Terry Handley reflects on 38 years with Casey’s

 

Lifetime Achievement Award: Terry Handley, Casey’s General Stores

Terry Handley reflects on 38 years with Casey’s

by Ann Seuferer

There are pivotal moments in a person’s life. They seldom call attention to themselves at the time but upon reflection, they are recognizable as the moments that made all the difference. For Terry Handley, former Casey’s General Stores CEO, there are three that stand apart on a career path that led him to the top of the company. 

Moment number one 

After graduating from Ankeny High School in Ankeny, Iowa, in 1978, Handley went to work for Hawbaker Bridge Painting out of Redfield, Iowa. During the next two years, he helped paint various bridges in the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids areas as well as others throughout Iowa. His mother, who constantly worried about him falling, told him about an opening at Casey’s for a store-set specialist. “I had no idea what that even was,” Handley recalls. But, the moment he decided to apply for the job set his life on a new path. 

Photo: In 1990, Terry Handley (right) is shown here with Mike Richardson, retired vice president of marketing for Casey’s, and lucky customer, Jane Welch. Welch won the Ford Mustang, pictured here, in a 7-Up give away at the Casey’s in Oak Grove, Missouri.

It was a Friday afternoon in January 1981 when he called Casey’s Store Set Supervisor Don Rice. By the end of the call, Handley had an interview for the coming Monday morning. But when the day dawned, Handley woke with a temperature of 104 degrees. He willed himself through the interview, uncertain exactly what he had said, then headed straight to bed. That afternoon, he received a call. “‘Pack your bags. You’re going to West Liberty,’” the voice on the other end of the receiver said. Handley headed to West Liberty, Iowa, and worked that day and the next, but by Wednesday, he was too sick to get out of bed. “My third day on the job, and I had to miss work,” he recalls.

It was not the stellar beginning he had hoped for but Handley soon recovered both his health and his reputation. His hard work and a willingness to tackle any task set before him soon won the admiration of his superiors. 

As 1981 drew to a close, Steve Adams, district manager, offered Handley a job as an area supervisor. This was a big promotion for the then 21-year-old. The role called for him to oversee stores in Southeast Iowa but would eventually bring him back to the Des Moines area to oversee new growth close to home. March 1983 was a pivotal time at Casey’s as the company shifted from third-party warehousing to establishing its own warehouse and distribution system. Part of the transition included creating a marketing department. Adams was selected to lead the new department and asked Handley to join him as a category manager/buyer. When Adams moved on in 1988, Handley became the head of the marketing department.

Moment number two

Two years into the job, Handley was on a flight home in April 1990, he doesn’t remember from where, but what transpired is still crystal clear. “Ron Lamb came over and sat down next to me,” Handley recalls, “and he asked, ‘What is it that you want from Casey’s?’ I remember feeling intimidated by his position in the company, he was chief operating officer at the time, and by the question he asked. I mean, wow! How do you answer a question like that? I just looked him in the eye and said, “Well, I want your job.” Ron laughed and said, ‘Good answer,’ and walked away, and I thought, well, either something really good’s gonna happen or something really bad’s gonna happen.”

A few months later, Lamb called Handley to his office and told him if that was indeed his goal that he needed to return to store operations. Before the year was out, Handley became store operations regional manager, a new position established to help the vice president of store operations bridge the gap between himself and the growing number of district managers. Handley worked in the position for the next five years, acquiring the experience he would need to advance in the company. 

Moment number three

Photo: (Left to right) Bob Myers, former Casey’s CEO; Don Lamberti, founder and former Casey’s CEO; and Terry Handley, Casey’s CEO at the time; pose for a photo during a retirement party for two Casey’s vice presidents in June 2019.

