Building great relationships key to Oklahoma banker's success
JPMorgan Chase & Co. senior vice president Alison Taylor retires
After a distinguished career spanning more than four decades, Alison Taylor knows precisely the first thing she'll do once the calendar hits September 1, 2015.
"I'm going to turn off my alarm clock," she said.
Retirement is fast approaching for the JPMorgan Chase & Co. senior vice president, whose official last day at work is August 31. Taylor has been part of the Love's business family since the 1980s as a capital partner, one of several bankers who help Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores navigate the world of development and growth. She has been a trusted partner, adviser and friend to the company for more than three decades and to its CFO and Executive Vice President of Finance, Doug Stussi, for more than 20 years.
"Alison, and her role, exemplifies a great customer commitment and how I'd want to be treated as a customer," Stussi said.
Taylor's partnership with Love's has helped the business consistently achieve goals and manage challenges as it expanded from its first travel stop in Amarillo, Texas, some 34 years ago to more than 350 locations in 40 states. However, the numbers are simply a foundation for how partners like Taylor and JPMorgan Chase & Co. help a business like Love's.
"Good bankers are very strategic about multiple solutions to any issue," Taylor said.
It's all about the relationship, and the native Oklahoman said the relationship she's been able to grow with Love's over the years has worked well because it's built on mutual admiration.
"What has always been the same is that ours is a very transparent relationship with great respect for everyone's opinion," Taylor said. "I'm a big believer in the relationship. You have to spend time in developing it, and it's a privilege to work with Doug."
And the time Alison and Doug have spent cultivating that business relationship has included many a breakfast at Jimmy's Egg restaurant in northwest Oklahoma City. They've had so many breakfasts together over the years that each knows what the other orders by heart.
She has a scrambled egg with silver dollar-sized pancakes and patty sausage.
He has a pancake with two eggs over easy on top.
"If you put them on the side, I'll just throw them on top, so either way is fine. We are both creatures of habit," Stussi said.
If a bountiful breakfast is the foundation for a great day, then these breakfast meetings were certainly a foundation for the relationship forged together by Taylor and Stussi. Not only have they worked together since Stussi’s arrival in 1996 for the betterment of Love's, they're also both very much involved in the betterment of the Oklahoma City community at large.
"Getting breakfast with somebody makes it informal. It allows you to talk about different things that you might want to talk about, and you can always circle back and get things accomplished," he said.
Love's has accomplished a lot with the help of Alison Taylor and its capital partners, from nationwide expansion to the addition of quick-service restaurants to the debut of Truck Tire Care in 2008 and now the entry into the world of storage and hospitality. She's been with the business every step of the way.
However, Alison Taylor didn't always see herself climbing into the financial arena.
Growing up in Ardmore, Oklahoma, she wanted to be a ballerina.
"In Ardmore, that was kind of the thing to do," Taylor said.
Her grandfather was a surveyor and engineer who also happened to be part of the famous Dawes Commission, established in the late 19th Century to negotiate agreements with the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole and Cherokee Indian tribes. Her other grandfather was a wildcatter searching high and low for oil.
Alison's father was a lawyer, and both her parents were alumni from the University of Oklahoma, which sparked a lifelong love affair with the school and its beloved football team. Oklahoma Sooners tickets have been in Taylor's family for 55 years.
"My love of OU football started when I was about 10 when my dad would take me to the OU football games. We would always go to the Kansas State game because, back in the 1960s and 1970s, Kansas State wasn't very good, and so that was the game my mother always said, 'I don't want to go because I know we're going to win, so take Alison and go up for the day,'" she said.
"So, I still have a little problem with Bill Snyder's success, but I'm working on that," Taylor added.
She has a group with whom she travels to an away game each year, but even the harmonious business relationship between her and Stussi could theoretically be tested under the guidelines Taylor maintains for Sooners football-watching parties at her house.
Oklahoma football is serious business.
"The idea of hosting a football watch party is kind of unique at my house because if you want to watch football at my house, you can come -- but I won't be feeding you. I won't be fixing your drinks. I won't be taking care of you, and I won't put up with chatter. So, if you want to watch the game, come to my house. But if you want to go to a social event, go to somebody else's house," she said.
And to think that Taylor initially didn't attend the university out of high school.
"There was a group of friends my senior year in high school that all of our mothers decided that we were going to go to girl's school. So I ended up at Mount Vernon Junior College in Washington, D.C., in 1968, and it was a great experience as far as the education and being in Washington, but it was not a good fit for me from a personality standpoint," she said.
What she wanted was a bigger college environment.
