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Business

Sam Susser Is Building a New Dynasty in Dallas

The longtime Corpus Christi executive sold his convenience store empire for $2.4 billion. Now, he aims to replicate his success in DFW—in the banking industry.
By Barry Shlachter |
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Courtesy of Sam L. Susser

It was an ordinary day in 2014 when Sam Lewis Susser’s life changed in an instant. The then-51-year-old gas station tycoon had expressed interest in buying a chain of East Coast convenience stores acquired two years before by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners from Sunoco. Susser’s overture was rejected. Instead, Energy Transfer called two weeks later with a radically different proposition—not to sell stores but to buy Susser’s own publicly traded company for $2.4 billion.

At the time, Susser Holdings Corp. was among the largest companies based in Corpus Christi, doing $6.7 billion in revenue from its 640 convenience stores (most operating under the Stripes brand) in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Giving up a promising career on Wall Street, Susser founded the venture with five stores in 1988, originally to provide crucial business for his family’s collapsing wholesale fuel company. He ended up building Susser Holdings into a Fortune 500 company, but not without overcoming immense challenges along the way.

Susser would later tell American Banker, “I literally cried like a baby at the closing table—it so broke my heart. That was my blood, sweat, and tears for 28 years.”

“It was a very sad day for Sam, and it probably still is today,” says David Engel, a member of the Susser Holdings’ board and a family friend. “He loved that company. He loved his employees. But, you know, we received an offer that the board felt we needed to take.”

If not for the sale of the C-store empire, there would be no Susser Bank. In two transactions, the first in 2018, he bought what was then Affiliated Bank of Arlington with some of the proceeds of the sale to Energy Transfer. It has since grown from $650 million in assets to more than $1.57 billion. Susser and his family control “more than 40 percent, less than 50 percent” of the state-chartered financial institution, he told D CEO.

His aim is to expand the reach of the middle-market bank by applying lessons learned as an entrepreneur dealing with lenders. “I spent 28 years as a borrower, an entrepreneur, on my knees begging for capital everywhere,” Susser says. “I have an appreciation of what our clients are going through that most bankers don’t. I know what it feels like when your banker doesn’t show up or when they change their terms. I’m trying to build a company that entrepreneurs can count on.”

With his name stamped on the bank, Susser says his family’s reputation is at stake, along with a 100-year vision for its staying power. Hence the slogan, “Built to Last, Not to Sell.”

How It All Began

Energy Transfer’s acquisition of Susser Holdings rocked Corpus Christi, which over the years has seen other successful enterprises decamp for bigger cities—H-E-B and Whataburger for San Antonio, TRT Holdings (Omni Hotels) and Andrews Distributing to Dallas. “A blow to the region’s psyche,” is the way Hans Schumann, an economics professor at Texas A&M Kingsville, described it to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times after Susser’s bombshell announcement: “It’s frustrating sometimes … to see them grow up and leave the nest.”

Making the departure from Corpus all the more poignant was the fact that the Susser family traced its local roots back nearly 160 years and had long participated in the city’s business and civic life. Although Sam and his wife Catherine still maintain a home in the city after moving their main residence to Dallas, she left in the middle of her second term as an elected member of the city’s school board, on which she had served as president.

A forebear named David Hirsch arrived in Corpus Christi in 1868. A German Jewish immigrant who ran a dry goods business, he helped establish the fire department. He also helped start First National Bank of Corpus Christi and what would become the Texas-Mexican Railroad, both with his friend, Capt. Richard King of King Ranch fame. Even after a local newspaper attacked Hirsh for observing the Sabbath, calling it “an affront” to the Christian community, King remained a loyal friend.

When Hirsch’s first wife, Jeannette Weil, died, King’s son-in-law refused to allow the burial of a Jewess in the local cemetery, forcing Hirsch to send her remains by covered wagon to Gonzales, 133 miles away. King, who had been out of town at the time, was so outraged by his son-in-law’s actions, he donated land for Corpus Christi’s Hebrew Rest Cemetery.

Our eyes locked, and I knew my career on Wall Street had ended. I had no desire to do this, but my family needed me.

Hirsch’s nephew, an Alsatian Jewish immigrant named Charles Weil, bought 40,000 acres of grazing land adjacent to the King Ranch. (It gained notoriety when Fred Gipson, author of Old Yeller, wrote a string of newspaper stories about life on the Weil Ranch.)Weil had 11 children, Susser says. The male heirs got ranch land, became prosperous “and Episcopalian,” while the females got stocks, bonds, and jewelry. Every five years, some 300 of the family’s 500 living relatives still show up for a reunion.

