By Kris Leonhardt
THORP – On Feb. 16, central Wisconsin’s newest Kwik Trip store held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially celebrate its opening in Thorp.
The store is one of over 800 Kwik Trip retail stores,including tobacco outlets, in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Co-founder and CEO Don Zietlow said that new stores are part of the La Crosse-based company’s ongoing growing trend, which introduces about60 stores per year.
The Kwik Trip chain is far from what Zietlow could have imagined growing up on the family farm in Chaseburg.
“My dad died when I was eight,” Zietlow recalled in an earlier interview with Sentinel staff.
His mother moved to Viroqua and then La Crosse, in 1943. She later remarried and moved to another farm between La Crosse and West Salem.
“I worked for him for five years after high school for $125a month. We got married and had a child; I couldn’t put food on the table. So,I started driving a truck,” Zietlow added.
“I went from the farm to drive a truck for a wholesaler called Gateway Foods, and I was able to grow with that. Gateway Foods had some IGA stores in La Crosse and Eau Claire; they weren’t making any money. So, the owner of Gateway Foods at that time thought he should make those convenience stores. They had five of those.
“Gateway Food hired John Hansen to run those five stores,and he did for six years. They still weren’t making money after six years.
“In 1971, I was able to work myself up and be in charge of retail operations for Gateway Foods. So, I was talking to a bunch of IGA stores. We had about 20 retails, and I said ‘Listen, you’ve either got to get bigger or be a convenience store.’ At that time, there were no Walmarts of the world or ALDIs of the world.
“One guy said, ‘If you are so smart, why don’t you buy my store?’
“John Hansen came to me the next morning. He had heard about it and said that he would like to buy half. So, we became partners in that store.”
So, Hansen left Gateway to run the single store operation. Hansen and Zietlow were later approached by the owner of Gateway Foods and proposed creating a corporation to join all six stores.
For the next 18 years, Zietlow continued to work for Gateway Foods.
In 1989, the owner of Gateway Foods sold the company.Zietlow gave his interest up in the foods division and the owner gave Zietlow his share in the convenience stories, making him a two-thirds owner.
“I remembered what I had talked to my wife about in the early years. I said that if we ever owned a company, I am going to share the profits with our co-workers. So, now I had that chance,” Zietlow said.
“So, then I went to John and said, ‘If you agree to this, I will sell you half of what I got from (the Gateway Foods owner), and we’ll be50-50 partners. That was in 1989.
So the partners initiated a 40 percent pre-tax profit-sharing program.
“It’s the greatest thing we could have done,” Zietlow said.
In 2000, the Zietlow family bought the Hansen family out.
“We’ve grown a lot since that time. People are our greatest asset. We still share 40 percent,” he added.
“The company is now in trust. I don’t own any part of the company anymore. I still run it, I think.
Since the program was implemented, the company has shared over a billion dollars with its employees, and the chain continues to grow.
“Our model is simple: clean bathroom, clean stores, the best service, and a lot value in the food or commodities,” Zietlow stated.
“Our customers have a lot of choices.”
The Thorp Kwik Trip store is located just off of State Highway 29, at 103 E. Hill Street.
The Sentinel & Rural News covers the news and events of Clark County and southern Taylor County, as well as regional news that affects those areas.