Earlier this year, John Lukas transitioned into the role of Vice President of Information Systems and Technology at RaceTrac, which operates over 800 convenience store locations in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas and has been recognized on the Forbes list of largest private companies every year since 1998.
In this issue, John shared how his interest in technology at a young age led to the progression in his career path, from his first job as a software developer at Bristol-Myers to his current role. He walked us through the initiatives that he has overseen to date at his organization, his insight on RaceTrac’s technology goals for the next few years, and how he is seeing COVID-19 shaping innovation.
Walk us through your CIO path. How did you decide to pursue a career in technology, and how did you progress to your current organization?
When I was in high school, I was very fortunate that my father was a deputy administrator for the defense quality arm of the Armed Forces for the northeast quadrant. His responsibilities were in managing the quality of technology projects for government contractors, such as GE and Boeing.
I was one of those kids who took everything apart and put it back together. My father knew that I had a personality style where I was always attempting to figure out how something worked. As I began my college career, he recommended that, even if I didn’t major in computer science, I should dip my toe into some of the curriculum.
So, I decided to pursue and ended up graduating with a computer science degree from State University of New York.
I was very fortunate in my first job. I started off as a software developer at Bristol-Myers. The first project I was put on was automating the process for the manufacturing of penicillin in Syracuse, New York. That environment introduced me to software controlled machines, and how the manufacturing process could be managed by software became very interesting to me.
After Bristol-Myers, I took a stint with PAR Microsystems in New Hartford, New York as a software developer and soon after as a business analyst. Later, I took on a program manager role at Carrier.
My first supervisory role came at the transport refrigeration group of Carrier in their Athens, Georgia plant. We were the first manufacturing plant under United Technologies to implement robotic welding. I remember after our demonstration of robotic welding, the CEO of United Technologies stood up and said our world has changed forever. It’s a day that I still think about, knowing that in my future, with the right team of people and the right capabilities, we can continue to change the world forever. If you continually deliver, that’s going to provide opportunity no matter who you are, which is exactly what happened in my career.
My first CIO role was with Carrols Restaurant Group. I progressed from there to Wendy’s/ Arby’s from a number-one role to a number-two role, and then when Wendy’s/Arby’s broke apart, I became the CIO at Arby’s. Later, I progressed to the CIO role at Popeyes, then to the CIO role at Landry’s and to my current position at RaceTrac.
Would you consider yourself a CIO, a CTO, or a hybrid? Why?
Quite frankly, I don’t think I fit specifically in either category. While both titles are components of the value proposition that I need to bring to the organization, my real role here is really a General Manager role. I found that, at Landry’s, Popeyes and even a little bit in Arby’s, the leadership of the organization is looking for opportunities to impact their business across most every discipline. It requires a set of skills and people who understand the business process at the department level and are able to weave together this technology stack, capability stack, and people stack to advance every one of their disciplines.
We run 600 RaceTrac and 250 RaceWay locations, so there’s a set of responsibilities and skills needed to operate the stores. We also operate warehouses, a fuel distribution company, and a fuel sourcing organization. In my role, I’ve got to talk about things like supply chain, loyalty, inventory and mobility.
On the other hand, I do have a CTO component. This entails putting the right people in the right chairs and ensuring that whatever strategy we select for our warehousing system as an example seamlessly fits with my point of sale, back office ordering and inventory control environments.
What’s different about the CIO role today versus 10, 15, 20 years ago? Can you encapsulate that a little bit?
In my opinion, it is the shared responsibility for revenue generation and treating IT as a P&L versus only as an administrative budget. When you think of 10, 15 years ago, we were required to ensure that our transactional systems operated effectively and that our reporting environments operated effectively with high quality.
Today, we are expected to create revenue through emerging technologies. We are expected to create consumer insights, generate business strategy, and engage our guests differently than we ever have in the past. I must justify my loyalty team and my digital technology team through sales per man-hour, and if I’m not driving sales through that team, then we are doing something wrong.
What initiatives have you overseen to date in your time with your organization? What’s on the horizon?
When I came in, I looked at the organizational structure, the underlying culture, and the capabilities of the organization. The IT function was not supporting the organization in a fashion that we wanted, and we identified that we needed skilled individuals in key roles. We also recognized that, to become stable with 100 percent of our operating technology operating 100 percent of the time, we needed a standard in enterprise architecture to support our operating environment. As a result, I filled a key position with an individual who is beginning to design standardization across our 600 locations, which in turn is going to allow us to be nimble when we want to roll out offerings like order ahead and curbside pickup.
Online ordering has also been a big piece of my time at RaceTrac, and this was sped along because of COVID. We found that our core customer was still visiting our locations, but what we were missing was that certain customers were hesitant because of COVID to come into the store, shop the aisles, pick products, go to the register and check out. We believe that, in order to continue improving convenience and a sense of safety, enabling online ordering could derive a revenue stream from those guests who were concerned about putting themselves in an environment that may introduce risk. That really was the genesis for the minimum viable product that we have running today.
Coming on the horizon, we’re advancing our marketing technology stack. We’re spending a lot of time on all of the capabilities required to enable a much closer view into our guest engagement while also integrating into our store systems online ordering and becoming an ecommerce option for our guests. It’s essentially taking our online ordering capabilities, brokering it to some of the delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats, and bringing that capability to our guests so that they may never have to leave their home.
