Kwik Trip: The Little “C” Store that Could

Kwik Trip CNG Filling Station in LaCrosse, Wisconsin

Kwik Trip CNG Filling Station in LaCrosse, Wisconsin

Quietly, in a La Crosse, Wisconsin industrial park, a business firm is establishing the energy policy of the United States in ways that will reduce pollution, lower transportation costs and improve national prosperity for years to come.  For those of us in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, Kwik Trip is an incredibly clean and efficient convenience store (“C” store as they are known in the industry) where we purchase gasoline, bananas, fresh fruit, donuts, pizza and even fresh meat.
kwik-trip-logoDon Zietlow’s company, which will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2015, has a marvelous corporate culture, including the policy of annually distributing 40% of its pre-tax profits to employees.  However Zietlow isn’t just the owner of over 400 convenience stores; he and his coworkers are energy visionaries who are building fueling stations across the upper Midwest for compressed natural gas (CNG), which I predict will fuel half of the big rig semi-trucks operating in the United States by 2019.

Last week I had the pleasure of touring the transportation facilities of Kwik Trip with Chad Hollett, its head of transportation who leads the CNG project.  Compressed natural gas has been fueling vehicles for over 50 years.  The technology of CNG to power internal combustion engines is solid and well established.  CNG is used widely in South America and in India to fuel busses, trucks, and even automobiles.  CNG has three main advantages compared to gasoline or diesel fuel.  First, the United States has the largest supply of natural gas in the world; enough to power vehicles here for the next 100 years.  Second, CNG is environmentally friendly, emitting 30% less pollution than gasoline or diesel fuel.  Because CNG is a gas, it is incapable of leaking into the soil as a result of a ruptured storage tank.  Third, CNG costs roughly half as much as gasoline or diesel fuel.  As of 10/19/2015 regular gasoline in La Crosse was priced at $3.09 per gallon while the equivalent price of CNG was $1.71 a gallon.

While CNG has been used for decades in the United States, it has not been available in a “retail” setting where thousands of cars and trucks can simply fill up at the pump.  Kwik Trip improved compression technology so that vehicles can be fueled with diesel or CNG in about the same time.

CNG Tank on Big Rig

CNG Tank on Big Rig

The company has also invested millions of dollars to set up over 40 fueling stations (soon to be 120) in its three-state area.  Every business day Kwik Trip staffers call on trucking companies, urging them to convert their rigs to CNG.  It’s not a tough sell.  Due to the lower price of CNG the conversion process pays for itself in 6 months!  Trucking companies and truck manufacturers are beating down Kwik Trip’s doors to get in on the action.  Incredibly, while they are saving money they are also saving the environment.  While politicians flap their jaws about energy policy, Kwik Trip is actually creating a cleaner environment while saving businesses (and the US economy) billions of dollars a year.

Filling Up With CNG

Filling Up With CNG

The Kwik Trip story illustrates yet another fact of life.  Government does not create jobs, progress or prosperity.  Free markets are always ahead of the “political” curve.  Economic common sense, as revealed in market prices, eventually rules the day.  Unlike the ethanol lobby, Kwik Trip hasn’t received a penny from the Federal Government or any government agency.  Instead, Kwik Trip has done what entrepreneurial companies do, they took real financial risk in establishing the retail CNG market.  When history is finally written it will show that a few folks in La Crosse, Wisconsin broke ground for a US energy policy that established CNG as the “bridge” between the fossil fuel world and technologies that will finally give us truly clean energy.

Think about that the next time you drop into Kwik Trip to get your next cup of coffee and glazer donut!

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Humble Hero on Chicago’s South Side

Paul Konerko

Paul Konerko

In this column I will write about current events, politics, economics, religion and other topics that most reasonable people won’t touch. My last column was about sports and this one also is about sports, but I assure you, this is not ESPN! I’ll eventually move on to non-sports topics.

On Saturday evening, September 27, 2014 I attended a Chicago White Sox game at US Cellular field on Chicago’s south side. It is a 20 minute subway ride from my north side home, but I seldom watch the sox in Chicago unless the Twins are in town. On those wonderful occasions I wear full Twins regalia and head down to Sox Park to harass the home town folks and pull for my Minnesota Twins!

Retirement Ceremony: US Cellular Field September 27, 2014.

Retirement Ceremony: US Cellular Field September 27, 2014.

Last Saturday was a far different occasion, as the Sox organization bid retirement farewell to their long time captain, Paul Konerko. Traded to the White Sox from the Reds in 1998 Konerko became a Sox hero in 2005 by carrying the south siders to their first World Series Championship since 1917. At that point Konerko’s market value spiked. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf made the best offer ($60 million for 5 years) he could afford. Reinsdorf made his offer sincerely and humbly. This impressed Konerko, who stayed in Chicago and turned down more lucrative offers from the Dodgers and Orioles. Konerko and Reinsdorf have remained good friends.