In his new job as a regional manager, Handley was traveling a lot. Nancy, his wife, was working at Mercy Hospital and caring for their firstborn, Joe, only a year old. She had every reason to want Handley home more. During this time, the Casey’s distribution center manager retired and the vice president of transportation approached Handley about taking the position. “‘This is great,’ I thought. ‘Now I can be home.’ I wasn’t thinking in terms of my career path, I was thinking of my family,” he recalls. Terry and Nancy went to dinner with the vice president of transportation and his wife. “We were talking through the opportunity, and I was really excited about it. And as we came out of dinner, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to do this.’ On the way home I asked Nancy, ‘So what do you think?’ and her response was, ‘Do you think this is what Ron Lamb had planned for you?’”

Handley’s answer was, “No.” The next day Handley turned down the job. Within a matter of months, Lamb provided Handley with the opportunity that would jumpstart his climb to the top of the company. 

A Series of Challenges

A series of challenges and opportunities followed that would test the future CEO’s metal. Casey’s was one of the first convenience chains to offer food service in the early ’80s. When 1995 rolled around, the company undertook a push to enhance the quality and reputation of its food program. Lamb approached Handley saying, “I need you to move in and take over and turn this around.” Handley did, and succeeded in making Casey’s as well-known for food as for gasoline. 

Former founder and CEO Don Lamberti remembers it was about this same time period when Lamb came into Lamberti’s office one day. “I was sitting there with Bob Myers,” Lamberti recalls, “and Ron comes walking in and says, ‘Someday, Terry Handley will be sitting in our chairs.’” 

In 2000, Lamb reached out to Handley again, this time as Casey’s CEO, a position he assumed in 1998. “He said, ‘Terry, I need you to take over store ops.’ It was never ‘do you want to?’ it was always ‘I need you to,’” recollects Handley, “so that’s how I became the vice president of store operations.” After three years, Handley was promoted to senior vice president of store operations, with food service and marketing under his purview. He remained in that position for another three years. Then in 2006, when Lamb retired and Bob Myers became president and CEO, Handley was named chief operating officer. 

“Ron [Lamb] meant a lot to so many of us. He truly was a father figure. He led quietly, didn’t want accolades, didn’t want to be in the public eye. He just loved running the business,” Handley says of his mentor. Lamb passed away in 2010 after a battle with cancer.

Other Mentors

“I was so fortunate to work for and learn from all three former Casey’s CEOs, Don Lamberti, Ron Lamb and Bob Myers,” says Handley. “They were all similar in that they set expectations but they weren’t in your business every day. They were there if you needed them, but they let you take the responsibility for getting things done.” 

Photo: (Left to right) Son Jon, wife Nancy, daughter Erin, son Joe and Terry Handley at Harry Caray’s restaurant in Chicago.

The importance of family is one of the underpinnings of Casey’s corporate culture, according to Handley. He recalls, no matter what else was going on, “Bob [Myers] was always wanting to know about your family and wanted to make sure you were making time for them.”

Something he took away from founder and former Casey’s CEO Don Lamberti, was the importance of creating a positive corporate culture. “It’s a culture of WE,” Handley recalls him saying. “This pertained to Casey’s as a company and as a team,” he recalls, “but more than that, it was about the imprint we make in the communities in which we operate. As individuals and as a corporation, it was important to do the right thing and to give back.”

Something Left Undone

By focusing on doing the right thing, a person avoids regrets, but it gnawed at Handley that he hadn’t earned a college degree. In 1989, he enrolled in Simpson’s Continuing Education and Graduate program and had just completed his first year when he was asked to take on the store operations role. “I couldn’t travel and go to school full-time so I put my degree on hold,” he says. “Seventeen years and three kids later in 2006, I returned to Simpson to finish what I had started.” That same year, Handley was named chief operating officer of Casey’s, was the board president of the Youth Homes of MidAmerica and was integral in launching the Bondurant-Farrar Education Foundation.

“Nancy kept our family going and kept me out of the ditch,” Handley says. “That was a lot of weight on her and a hard three years, but we got through it.” In 2009, Handley completed his degree. In 2014, Handley was named president of Casey’s and then CEO in 2016 when Bob Myers retired.

