Q&A with QuikTrip co-founder Burt Holmes
The legendary businessman gets real about the challenges of entrepreneurship, and his proudest achievements.
Burt Holmes might be best known for QuikTrip Corp., the convenience/gasoline retailer that he established 60 years ago with friend and fellow Tulsan, the late Chester Cadieux. But he is much more. The direct but sincere approach Holmes takes toward business and life has made him the man he is today. A mentor, businessman, art collector, father of five and grandfather of nine, he lives life one day at a time fueled by his passions and a dedicated work ethic.
Holmes is a third-generation Tulsan, whose father, Dan Holmes, owned Dan P. Holmes and Associates insurance company. Burt joined the family business right out of college, but at the age of 31, started his own insurance company, which would become the Holmes Organisation. At age 65, he left the business, but continued to operate Leaders Life Insurance Co. until he sold it in October 2016.
Where did you go to school/university? Why?
I went to the University of Tulsa and got a marketing degree in 1954. I grew up in the Tulsa public school system and went to Eliot, Wilson and
Rogers. Then I came to TU on a basketball scholarship in the fall of 1950. I thought I was going to be a great athlete, but I found out after the first year that all I lacked being able to play Division I level was talent. I got as far as I could get with hard work.
What was one of your most defining moments?
I seldom think of defining moments. I think there were several that helped me understand things. One was figuring out that I could not be an athlete so I needed to do something else. Then I got married a year later — that was a defining moment. I think a defining moment as it has worked out is when I ran into Chester Cadieux in downtown Tulsa and told him about my idea for QuikTrip.
Did you know Chester before the QuikTrip venture?
Yes, I knew him in the seventh grade at Wilson Junior High School.
What age do you feel right now and why?
Well, I’m 86 right now. Aging is a process that goes very slow for most people, and it has gone very slow for me. Other people say it goes very fast, but I’ve aged very slowly, and this is truly the first year that I’ve felt the effects of aging. People say, oh, you’re very vigorous at 86. Yes, but not as vigorous as I was at 76, 66 or 56. The difference is your energy level. My energy level has gone down at a very slow rate.
How would your friends describe you?
I would say probably most of them agree that I’m straightforward. I tend not to dance around issues. My way of doing things — some people like it and some people do not like it.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Oh, probably many people would be surprised to know that I collect art. I have a full-size dromedary camel sculpted in wood for which I built a room onto my house.
Do you take any annual art trips or explorations?
Mary Lee Townsend (his partner of 21 years) and I go to Maastricht in Holland every year for the biggest arts and antiques fair in the world. Under one roof, there’s $3 billion worth of art, antiques, silver and jewelry for sale. It’s the biggest show on Earth, and we’ve gone for 12 years.
If you could witness any event of the past, present or future, what would it be?
I would like to witness the event of our president stepping down and not being president anymore.
What was a “worst time” and how did you pull through it?
I had a period of time back in the ’80s when I had a mountain of debt and I got a divorce. At the same time, I was speculating on a lot of land, we had a depression in Oklahoma and I could not pay what I owed. That depression also caused people not to be able to pay my insurance agency the money they owed me, so three things happened simultaneously over a two- or three-year period. It was a very difficult time in my life.
So what brought you through that?
I convinced the people to whom I owed money that if they would just leave me alone my insurance agency business and another business I had would be able to take care of them over a period of time, and it did. I was very fortunate that it worked that way, but it took 14 years to work through the problems that were created in that two- or three-year period.
What keeps you awake at night?
Nothing. Regardless of how bad things are, I do not lose any sleep. I do not worry about things that I cannot do anything about. That has helped me through a lot of things.
How do you measure success?
I don’t get into measurements or superlatives. I just get up every day and do what I do on a regular basis.
What is a favorite TU memory?
I’ve had several. When I was chairman of the board, the original campus plan was put in place, which has been executed over a period of time mostly intact. It has changed the university. Also, when I was chairman of the board, we hired Tubby Smith (men’s basketball coach) and Vince Westbrook (men’s tennis coach), and both of those choices were very good for the university. Those things have been important to me. And, of course, starting QuikTrip has become very important to me.
That very first QT location — did it feel like a special moment when it opened?
No. Chester thought we would have three stores, and I thought we’d have 10. But then we began to evolve and grow organically. It has become a very, very large important company to the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma. QuikTrip now has more than 770 stores and 22,000 employees around the country.
It sounds like you’re pretty happy with Tulsa’s progression and where it is now.
Absolutely. It has been tremendous over the past 10 years. It has had its ups and downs from the day Tulsa started here. The ups and downs have been tied to a variety of things, but the past 10 years has just been wonderful for this town, and it’s a much better place to live in now than it was before.
What have been the most significant changes you’ve experienced in Tulsa?
The Gathering Place is immense. It is a huge, significant change, and I’m so happy that George (Kaiser) has been here with us, or we would not have it. It will help change this city and make it an even better place to live.
Do you ever attend the First Friday Art Crawl downtown, and do you have a favorite gallery?
Almost every time. I’m involved in 108 Contemporary, and that is a favorite gallery of mine in the Tulsa Arts District.
What would you say is your title besides your QuikTrip identity and other roles you’ve had in organizations?
I hate the word “retired.” I do not consider myself retired because I still do a lot of different things. I don’t think I need a title. Titles don’t mean a great deal to me. I’m involved at the Tulsa Botanic Garden and the University of Tulsa, which are primary interests of mine at this time. I’ve been involved peripherally in a bunch of things through the years. I do not consider the things I’ve done and am doing as giving back. I consider those things as just doing what’s right and what is of interest to me.
Was the concept of QuikTrip based on a dream of yours?
No. My wife and I went to Dallas two years after I graduated from the University of Tulsa to go to a football game, and I saw the 7-Elevens down there and I got to thinking, we don’t have those in Tulsa. It was about that simple.
What advice would you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Let me just say this: Any young entrepreneur should not quit their day job. The difference between an entrepreneur and a normal human being is an entrepreneur does things; normal human beings sit around and talk about doing things. That is the big difference. There are more people that talk about it than do it. I’m helping some young guys right now, and my first piece of advice to them is, “Don’t quit your day job until we get this further down the line so we know you’ll have a chance at winning.”
Do you do a lot of business mentoring?
I’m doing a lot of that with a lot of young people and have been for many, many years. I enjoy doing that.
How often do you stop by a QuikTrip in your daily routine?
Oh, just as needed. These days, when I go to QuikTrip, I’m a spectator. I like their hot dogs.