With the departure of hall of famer Frank Thomas, Konerko became the face of the White Sox. Admired by working-class fans, Konerko took his “lunch bucket” to the park every day and put in a full day’s work. He did one thing consistently during his career…every day he came in he “Did His Best.”

Jason Stark of ESPN might have said it best: “He won a World Series in Chicago, hit a grand slam in a World Series, won an ALCS MVP Award. He isn’t a guy you’d elevate into the pantheon of all-time greats. But he did have one more excellent claim to fame that I haven’t seen enough hoopla about:  He’s one of just 10 players in history, whose primary position was first base, to make it into the 400-homer, 400-double club. Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, here are the others: Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Eddie Murray, Jeff Bagwell, Fred McGriff, Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi and Rafael Palmeiro.”

More important than his time on the field, Paul Konerko’s friends spoke of his love and devotion to his teammates and especially for Jennifer Wells, the woman he married back in 2004 and for their three children; Nicholas, Owen and Amelia.   This is a decent family man; a loyal man; a workman who need not be ashamed of his daily efforts to honor and respect his fans, whom he calls “Friends.”

As I sat in the crowd with my Twins gear on, a few folks wondered why I had donned Twins clothing when the Sox were playing the Royals. “To say good bye to Paulie” I answered. “I came all the way from Minnesota to say goodbye to Paulie.” They smiled at my response. A couple of big, rough-looking guys teared up and gave me a hug! I’m so happy that I didn’t miss that wonderful, warm Saturday night when the Chicago White Sox, the “little team that could” in the big city of Chicago, celebrated their hero.

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Bigamy and Loyalty in Sports

Tad Salyards and his son Marek at Wrigley Field.

Tad Salyards and his son Marek at Wrigley Field.

The dictionary definition of bigamy is the act of marrying someone when already married to another person. Marital bigamy is a crime in the United States. I’m glad this doesn’t apply to sports because I’ve been a “Sports Bigamist” for nearly ten years. Sports bigamy is when a person is loyal to more than one team in the same sport; for example being a Dodger fan and a Royals fan at the same time.

Most fans give all of their loyalty to one team in each sport, living and dying on the performance of the Vikings, Blackhawks, Celtics, or Manchester United. These fans usually support the team geographically nearest to their residence. I think this is unfortunate. For example, I’ve often asked Vikings fans to give me one good reason to support the “Queens” other than the fact that they’re in Minnesota. I seldom get a good answer; probably because there are none. Don’t get me wrong…I don’t dislike the Vikings…I just think they’ve been badly owned, badly managed, and badly coached since the days of Bud Grant.

My take is that blind loyalty to any team is unfortunate. For those of you who are disenchanted with your home town team I’m going to recommend sports bigamy. It’s a lot of fun to root for two or three teams at the same time without guilt or shame. I’m a Twins – Cubs baseball bigamist and a Packers – Bears football bigamist. One of the advantages of sports bigamy is that most days at least one of your teams will win! The only disadvantage is the emotionally conflicting times when your favorite teams play each other.

As an admitted sports bigamist I reserve the right to prefer one of my favorite teams over the others. I have a slight preference for the Cubs over the Twins and for the Packers over the Bears. If the Twins and the Cubs were in the World Series (imagine the infinitesimal odds of this happening) I would root for the Cubs. Likewise I would support the Packers over the Bears in a super bowl game. However, if the Twins are playing any team except the Cubs, or the Bears are playing any team except the Packers, I’ll root for the Twins and the Bears.

While there are no official statistics I’m pretty sure that sports bigamy is on the rise especially with the popularity of fantasy leagues. Fantasy games demand that participants to look beyond their favorite team’s roster and appreciate the talents of other players in the league. This broadens fan knowledge of athletes and their teams which should, other things being equal, increase the number of sports bigamists.

Then there’s the matter of team loyalty, of which I have very little. I’m the ultimate television sports narcissist (loving pleasure and hating pain) but my time always takes precedent over sports. If my team is winning I’ll be watching television intently. If my team starts to get “blown out,” I’ll shut off that darned box and do something else. In my way of thinking professional sports teams are in the entertainment business and they have only one job; to please me by winning! If they’re not winning I’m no masochist; I’ll walk out during the broadcast and do something useful.

