Shelly Gibson Fuels Progress Through Policy at Thorntons

Thorntons’s Shelly Gibson strengthens the people-first culture at one of the top independent convenience store retailers in the United States

As the national conversation spotlights illegal discrimination and sexual harassment more than ever before, leaders of the business world are establishing thoughtful procedures to secure positive employee experiences. One such leader is Shelly Gibson, who is revolutionizing the $2.4 billion convenience store and gas station chain, Thorntons, with a multiyear strategic plan featuring comprehensive workforce training and an entire policy handbook overhaul.

“With the public becoming more educated about their legal rights, and with the #MeToo movement, companies need to focus on making their whole team aware that these issues are important,” says Gibson, chief legal officer and general counsel at Thorntons. “Out in the field, we all need to treat customers with dignity and respect and put biases aside—sometimes we don’t even know we have biases.”

Shelly Gibson Thorntons
Shelly Gibson, Thorntons Photo by Brian Jennette

Founder James Thornton established the first Thorntons store in 1971 in Clarksville, Indiana, and today the privately held company spans 192 stores across 6 states: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. Now based in Louisville, Kentucky, Thorntons has cultivated its people-first culture through the decades to provide on-the-go customers with top-notch food, drinks, and fuel for their journeys.

Gibson’s own journey at Thorntons began in 2007, as its associate general counsel. Prior, she had spent about eight years as a felony state prosecutor and earned her JD at the Indiana University School of Law–Bloomington. “The associate GC, who I knew, was moving to a business role,” Gibson says. “He asked if I was interested in submitting a résumé. I didn’t have any big law firm or corporate experience, and it was in an industry I knew very little about, but they thought I would be a great fit.” She was named general counsel in 2014.

During her eleven-year tenure, the legal leader observed that new policies had been put in piecemeal, and there was no overall view to see if they conflicted. That’s when the need for a company-wide team member handbook emerged. “They had not been looked at as a whole in at least a decade,” Gibson says. “We want to ensure that everything makes sense, everything flows, and clear out old policies that don’t make any sense anymore. What if someone has dog and you don’t know if it’s a service animal or not? Or, what if the dog is not behaving well, barking, or roaming around the store? Some of our stores sell fresh, hot food, and people worry about the dogs getting into the food. We teach them how to handle those situations.”

Today, attorneys in the legal department teach a three-hour legal seminar in each market once a year. All store managers attend the seminar at least once every two years. “We have an attorney teach the class, spending the first half of the seminar just on illegal discrimination and sexual harassment laws and hypothetical situations,” Gibson says.

A field manager from human resources often attends as well. “They are great at bringing up hypothetical scenarios because they are in the field every day and know our team’s challenges and concerns,” Gibson adds.

Having an HR representative also shows that this transformation is a collaborative effort. “We want all those people there so that the managers understand their bosses and HR think this is important, not just the legal department,” Gibson says. The policy transformation is also aligned with the company’s six core values: “Delight Our Guests,” “Passion For Details,” “Restless Dissatisfaction,” “Everyone Counts,” “Cheer For Each Other,” and “Have Fun.”

She points to two values in particular. “We want all our employees to know they count, and we want them to have fun with each other,” Gibson says. “We all try to live up to those values.”

Now Gibson and her team are collaborating with human resources on ways to train the frontline staff on these issues effectively and efficiently. “The hourly team members are, for the most part, the face of our company,” she says. “We are a retail company, dealing with guests every day. The vast majority of our stores are open 24-7.”

Cultivating a culture of respect through these policies is top of mind for Gibson. Her team is also updating in-house policies by tweaking some of the language. The result? Thorntons’s policies cover all the legal bases but also are easier to understand. The goal is to illustrate clear examples of specific behaviors that are not allowed.

“This is also about how team members interact with each other,” Gibson says. “We want every store and office team to enjoy work, and how team members treat each other is huge in creating a well-run workplace with a team-oriented environment. We want them to be proud of who they work with and where they work. That’s a recipe for success.”