“My grandmother Minna descended from the girls’ side,” Susser says. “The cash was gone, but she got some jewelry and two service stations.” Orphaned at 12, she led an elite, Driving Miss Daisy life, educated at boarding schools, polished in Europe, and graduated from The University of Texas at Austin. She received rent from the operators of the two filling stations in Victoria and was raised by her guardians, an aunt and uncle, the Alexanders.

They disapproved of her suitor, Sam Susser, a nearly penniless son of Russian Jewish immigrants who spoke no English. No chauffeurs or posh schools for Susser—who didn’t have a birth certificate, a middle name or even a middle initial—but would give himself July 4th as his birthday and called himself “Senator Sam.” For four years, he hitchhiked six miles from the small town of Bishop to attend what today is Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

After college, he was looking for a hitch to San Antonio, but a farmer offered him a ride east to Corpus Christi instead. There, he talked a banker into giving him an entry-level job. According to family legend, he squabbled with Minna over who had dibs on a chair at a Jewish singles dance. It was their first meeting, and they quickly became smitten with one another. But the Alexanders opposed the match. With no family blessing, the couple eloped and honeymooned in Galveston. Minna’s relatives refused to talk to the newlyweds for two years.

‘Not Just Invited, But Included’

Susser says he has received a warm welcome in DFW.

Before deciding what new business to build after the $2.4 billion sale of his company, Susser looked at where to build it. He wanted a place with a strong local economy and a happening vibe that would appeal to his three adult children. Sophie, 24, is working for a P.E. firm in New York. Sam, 22, is working in investment banking, also in New York. And Eli, 19, is studying at SMU’s Cox School of Business. “Nothing is more important to us than our kids,” Susser says. “We taught them to work hard and to be independent, and we knew they weren’t coming back to Corpus Christi. So, we looked around and said, ‘What place has the best economy? Where is the best place to reposition our family after 170 years?’ Because we can live anywhere. We chose Dallas-Fort Worth. And with that in the decision matrix, I went and found a business, a bank that happens to be in the heart of DFW. We are scaling it to become something big, special, and lasting. This community has opened its arms to us. We’re filled with gratitude that we get  included—not just invited, but included. There is a difference.”

 

“I always thought that was a very telling comment about discrimination and how, within the same family—even the same religion—family members in a small town like Corpus Christi in the 1920s could discriminate against one another,” Susser says about his grandparents’ experiences. “I often tell this story when I do our ‘Susser Playbook’ meetings at the bank.”

Meant to impart defining company values, the playbook sessions start with stories to spur discussion with smartphones turned off. “Complete engagement,” Susser says. “We are striving to build a true meritocracy, where what matters are the results you generate and the way you treat people. I always ask during playbook sessions, ‘Do you know what a meritocracy is?’ A few hands always go up — ‘No, I don’t know what that means.’ And that gives me the opportunity to go to a whiteboard, looping back to the story of my grandparents and the discrimination that occurred, and how we want our company to be a place where we don’t care what you look like. We don’t care if you’re Black, brown, polka-dotted, gay, or straight. It doesn’t matter to us. We don’t want to be like our forefathers.”

‘Always at the Bleeding Edge’

Susser’s namesake grandfather founded Susser Petroleum, starting with Minna’s two filling stations. He also invested in industrial space, medical buildings, and other businesses. When a tenant left a warehouse full of auto parts, Senator Sam’s sons, Sam J. and Jerry, were charged with liquidating the abandoned inventory. It proved surprisingly easy. They unwittingly set their prices lower, having skirted a layer or two of middlemen. That provided inspiration for Continental Parts Co., a wholesale operation they based in Dallas, later with branches in Corpus Christi and Atlanta. The business was sold in 1979.

Back in Corpus, the Sussers saw lines of cars filling up at their contract gas stations. The system relied on a special key; the sale was recorded, and customers were billed at the end of each month. But the mechanism broke, and the pump stayed open, allowing people to run off with 10,000 gallons of fuel. The loss prompted Susser Petroleum to ask IBM for a remedy, which led to an invention created by five ex-NASA engineers (who had worked on the Apollo Mission) that would revolutionize the retail gas industry.

The family developed the first automated pay-at-the-pump system but never figured out how to profit from it. Susser says the technology was later sold to a pump manufacturer, William M. Wilson & Sons, “for not much, under a million dollars, but probably worth a gazillion today if we had kept a percentage of it.”