Additionally, we’re going to expand our SEO and paid search capabilities so that we will be much smarter on how we’re spending our marketing dollars. As part of that strategy, we will be expanding our social media engagement and how we are messaging across the various platforms.
How do you foresee your organization being different in two years, and how do you see yourself shaping that change?
Our organization is going to change in a couple of areas. We’re going to know so much more about our brand, our guests, and our facilities than we ever have. We will be able to reach our guests better at specific times of day with specific campaigns that will resonate with each of them.
Secondly, the consumption of products by our guests is going to generate a significant amount of data. When I look at RaceTrac, we sell fuel and food while offering convenience, but when you walk into that facility, it is a data factory – from our Swirl World and the machines that generate that product, to our fryers from our food service, to our HVAC systems and our security systems. The amount of information and transactional data that’s going to be generated by all of those devices when correlated together is going to tell us a lot more about our brand that we just don’t know today.
The camera technology that we are installing in some test locations is going to allow us to heat map our stores. We will design the layout of our products effectively for someone who wants to get in and get out as it relates to convenience. The key to achieving all of this is our team’s skillsets. Using these skillsets, we will analyze this data and transform it into directional thinking for our leadership team.
Share your thoughts on the availability of IT talent. What strategies do you employ, and what’s different in your organization?
There is a challenge in finding IT talent and that’s why you have to be very selective of what you ultimately decide to develop internally. IT talent is so precious. They are special, and when you onboard them, you have to keep them challenged in a way that’s much different than the staff’s expectations of five or 10 years ago.
As for what is different in RaceTrac, there are two components. One is my expectation of my leadership team is that canvass solution providers and ensure that what we are looking for hasn’t already been delivered in some fashion. We have traditionally been a “build-it-here” organization, and I like to joke that we probably wrote our own word processors, so we endeavor to ensure that we’re not recreating the wheel.
That leads to the second component – building an organization that’s truly innovative, with original thinking. We have to bring our resources to bear in order to deliver and generate new insights and direct engagement with our business partners.
What advice would you give for someone who aspires to be a CIO?
I have had up to six individuals that have worked next to me, with me, and for me in my organizations that are now leading organizations. They are either CIOs, VPs or SVPs, and I am very proud of that. A common trait across all of them is that they intimately understood how we made revenue, how to improve our revenue, where we can impact operational processes and costs, and the importance of applying technology to partner with business leadership.
It didn’t matter whether it was helping the chief legal officer put an efficient lease management system in place or helping cut $7 million of inventory variance out of a recipe management system. In both of those cases, you must have a passion for learning each of the department disciplines so that you can bring the right consulting and advancements to their piece of the organization
How do you decompress from the challenges of your current role? What do you do for fun?
Certainly, I enjoy the time that I’m able to spend with my wife and my family. Every Sunday, we have dinner at the house. My wife is a great cook, and we love having the company of all the kids and grandkids.
I enjoy a game of golf but what really gets me out of my chair is remodeling. I’ve built two rec rooms, multiple decks, bathrooms, as well as some other projects. I don’t do it to get it done in a timeframe. Rather, I do it because I enjoy it. It’s a completely different plane of thinking. It’s tangible. Software is tough to put your hands on.
Who have been your biggest influences, and why?
Three people come to mind. My dad specifically with his original guidance of me toward the technology industry. He knew was interesting to me as a kid and pointed me in that direction.
Second is Dan Accordino, the CEO of Carrols Restaurant Group. He challenged me to build a brand-new technology capability so that we could grow the company from 200 locations to over a thousand locations with multiple brands. Dan was a very firm, demanding, quality-driven individual. He taught me that while speed is important, quality of what you are delivering is very important.
The third may not be what you typically hear in this category came from a former supervisor earlier in my career. I had worked for the company for some time and not received a raise in a while. I walked into his office and said, “Hey, here’s what I’ve done for the organization. Pretty proud of it. Looking for a raise.” He replied, “John, I’m not going to give you a raise. You are a programmer. You are forever going to be a programmer. Get out of my office.” I continue to remember him as a person in my path who had as much influence on my drive as anybody.
Which books would you most recommend that others read?
For a leadership style book, I always return to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One habit that resonates with me to this day – and that I continue to provide as guidance for my children – is to seek first to understand and then to be understood. That habit has treated me extremely well in my career for many reasons.
If you weren’t doing the job that you have today, what would be your alternative dream job?
Prior to having a wife and kids, I might have chosen to be a ship captain. My grandfather made his living on the seas of the United States. He was a diesel mechanic on the ocean liners and some of the river ships. He was gone for a couple of weeks, and he would run to London and Amsterdam and back. Then he would get on another ship and he would run all the way from New York City off to Detroit – back and forth. I was often intrigued by the responsibilities to navigate and manage a floating city.
What would you want the readers either to know about you or your perspective that perhaps we haven’t covered?
I have a passion to learn. I have had the fortune throughout my career to work in different industries and businesses from software development, restaurants, managing an NBA basketball team’s technology platform, the casino business, hotel technology and now in convenience stores and fuel management.
In short, don’t be afraid to take a stint outside of your industry or get out of your comfort zone, because what you are going to experience is going to be invaluable. Keep that passion of learning throughout your career.