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HomeGrown: Pilot Flying J

7:49 PM, Feb 5, 2013   |    comments
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With 1.3 million customers filling up at 650 plus retail locations coast to coast everyday, Pilot Flying J has cornered the market on interstate travel, selling 9 billion gallons of petroleum a year.

"It's hard to keep up with the numbers," says Pilot Corp Founder Jim Haslam. "It's kind of amazing."

Especially when you turn back the clock to 1958 and the very first Pilot gas station.

"I found an old closed gas station in Gates City, Virginia which is at the Tennessee/Virginia line and at that time gasoline was selling for 26/ 27 cents a gallon. All we sold was gas, motor oil and cigarettes."

But to fully appreciate the company, you need to know the man who founded it.

"I fortunately came up here in 1948 to play football for the University of Tennessee and General Robert Neyland. Football teaches you a lot and there's so many comparisons between sports and business."

In fact, Haslam fueled his business with General Robert Neyland's game maxims.

"If at first the game or a break goes against you, don't slow and get rattled, put on more steam. I remember many days when we just started and I said, 'Oh my gosh, are we going to make it?' You just put on more steam and keep going."

After graduation and military service, Haslam had three options- coach high school football, sell TV advertising, or sell gasoline for a LaFollette businessman. Eventually, Haslam decided to go out on his own and stumbled upon a closed gas station.

"I bought it from this guy and started selling and we did well."

Pilot was born. It started acquiring convenience stores in 1977 and opened the first travel center in 1980.

"We've had a real niche in travel centers. We found it and we've been very fortunate."

Pilot merged with Marathon Speedway in 2001, purchased Williams Travel Centers in 2003 and then Flying J in 2009.

"People used to ask us, 'How big do you want to get?' I'd always say 'size doesn't really matter. We just want to be the best.' Well, we woke up one day and we're big."

As an interstate retailer, Pilot Flying J's commitment goes beyond diesel and showers.

"Whatever they want, we want to have."

And, it's not just about keeping up with mobile customers, but also their mobile devices.

"We want you to have an app on your iPhone where you can say where is the closest Pilot and it will pop up there, tell you the prices and tell you how to get there."

Even though he's taken a backseat, Haslam continues to lead by example when it comes to giving from the United Way to the University of Tennessee.

"If you look at the bible it says, 'to whom much is given, and everybody thinks it's expected, but it says required.' We want to give back to the community. That's part of our culture."

And, so is family.

"We've always been a family business. Hopefully, we'll always will be a family business. It's a good business for the Haslams. We're not rocket scientists. We'd be terrible nuclear engineers."

But there are a few less Haslams these days. His son, Bill Haslam, is the current governor of Tennessee. His other son, Jimmy, recently resigned as CEO to become owner of the Cleveland Browns.

"I'm just the luckiest guy in the world."

Pilot Flying J, HomeGrown in Tennessee.

"This is our home. We're never going to move. We like our little house here on the hill."

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