I spent 28 years as a borrower, an entrepreneur, on my knees begging for capital everywhere. I’m trying to build a company that entrepreneurs can count on.

Another IBM-derived innovation was a computer link that controlled electricity use in the family’s office buildings, years before Johnson Controls and Honeywell entered the field. “I believe we were the first to remotely control electricity from one computer,” Susser says. “Again, we couldn’t figure out how to make any money at it. My Uncle Jerry would say, ‘We’re always at the bleeding edge,’ meaning we probably got nothing when we sold that business. We were good at selling fuel; we were terrible at manufacturing.”

After the auto parts business was sold, his father went to work for Dallas’ Southland Corp. to stabilize fuel deliveries to its 7-Eleven chain following the Middle East embargos. As a senior vice president, Sam J. Susser was instrumental in acquiring Cities Service (Citgo); 7-Eleven didn’t need billions of dollars in gasoline reserves, it just needed a secure supply.

In 1983, Sam J. and his brother Jerry bought out their father’s interest in the family fuel distribution business and expanded it materially. They also began developing condos on Padre Island. But Susser Petroleum hit rough sailing. Many of its wholesale fuel customers missed payments on their gasoline and diesel purchases, and about a third of the company’s 30,000 credit card customers were delinquent, too. “We lost millions of dollars of accounts receivables,” Susser says. “It wasn’t computerized. When we cut them off, we didn’t get paid what we were owed. And that wasn’t our only problem.” 

From 1980 through 1989, 425 Texas commercial banks failed, including nine of the state’s 10 largest bank holding companies, according to the FDIC. All of the Sussers’ banks went under, and the family’s lines of credit were not renewed.

“It was vicious. If banks were healthy, they could have renewed our [credit lines], and we’d have been able to work out our problems a lot easier,” Susser says. An Oklahoma firm charged Susser Petroleum 50 percent interest. After about six months, it found a Houston lender that charged “only” 12 to 14 percent. “We were constantly refinancing from 1988 to 1992,” Susser says. “My dad was earning money from being on the board of Citgo and as CEO of Plexus Financial Services, and the last thing we needed was for him to quit that stuff and come down to Corpus to work with Jerry because he was making a good income, which was very helpful to a family that had no income.” Jerry, who ran the company day to day, was unmatched at dealing with employees and clients, but he did not know financials. “And the problem we had in 1988 was financials,” Susser says.

At the time, the younger Susser was in his third year working on mergers and acquisitions in New York for Salomon Brothers, which he joined after graduating from UT (where he was on the Longhorns’ golf team). He was on assignment in Dallas when his father asked him to attend a meeting at a bank. The negotiations were successful, but only because his father and uncle gave personal guarantees.

They would have been hard pressed to write a check for all the millions if asked to deliver on the commitment, Susser says. “Our eyes locked, and I knew that my career on Wall Street had ended,” he says. “I had no desire to do this, but my family needed me. There was no choice. We couldn’t afford to hire anybody else. We couldn’t afford bankruptcy lawyers. 

“I had to lay off a man who had been with us 40 years driving trucks and had been at my bar mitzvah,” Susser continues. “We couldn’t give him 10-day severance because we couldn’t make payroll. We were scared. I can’t tell you how scared we were. This was a very, very, very tough time for my father and uncle, but we became incredibly close.”

The solution to saving Susser Petroleum would be fuel orders from a startup that eventually would be called Susser Holdings Corp. “We had to raise $14 million to get it done when we were busted, and the banks had closed all of our notes,” Susser says. “It was the hardest financing I ever worked on.” In the end, they recruited about 14 investors, including a member of Southland’s Thompson family.

The early years were rocky. Citigroup extended a mezzanine loan, a term loan, and a revolving loan. “They took complete advantage of us because we had no other options, and they knew it,” Susser says. But after the bankruptcies of Circle K and 7-Eleven, also Citigroup clients, the bank canceled the term loan before it expired and wouldn’t renew the revolving loan, even though the company was performing well. Susser Holdings was being punished for being in the same industry, being told by their banker: “Our portfolio is long on convenience [stores], and we want you out.”

The company succeeded through teamwork. Susser’s father leveraged his business relationships, his uncle Jerry relied on his operating skills, and Susser tapped into his ability to raise capital. “This wasn’t the Sam L. show,” he says. “We needed each other.”

