sheetz is going to approach this, to the extent you guys are able to talk about it now.

Sean Ammirati (21:18):
So first of all, on your LinkedIn description, you talk about evaluating customer needs and turning them into actionable initiatives. And my sense is, that’s a pretty good summary of what someone in a role like yours is supposed to be, not only doing, but catalyzing the entire organization to do. And so you’ve done that for a long time. What are some lessons learned from doing that, and how are you doing that now within the Sheetz world?

Mary Beth Green (21:50):
So I break this work into two phases. The first is design, and then the second is deliver. My incubator team is Sheetz is focused first on the design phase, and in this phase we of course focus on humans, people, and their lifestyles, and then we have several techniques to help us move through the process. We’re experimenting with design thinking tools to inspire insights, prioritize work, and quickly build out concepts, working with real people or customers. Another is that we move quickly to prototyping so that we’re always learning by doing, and we’re building that muscle. And then really looking at the use of sprints, short bursts of focused activity, lots of inspiration, of course, from Agile, Google’s one week Design Sprint. There’s lots of great work out there using for inspiration and experimenting with that.

Mary Beth Green (22:45):
And this really helps us move quickly, take time to reflect and iterate. And it’s really amazing how time limits inspire creativity and decisions. I’m also a fan of using the jobs to be done approach, which steps toward solution development. So it goes from these initial ideas and insights to really thinking about what is a pin point or an opportunity that would be a need that we could address.

Mary Beth Green (23:14):
Once we’re on to something, I’ve seen Lean Startup Canvas and strategizer tools with a rigorous iteration process produce amazing results with entrepreneurs that I’ve mentored a students and accelerator participants. And we’ll definitely check out your adaptation for corporate startups, and use the same principles of quick iterations and reviews for feedback. Then once we’re ready to deliver something, in my experience it’s all about having great project management plans with clear owners and resources to execute, which never go as planned. But having those plans allow you to be clear and thoughtful about the zigs and zags that you need to launch something into the market.

Sean Ammirati (24:01):
Yeah, that’s great, and make sense. Now the last two questions, I think I have a context question, and then a strategy question. So the context question, you’ve touched on this already, Sheetz has this legacy of innovation,, things like made to order, but if you were just to think at the industry level, how do you think Sheetz peers would think about its differentiation relative to them? What really is the unique differentiation for Sheetz, and then where I want to take that is then, how you use that differentiation to think about new product offerings within the Sheetz business. But let’s first just get the context set here.

Mary Beth Green (24:38):
Yeah. So when I think about peers in this space, which is tough to define, as we talked about earlier, because there are a number of different segments that our business does compete in. But if I keep it to convenience and think about how we stand out, really one of the significant ways is just the pioneering of the quick service restaurant, the made to order, quick, fresh food and offerings, but also in truth, really this brand that has been established. And I think it’s worth talking a little bit about that because there’s really a loyal… packaging up all of the value that Sheetz offers into a brand is no small thing, and the loyalty program we have, I love to refer to it as, people are really loyal and committed to Sheetz, if they’re in the program they fondly love to be referred to as Sheetz freaks.

Mary Beth Green (25:38):
And there’s just very, very committed customers out there. I mean, people get tattoos of the brand. People sometimes, on the way to their wedding, take pictures and throw them up on social media. So this is pretty significant in terms of brand, and it’s that customer experience that is really important for them. So definitely leveraging that concept of how to deliver a really amazing customer experience to specific segments, as well as thinking about these other strengths in food, perhaps.

Mary Beth Green (26:20):
Those are a couple of different things that I think stand out of in terms of the Sheetz brand. One of the tools that I use to leverage that, and also give us room to move in different directions is… and I strongly recommend anyone in innovation, any head of innovation, as well as innovators across the board, consider creating for themselves, is this innovation strategy compass. So it’s a tool, and the idea is it’s a compass. We use those when we’re out in the woods, we’re exploring in different areas. It’s a ground game, we’re not yet flying, we’re still in a very exploratory mode. But it creates this guideline that allows you to go wide and broad, but also connects you to that core mission and values.

Mary Beth Green (27:17):
And so I created a strategy compass that we’re using that sort of starts with the vision and mission, and connects us to the brand promise. Also ties in values, again, which is played out in Sheetz brand, and then down to our strategic priorities. And this is really one of the first tools I would say that help guide these different areas that we will be exploring in.

Sean Ammirati (27:47):
Awesome, so I love that innovation compass concept, there’s a lot of wisdom there. So as we move to wrap this up, another part of the people who listened to this podcast are young students coming out of either their undergrad or grad school. We didn’t say this, but you are a Tepper alum. Were you GSIA technically, or where you-

Mary Beth Green (28:11):
Proudly. No, actually I was there the year that the name got changed and officially an MBA.

Sean Ammirati (28:16):
Yeah, you are officially a Tepper MBA.

Mary Beth Green (28:18):

Sean Ammirati (28:20):
So imagine today being a Tepper MBA and coming out, and obviously the world is a little crazy right now, but also just in general, I think our MBAs today are much more interested in career paths like you’ve had than probably the class you graduated with was. And so for a student coming out today thinking, I would love to be, fast forward a few years, helping run innovation at a place like Sheetz. What advice would you give him or her?

Mary Beth Green (28:49):
Yeah, I think there would be two key things that I haven’t mentioned already, and then one that I have. The first, though, for really everyone, is really spend time, and this is an evolutionary process, but to know yourself. So know yourself, understand where your strengths are, where there are gaps, and where you want to play. There’s different approaches to that, but try both, filling in the gaps as well as playing to strengths, and connect that to any organization that you target and want to be part of. Make sure you tie that in and understand the strategy, and then again, that helps you really achieve your aspirations within that organization. So that’s a very general theme, but know yourself, and as a lifelong pursuit, continued to refine that understanding.

Mary Beth Green (29:45):
For the students, as you mentioned, that are interested in innovation as a defining part of their career and mission, I think the most valuable thing that I have ever done is seek new experiences. This has both been professionally for me, as well as personally. And as an example, every trip I take, every different situation I find myself in, out of my sort of normal path or groove, which everybody has, I really take the opportunity to talk to people different from me, to ask simple questions, and it can be very small, conversational, but gives you that opportunity to put yourself in their shoes perhaps, and take away a nugget of understanding. And this is the empathy work that is really essential in innovation. And through that, it really allows you to learn how to connect dots and see opportunities that others may not see.

Mary Beth Green (30:51):
So it’s really back to that theme of diversity and different layers of that diversity as well. So know yourself, seek new experiences, and then the third one I really mentioned is, consider a personal compass that is your own innovation strategy and compass. And I think that tool really helps evolve the first two keys of advice that I would offer.

Sean Ammirati (31:17):
Yeah, that’s great, and that tied in nicely. That’s awesome. Well, Mary Beth, we will definitely have you back. I really appreciate all the things you’re doing at Sheetz, and for the Pittsburgh region as well. So thanks so much, and thanks for sharing your wisdom today with Agile Giants.

Mary Beth Green (31:31):
Thank you, Sean, who was wonderful, and likewise to you, all that you’re doing for the region, thank you.

Sean Ammirati (31:41):
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Agile Giants. If so, consider sharing it with a friend, and if you think it’s worth five stars, which I hope you do, please go to iTunes and rate it so that others can find this content as well.

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