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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: James Keyes

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-12

The sun never sets on James Keyes's empire.

Its iconic red-green-and-white marquee rises at 28,000 locations in 18 countries. That puts Mr. Keyes, CEO of 7-Eleven, in charge of the world's largest chain of convenience retail stores. Yesterday, he extended his domain to Manhattan with the opening of his newest franchised facility.

The crowds that flocked to Indian-born Jimmy Solanki's store at 107 East 23rd Street were large, but still only a fraction of the 6 million Americans who give their custom every day to some 6,000 7-Eleven stores around the country. The 22,000 foreign franchises attract millions more people.

The inaugural of Mr. Solanki's store represented a resurrection of sorts for 7-Eleven. It had shuttered its New York stores some years ago during a particularly bleak time for the enterprise, which was started in Dallas in 1927 to sell blocks of ice and dry goods.

But yesterday's event also had special significance for Mr. Keyes personally. It was as a student at Columbia University's business school that he made his first foray into the American corporate world through an internship with what was then known as Gulf Oil. The company, impressed by his combination of brio and brains, hired him after he received his MBA.

"My life has been a series of very good fortunes," Mr. Keyes said.

One of those fortunes was his friendship at Columbia with Mark Weill, whose father, Sanford Weill, had already established himself as a financial titan. The older Mr. Weill, and his wife Joan, became mentors.

As they chatted at his graduation with his mother Dorothy, and brother Roger, a truck driver, it occurred to Mr. Keyes that Mr. Weill and he had something in common. Mr. Weill came from a modest Brooklyn background, and started his eventually stellar career as a runner on Wall Street. Mr. Keyes came from humble background, too, growing up as the youngest of six children in a shack in Grafton, Mass., that had no electricity or running water. His parents were both factory workers, and his father Harold died when Mr. Keyes was only 12.

"I've never forgotten those days," he said. "The adversity prepared me to face anything that came my way."

His family's poverty was such that Mr. Keyes had to work as a factory hand and truck driver in order to pay his tuition at Holy Cross College. But in his junior year, he won a place at the University of London.

"That was the beginning of a lifetime of rich experiences for me," he said. "My roommate was Pakistani. My friends were Britons and other nationalities. London was about understanding the rest of the world."

Although he couldn't have known it at the time, his London sojourn was a precursor to a business life in which understanding foreign cultures was invaluable. As he expanded 7-Eleven - which has annual sales of $41 billion - around the world, Mr. Keyes realized that business was about more than numbers; it was really about people.

"Those early experiences taught me to be much more aware of my environment, to always keep my antennae out," Mr. Keyes said.

His acuity saw him course through managerial positions at Gulf Oil, Chevron, and Citgo. He was hired by 7-Eleven where his management skills propelled him through a lethargic bureaucracy. In 2000, barely 14 years after joining the company, Mr. Keyes became 7-Eleven's CEO.

So what's it like to be CEO of the world's biggest retail-store chain?

"There's a difference between being a manager and a leader," Mr. Keyes said. "As a leader, people look to you to guide them and also inspire them. Perhaps my own life story has some impact on my colleagues. But there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. I like to think that I've stayed on the right side of that line."

His stewardship of 7-Eleven has also been salutary for a company that faced Chapter 11 barely a decade ago. Mr. Keyes increased the company's investment in technology. Now computerization can move items much faster at stores, and also gives owners the ability to customize inventories to meet the specific needs of their clientele.

One measure of Mr. Keyes's stewardship is 7-Eleven's stock price. A year or two after he took over the reins of the company, its stock price was hovering around $7 a share on the New York Stock Exchange. Yesterday, it closed at $33.42, up $2.07, or 6.60% from its opening price of $31.35.

"I'm living the American Dream," Mr. Keyes said. "Now I want more 7-Eleven franchisees to realize their 'American Dream." I think we've barely scratched the surface. The best is yet to come."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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