His career spans nearly 20 years in the P&C sector, which means there aren’t many convenience industry people who haven’t bumped into Theo Foukkare at some stage before. Theo has been with product supplier Pacific Optics since 2003, and with a background in tobacco retailing, his hard-earned experience has taught him a few things about how to be successful in the channel. We talked to Theo to find out a few of his secrets…
How did you first get your start in the P&C sector, Theo?
I started on the graduate program with British American Tobacco, 19 years ago. I actually started with Rothmans, and as most people in the industry would know they went through a merger… when Winfield merged with Benson and Hedges, and they formed a new entity to which all the graduates went, so that was the start of my career.
I studied at University of Wollongong, graduating with a commerce degree, and I majored in marketing and management. I graduated with merit, and one of the key learnings from university was that it taught me how to be manage all sorts of scenario’s – in life, in study, in relationships, it “taught me’ the rules of the street [laughs].”
I spent 12 months in trade marketing, field-orientated roles with Rothmans, so that varied from spending time in a van, working in the field, to becoming acting area manager, to working in hotels pubs and clubs, and then I spent a year in brand marketing. It gave me a lot of insight about what I enjoyed about the industry.
From there I went into an account management role, and found that I had a real passion for people, for dealing with the retailers; I suppose it’s about the thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of kicking goals.
My work on the BAT accounts was mainly in the P&C channel, and I was fortunate enough to go on some of the AACS study tours, where I met Chris Bissiotis (the founder of Pacific Optics). He flew me up to the Gold Coast for a chat, we talked through potential career opportunities, and the rest is history!
Pacific Optics has provided me with the springboard to utilize all of my solid foundations built in the early years of my career to challenge the status quo, succeed both internally & externally & make lots of friends!
What is it about convenience retailing that keeps you excited?
It’s really the people; it’s the relationships that we’ve developed over many years. I really enjoy being able to help educate and mentor new people to the channel. I’m a talker, so I really enjoy being able to share the history of the industry and where it is today. Because I’ve been involved for such a long time, and I have a strong network of friends among other suppliers, across different product categories, I learn a lot about the dynamics of different categories, the different mechanisms within promotional activity, etc. I really enjoy learning about the other categories and bringing all that together and how it relates to us and other categories.
What advice do you have for people who want to do well in the sector?
The convenience channel itself, on the outset, looks like a very simple channel. You have a major fuel brand or a C-store brand above your door, but outside of Coles Express, Woolworths Petrol & 7-Eleven, the channel is really like a web of multi-store operators, whether that’s 2, 5, 20 stores… so the biggest thing I try to reinforce for anyone coming into the channel, is that without networking at all levels, you won’t win. You might get 70 per cent of where you want to get to, but it’s really about the relationships you build with all of the privately-owned, independent businesses that make up the larger corporate banners, the franchisees.
Get out of the office, that’s the main thing, and spend some time building relationships.
That’s the part people don’t get. They really don’t understand it. They think they can sit in an office and make all their decisions based on data, with no tangible experience learned from getting out on the road and talking to customers. That’s what I try to impart to everybody. People often say to me, “Oh Theo, you’re at this show, you’re at that conference, I see you every week at the airport…”. And without that, I don’t think you can truly appreciate what this channel is about. There’s so many new ideas across all the categories, be it food or coffee, or technology, telco, or fixtures or refrigeration… until you go out and talk to people and visualize it, it’s very hard to get a true appreciation for it. So, get out of the office, that’s the main thing, and spend some time building relationships.
What did you learn from your time in the tobacco industry?
In the tobacco industry, most of the tobacco companies really have unbelievable systems, processes in place, people development, planning: It was very strong, so effectively you had the best of everything at your fingertips. That to me is the thing that I’ve carried with me through my career, which is getting those fundamentals right.
The thing I didn’t like about it (and let me clarify by saying I really enjoyed my time with BAT, I wasn’t looking for a job but an opportunity came up that was too good to not consider), but the worst part about it was the ongoing restrictions around communication, especially of the brand. Effectively, the governments in different states legislated at different times, which meant the display of tobacco was significantly reduced and the ability, from the tobacco company’s perspective, to be able to talk to the customer just effectively went away.
The other part is that big companies, global businesses [to them] you’re just a number. Comparing then to now, every employee in the company knows who I am. It’s irrelevant what position I hold, you’re not a number, you’re a person, and we understand you, your family, your friends and your characteristics; it’s very different in that regard.
How do you like to relax and unwind after a hard day at the office (or out in the field, I should say)?
I really enjoy rugby league. I don’t play, I watch. I did play at school, and didn’t get very far, but my favourite position was lock. I also played soccer at school, I was a goalkeeper at the time.
But these days the thing I most enjoy is spending time at the beach with my family. I’m very fortunate to live close to the beach, my family and I enjoy that most mornings, I like walking along the beach and spending as much time as possible in the water.
Aside from that, we enjoy travelling. My wife and daughter and I are very fortunate to be able to travel to a lot of places around the world, we feel very privileged to be able to do that. My wife and I have been together for 19 years, and my daughter is five and a half.
My daughter is very lucky; she’s been to Disneyland twice already, but most recently we all went on a trip to Pennsylvania for a wedding, then New York, then to Orange County in California. I managed to crash a car while I was there, actually. We were running late for a luncheon in LA, and I had to stop at the bank for cash. In the car park I let my wife out, and wanting to reverse into an open parking spot, I checked my rear-vision mirror, it was all clear, so I started reversing slowly, and then… BANG! It turned out another car had the same idea; we’d both checked our mirrors to reverse but because of the angle they were clear, we just didn’t seen each other.
I was driving a Mercedes; so was he, and he wasn’t very happy, but it was pretty funny. His [car] was probably worth a quarter mill, so he was quite irate actually. Our car belonged to a friend of mine (yes, I did get it repaired). But a random passerby came up and told us he’d seen the whole thing, and that we were both at fault. The story started out like it was totally my fault, and after a bit of “discussion” we both agreed we would just pay for the damage to our own cars without involving insurance or the police.
And in New York, my daughter lost her phone in an Uber when we first arrived. I know, she’s five, but it’s not for calls: It’s for taking pictures and listening to music! After that she learned that if she had backed up her files to the iCloud, she would have been able to keep her photos. So now, that won’t happen again, we learned that the hard way.
It’s just unbelievable what our kids can learn these days. They are truly amazing in terms of what they have access to, and how quickly they can learn things when they have a bit of a play around with technology.