No matter our loyalty or bigamy preferences, one thing all fans can agree on is that sporting events are the ultimate reality show! No one knows the outcome and upsets are common. As someone once said, “That’s why they play the games.” I’ll be watching some football this weekend; you can bet on it.

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The Market Always Rules

Don after a complete market "beat down."

Don after a complete market “beat down.”

Since my Chicago neighbor Pete first introduced me to Cubs parking nine years ago, I’ve been hooked! Pete and I worked the intersections in our neighborhood (only two blocks from Wrigley Field) for 5 years until he took his wife and 5 kids to the suburbs. I’ll be forever grateful to him for those wonderful times we spent together determining a daily pricing strategy, deciding the best time to hit the street, conducting daily marketing research (walking around to see how full the competitors’ lots were and what prices they were charging) and otherwise trying to figure out how to maximize our revenue. Pete the financial analyst and me the economist had some pretty sophisticated and lively discussions as the free market dictated to us every day its’ unpredictable and often fickle attributes.

Free markets such as exist in the residential parking business, are purely competitive with many buyers (those who need a parking spot) and many sellers (small time operators who have a spot or two behind their garage). It is a pure supply and demand market that can’t be manipulated by anyone. Some examples will suffice.

Yesterday was a double header. The noon game parked full for us at a price of $20 per car. The night game was brutal; I stood on the street for 90 minutes without a single sale; one of the worst episodes of parking I’ve witnessed in nine years. The photo above was taken by my parking partner Griselle about 5 minutes before I headed in with my tail between my legs.

During the steroid era when Sammy Sosa (corked bat and all) and Mark McGuire were vying for the season home run record Pete got $40 to $50 per car all season long. Today, due to high demand we parked the Gay Pride Parade and got $40 per car. Note the below photo of Griselle and I with our “modified” Cubs signs.

Modified Cubs Signs

Modified Cubs Signs

During the Obama years we have suffered through quite a recession. This depressed Cubs parking prices from $40 to $20 a car. The reason is obvious if you’re on the street for long. Demand hasn’t decreased; people with money still come to the ballpark. Supply, however, has increased markedly. The unemployed lady or man will go out to the street with a shoddy little sign that says $20 and park one car a day; that’s $20 for groceries. Furthermore, there are hundreds of them doing it!  It is the increase in the supply that has pushed prices down. If the job market ever recovers these folks will be working during the day which will reduce supply and drive parking prices up again.

Sometimes I ask myself why I’m still parking cars. It isn’t for the money, although at the end of a home stand I have a wad of cash that makes me feel like a drug dealer. It’s because I’m an economist and I love to see how markets work. Each day is different and the reasons for price changes are as numerous as you can imagine. Win or lose, we as sellers have no real influence on prices; the market always rules.

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Obama Screws it Up Again!

Barack Obama stands with Bob Bergdahl (R) and Jami Bergdahl (L) as he delivers a statement about the release of their son, prisoner of war U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, in the Rose Garden at the White House

Barack Obama stands with Bob Bergdahl (R) and Jami Bergdahl (L) as he delivers a statement about the release of their son, prisoner of war U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, in the Rose Garden at the White House

The Chicago Cubs have a five-game winning streak! While the Cubbies are still firmly entrenched in the bottom spot of the National League Central division, they are now winning a whopping 42 % of their games! If the Cubs can get close to .500 by the All-Star break, fans might come to more of their games in the second half of the season. Is this the year? NO, but everyone is having fun!

Then, there is the Obama news, which is always the result of bungling by the “Great One”. This week Obama traded 5 major Al-Qaida murderers for one “marginal” deserter from Idaho, who should have joined the Peace Corps and not the US military. Good trade, Barry! Wonderful! As is his mode of operation Obama broke Federal law (even Nancy Pelosi says he broke the law) by not giving Congress the required 30 day notice for all prisoner releases from Guantanamo.

After officials of Qatar give their consent the five will be released. Let’s see….perhaps next Tuesday?

Logic would conclude that Obama wished to achieve all of the following goals:
1. Legitimize the Taliban by negotiating with them
2. Pleasing his Taliban friends by letting their leaders out of jail
3. Allowing the “Five” to kill more people in the ensuing years
4. Giving the Taliban a firm message that US concessions can be gotten from kidnapping US citizens
5. Evidencing the “solidarity” that the US has with the Muslim world.

So, given the character and history of those in the House, Senate and US Supreme Court, what can the American public do about Obama?

Grab your family and go out and see a ball game. Oh yeah…did I tell you? The Twins and Royals also won yesterday.