Writing The Next Chapter

After the 2014 sale to Energy Transfer, Susser moved out of the Stripes chain headquarters in Corpus and took an office with Susser Holdings board member Engel in the city’s downtown. “He started working on the next phase of his life,” Engel says. “An opportunity came in banking, which really fits his personality because he’s a people person and a great networker. It’s such a perfect fit for him. He understands banking from the customer’s perspective, and that really is the culture Sam is building at Susser Bank.”

Affiliated Bank had begun life in 1959 as an Arlington-based credit union for employees of supermarkets belonging to the Affiliated Foods cooperative. It later became one of the relatively few conversions from a nonprofit credit union to a commercial bank. Garry Graham, its leader, had met Susser in 2016 at an industry gathering and visited over a Diet Coke. Acquisition negotiations began the next year, and the deal closed in 2018. The Federal Reserve took 11 months to approve the deal. Susser commuted to North Texas for several years until buying a home in Dallas.

Since taking over, Susser has shifted the bank away from a focus on real estate loans. “We prefer as much diversification as possible,” he says, noting new business from software developers, among other clients. “In addition to loans and deposits, we are able to deliver wealth management and investment banking services that are far beyond what you’d expect from a medium-size Texas-based bank.” He cited an example of calling in outside specialists to work out the sale of a large, family-owned business, along with long-term investment strategies.

But, as always, there would be bumps in the road. In late 2019, Susser publicly announced an agreement to acquire SouthWest Bancshares of Odessa. He planned to use the move to rebrand Affiliated as SouthWest Bank. But regulators requested updated business performance projections. It was the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic was raging, airlines shut down, and the price of Permian Basin crude dropped to a negative $40 a barrel. 

“Regulators made a reasonable request for information that we couldn’t reasonably provide,” Susser says. The deal collapsed, and Affiliated wired a cancellation penalty. The amount is confidential, but including lawyers’ fees and other expenses, the hit was more than $2 million. “It definitely was the biggest setback,” Susser says.

Garry Graham, Affiliated’s chief who was kept on after Susser bought the bank, suggested renaming it Susser Bank. After thinking about it, Susser agreed. “We wanted to launch that new face of a bank with a name that would be ours forever,” he says. “We’re not big fans of silly, manufactured names created by branding consultants. They’re great for sign manufacturers, but they don’t mean anything. Our reputation is everything. And any name other than ‘Susser’ reduces the pressure on our family to be the best we can be every day.”

He says his mission is to be aggressive, fair, and faster than competitors. But he is also taking a long view and is patient enough to realize that he doesn’t have to hit all his growth targets overnight. Looking at the state’s banking landscape, Susser says his direct competitors include many potential sellers—family-owned “lifestyle” banks that are doing well but happy with the status quo. He aims to leverage that and be a differentiator and says Susser Bank has a 100-year plan. “We are the opposite of a lifestyle bank,” he says. “We’re going to invest and grow and strive to make great returns for our shareholders, and we’re going to try to be a killer place to work and do business.”

Susser is investing a lot of time on culture, hiring top talent, and giving the bank’s technology infrastructure a complete overhaul. “Having built a business from 30 employees to 12,000, I know that system implementations are the hardest thing you can do,” he says. “When you’re smaller, it’s easier. Now, we’re growing like crazy because we have our systems in place. We’ve been on a huge hiring spree, opening in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston—all in the last year.

“We’ve built the foundation,” Susser continues, “and now we’re gaining traction. We need to keep going at this pace for another two or three years to achieve appropriate efficiency and profitability metrics. But we have a plan, and we’re working it.”  

The Susser Business Lineage

1886

Louis Susser is born in Russia. In 1908, he immigrates to the U.S.

1937

His son, “Senator” Sam Susser, forms Susser Petroleum with two gas stations. inherited by his wife.

1983

Sons Sam J. and Jerry Susser acquire Susser Petroleum from their father. 

1988

Sam L. Susser founds Susser Holdings Corp. In 2006, it starts trading on Nasdaq.

1994

Susser Holdings buys Susser Petroleum from Sam J. and Jerry Susser. It goes public as an MLP on the NYSE in 2012.

2014

Kelcy Warren’s Energy Transfer acquires Susser Holdings in a $2.4 billion deal.

2018

Sam L. Susser buys Affiliated Bank. He rebrands it as Susser Bank in 2021.

2022

In under four years, Susser expands the bank and grows it to $1.65 billion in assets.

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