Creating a Blueprint for the Future

During his time as CEO, Handley focused on cementing Casey’s corporate culture while setting the table for the future. “I wanted to be sure people understood what it means to work for Casey’s and what the company stands for whether they work in Michigan, Arkansas or Iowa,” he says. 

“As Bob, Ron and Don had before me, I felt a responsibility to share my experiences with the younger generation and prepare them to keep the company running,” he adds. Part of that responsibility included looking at the trends and considering what they might mean for Casey’s. As part of a strategic-planning process, Handley and his team examined the explosion of ecommerce, AI-operated stores, electric vehicles and the “blurring of the lines” that used to clearly define a grocery store, a convenience store, a hardware store, and pharmacy, etc. 

They quickly realized that technology would increasingly drive results at Casey’s. “Technology has had such a positive influence, creating great efficiencies, so it’s critical to have people in place who can help us take advantage of new technologies and work with sophisticated, computerized systems.”

Fuel pricing is one area in which tech has already chiseled a smarter Casey’s. After analyzing data procured from a sophisticated tank-monitoring system—which is used to automatically track inventory, create orders and route delivery drivers—a new retail fuels team, formed by Handley, restructured the company’s fuel-pricing philosophy. Handley explained that in the past, store operations people priced fuel at the store level based on the competitive prices in each market. This was a volume-driven pricing model versus a margin-driven model. The Retail Fuels team used the data to create a price-optimization format, setting prices based on a balance of retail pricing and margin to maximize the overall gross profit dollar contribution from the fuel category. While volumes may have declined in some instances, margins went up overall. “When you sell over two billion gallons of fuel a year and you can change the margin by two-tenths of a cent, that’s significant,” Handley says. “When one cent of margin equates to approximately 40 cents of earnings per share, that’s huge.” Fuel price optimization was one of several contributing factors to Casey’s earning success during fiscal year 2019 and the recent climb in the stock price.

The Casey’s team’s blueprint for the future also included a revamped, more-efficient, user-friendly website, a better mobile app with online ordering platform, and a new loyalty program. “We continue to look at what’s ahead, and evolve and change so we stay ahead of the curve,” he says.

“Terry was the architect of programs he implemented in his last three years at Casey’s that are now coming to fruition,” says Handley’s predecessor, Bob Myers. “He deserves a lot of credit for the great performance Casey’s is experiencing right now because his foresight made it happen.” 

Giving Back

When it comes to cultivating a “Culture of WE” and giving back, Handley’s spirit of giving and compassion predates Casey’s. Handley’s dad, a World War II vet, and his mom worked very hard to support Terry, his two older brothers and his younger sister. By the time Handley was born, the family had moved from the farm, located in Adair County, to Greenfield, where his parents ran the meat locker. When Handley was four years old, his parents moved the family to Ankeny, believing that the nearby city of Des Moines could provide their children with better opportunities. “In those days, we didn’t know what we didn’t have so we were happy,” says Handley, “And, no matter what, my parents always found a way to give to others less fortunate.”

Terry has been involved in giving to the community through Casey’s many philanthropic endeavors, such as Variety Club of Iowa, MDA, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Hope for the Warrior, youth sports, and city parks and recreational trails. Handley has served on the board of directors and the board of trustees for Youth Homes of Mid-America, is a charter board member of the Bondurant-Farrar Education Foundation and a current member of the Simpson College Board of Trustees. In 2010 he received the Governor’s Volunteer of the Year Award.

Handley has been married for 29 years to Nancy, his wife. They have three children Joe, 25; and twins, Erin and Jon, 21. Joe has served as a teaching assistant and tutor, working in Spain and is presently pursuing a master’s of Spanish degree at Middlebury College in Vermont. Daughter Erin attends Northwestern University in Chicago, where she is working to complete majors in industrial engineering and economics. She also is pursuing a managerial analytics certificate from the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern. Son Jon is a senior at the University of Northern Iowa, studying construction management.