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I Miss My Mom

Hazel MyerscropToday as I prepared breakfast for my wonderful B&B guests, I started to really miss my Mother.  Hazel Alta Myers passed away over a decade ago.  She had a college degree in education but she wasn’t a “professional educator”.  She was something much more.  To me and my brother Dave she was a teacher.  My mother loved me a great deal.  She read to me often when I was a child and I know that this had a positive impact on my development.

Mom had two dogmas.  The first was that in life there are no excuses and no feeling sorry for one’s self.  The second dogma was that risk-taking is a good thing.  Both of these doctrines have served me well in my life.  When I would come home from grade school feeling badly because someone had called me a “bad name”, she would always say, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  Several times when I told her that something was impossible for me to achieve, she told me to try.  I found out that trying often resulted in the achievement of my goal; that “showing up” is often the most important thing.  One thing was for sure; not trying meant certain failure.  Encouraged by Mom, I became a risk taker.

This week Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the National Basketball Association.  During his acceptance speech for the MVP award he gave a tribute to his mother, Wanda Pratt, who was sitting in the audience.  Raised by a single mom who sacrificed everything for her children, Kevin choked out his love-filled tribute.  If you don’t look at this clip, you’re missing out on the highlight of your day.  You can find it at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmRJgKbibB8

Perhaps even greater than Wanda’s sacrifice is the man that Kevin Durant has become.  He’s a lover of God, his family, and his friends.  He doesn’t make excuses and doesn’t let people down.  I’m not a fan of professional basketball and have never seen an NBA game but if I ever get a chance to see Durant play, I’ll show up just to say I was in the same room as he.

Happy Mother’s Day Hazel Myers, to Betty Axelsen, Lisa Salyards, to Marylou Salyards, to Shayana Sequeira, to Patricia Paz, to Heidi Ryan, to Wanda Pratt and all mothers.  God bless you all.

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Donald Sterling: America’s Most Tarnished Bigot?

Donald Sterling Watching His Los Angeles Clippers

Donald Sterling Watching His Los Angeles Clippers

Right now the National Basketball Association playoffs are well underway, as are the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the National Hockey League. It’s a good time to be a sports fan, but all we’re going to hear about in the next week are the tape-recorded remarks of Donald Sterling, the 80 year-old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.  Sterling’s girlfriend, who looks young enough to be his granddaughter, tape recorded remarks that were released by TMZ. It appears that Sterling is upset about his girlfriend’s association with black people. Excerpts from Sterling’s remarks include:

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”

“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”

“I’m just saying, in your lousy f******* Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”

“…Don’t put him [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.  And don’t bring him to my games.”

In 2009 Sterling received the Los Angeles Chapter of the NAACP’s lifetime achievement award. Sterling was scheduled to receive another lifetime achievement award next month. Asked about the reason for Sterling’s awards, Leon Jenkins, NAACP chapter president said the NAACP “decided to honor Sterling because of “a body of work”. Mr. Sterling’s organization has on a consistent basis brought in the minority community. He has also over the years contributed to a number of minority charities. Compared to other L.A. franchises, his organization gave more money than the others.”

Of course, since this story broke investigators have unearthed all kinds of racist remarks attributable to Donald Sterling. You can’t turn on ESPN for 10 minutes without hearing about Sterling’s racism. Everyone, from Charles Barkley to Michael Jordan (and of course Obama) has weighed in. Sterling is branded a bigot and a racist. God only knows what they would have called him if he had used the “N” word! There is talk that Sterling may be forced by the Commissioner of the NBA to sell his team. Sterling has been likened by some to a plantation owner, who made his fortune off of the toil of his black athletes. It has been intimated that Sterling’s remarks are proof positive that racial relations in the United States are no better than they were 50 years ago. Yes, the worst scourge on the face of the earth now has a name; Donald Sterling. Hogwash!

It is my opinion that Sterling’s remarks have gotten too much press. The story is pretty simple; an 80-year old letch who happens to own a professional basketball team, apparently has a problem with black people. If his comments define him as a bigot or a racist, then I guess that’s what he is. I’m certainly not in agreement with Sterling’s sentiments toward black people, but does anybody think for a second that we have uncovered in Donald Sterling the last known bigot in the United States? Is bigotry illegal? Is the man entitled to his opinion, no matter how unsavory? Should his property rights of NBA franchise ownership be abridged based on his opinions? Is Donald Sterling so important on this planet that his bigotry deserves such worldwide recognition? I think not.

Consider this; the journalists, politicians, and celebrities that aren’t letting this story go (it sells papers and TV ratings) may be the quiet racists in the corner. They won’t let racism die and instead prefer to fan the flames of racism, at least until their ratings fade away. Let’s not give this old clown any more recognition. What we really have here is a silly old man who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. That’s it…there ain’t no more.

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