Sometimes brilliance in marketing and merchandising takes the shape of a beaver. Texas travelers know when they see billboards with quirky slogans telling them to “Buc-ee’s or Bust!” that clean restrooms, beef jerky, 79-cent fountain drinks, and beaver nuggets soon await them.

Arch “Beaver” Aplin ‘80, the co-founder and current president of Buc-ee’s spoke to almost 400 students, faculty, staff and local business leaders as part of the 20th annual M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Lecture Series hosted by the Center for Retailing Studies. To excel in this industry, Aplin said, “I must exceed the customer’s expectations.” Buc-ee’s differentiates itself from the general convenience store category by building enormous “travel centers.”

The recently opened Katy store boasts 53,000 square feet of retail space stocked with interesting one-of-a-kind items, like pickled jalapenos. Typical convenience locations are about 3,000 square feet.

Aplin says Buc-ee’s is “always looking for products that get customers exclaiming ‘whoa, who would have thought they carried that!’”

In an era when many retailers are shrinking store size or shutting outlets, Buc-ee’s is expanding beyond Texas into Alabama and Florida. Buc-ee’s uses humor to build brand awareness via billboards in these new markets saying “682 miles to Buc-ee’s – you can hold it.” Aplin acknowledged it is unrealistic to expect drivers to hold it until Texas, but the marketing efforts create buzz and make people laugh.

The Lake Jackson-based chain caters to affluent highway drivers who value immaculate restrooms and the clever merchandise assortment. Buc-ee’s also distinguishes its shopping experience with service. “We try to give employees a great place to work. Really happy employees make for really happy customers,” said Aplin. He also notes that Buc-ee’s pays 40-50% above the industry average in an effort to attract and retain quality employees.

For would-be entrepreneurs in the room, Aplin said, “you must have a fire in your gut to make something happen.” To open Buc-ee’s in 1982, Aplin admitted to writing a hot $52,000 check to an investor and having to explain his choice to his dad. “My dad took me straight to the bank for a loan.” Opening new businesses requires enormous capital expenditures, concluded Aplin, who owns 50 percent of Buc-ee’s Ltd.

Buc-ee’s stores are decidedly low-tech. There is no app and a minuscule online presence. Aplin’s recipe for business success simply executes the marketing and retail-101 principles “exceptional product; commitment to excellence; engaged staff, with one key difference … bathrooms!”

Before the lecture series, Aplin met with 12 M.B. Zale Leadership Scholars for a casual lunch. Donald Zale, who endowed the lecture series to honor his father, the founder of jewelry retailer Zales, and Gerald Ray ’54 also joined. Together with Aplin, they swapped stories about growing businesses and understanding the changing landscape of retail. Addison Holcomb ’19 commented, “I feel as though with the high-tech, fast-paced nature of our world today, we have come to discount the wisdom of businessmen and women of the older generations. I believe there is value in learning across generations. Thank you for the opportunity to soak up some wisdom!”