What she decided upon was a return home to attend OU, majoring in economics and minoring in accounting.
"That was a very unique time in the late 60s and early 70s because there were actually very few women in the business school. The majority of those in the business school were actually majoring in marketing or management," Taylor said.
The world of economics intrigued her, and she took accounting because, as she said, " I felt like, from a numbers standpoint, it was the best way to understand what a company does.”
These academic pursuits provided the framework for Taylor's foray into the banking world.
"Economics is theoretical with a lot of gray, and accounting is very black and white. Ultimately, in financial services, you blend the gray with the black and white,” Taylor said.
Taylor's college career ultimately resulted in a pair of job offers: One to become the first female credit analyst at Liberty Bank, which eventually many years later became JPMorgan Chase & Co., and the other to work for the CIA in Washington, D.C.
The rest, as they would say, is history.
Taylor chose banking, which she would soon realize is a career built on relationships.
Alison was several years into her career at Liberty Bank, and by the late 1970s, Love's was one of her accounts. She and Terry Ross, who at one time was in charge of fuel procurement for Love's (and currently serves as vice president of construction and environment for Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores), were talking about the oil embargoes of the era and how refineries were giving priority to their branded stores.
"The concern was that refineries were going to make their refined product first available to their branded stores and secondly available to the unbranded customers they had," she said.
So, maybe it was time for Love's to go "branded"? Stores like Love's needed guaranteed fuel sources.
However, company founder Tom Love was already committed to a brand: the Love's brand.
"His position at that point was that our brand is our name and that's Love's, and that's the brand we need to rely on and that people need to learn and trust," Taylor said. "That was my first real window to understanding the commitment to the Love's brand, which has obviously grown significantly."
Even as the customer base has expanded over time and while there has been great diversification in the business, the Love's name and brand are what people have come to know, to trust and to expect.
By the time Doug Stussi joined Love's in 1996, Alison Taylor and other bankers who were part of the original "bank group," as it was called, had been working with Love's for well more than a decade.
"Yes, when I came onboard, we had lots of capital partners. My predecessor did a great job of putting together bank groups for us, and so when I came to Love's in 1996, all the bankers were grouped together, and I think the distinction was in trying to create a little bit more cohesiveness among the group," Stussi said.
Love's did that through a sense of partnership and transparency.
"I think it's important that there are no surprises and that you overload your bank partners, your capital partners with information so that they know everything about you. And so that's probably the twist that came with this capital partners group, getting in front of them either by phone or in person four times a year and overload them with information in terms of sharing with them where the business is going," he added.
That doesn't mean there aren't surprises.
But it is an example of how Alison Taylor helped enrich the relationship between JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores. Her experience and mentorship to Stussi was vital, and she believes strongly in the business sharing both its very best news and its very worst. Give the team of capital partners the good and the bad.
"There were a few years in there we didn't perform very well, and certainly in the 2007-09 period, there was a lot of commotion going on, and we've always found that if you're transparent and you embrace bankers as your partners that you're going to be able to move forward no matter what the economic situation otherwise might look like," Stussi said.
And communication between partners is vital, Taylor explained.
"I can't do Love's a great job unless I really understand where they're going, what they're doing and why they're going to do it -- and I would really put a lot of emphasis on the third part," she said. "Companies that can share why they have a vision or why they are looking at different strategies only enables me to better serve them."
Communication plays a big role in putting deals together as well.
"When we get down to building a decision or executing a transaction, it's crucial that we do a great deal of communicating early on what needs to happen. That enables us to work with the other capital partners we work with because we can frame those conversations very clearly," Taylor said.
Take a look at the diversification and development of the Love's Family of Companies over the past quarter of a century. Whether it's the addition of a full range of gifts and novelties to stores in the mid-1980s to the debut of quick-service restaurants in the early 1990s or the foray into Truck Tire Care and now storage and hospitality, the relationship between Love's and it's group of capital partners has helped to keep the enterprise moving forward at a steady pace.
Love's continues to grow and find new ways to serve both the professional driver and the traveler.
"And that's a very thoughtful process," Taylor said. "It's a process where you identify your expertise and leverage it in a way in which the customer understands that we're even more committed to them. Part of what Love's has done with tire care and other strategies is really to make that customer feel that you're committed to making their lives easier, making their situations better."
It's a process of adding value to the customer, something Love's does for its customers and something Alison Taylor has done for Love's for more than three decades.
So, what's next for Alison Taylor, besides shutting off her alarm clock?
She said she'll certainly miss working with all her customers and helping them solve their business problems.
"Also, the opportunity to work with exceptional management companies,” Taylor said. “Most of my clients are privately owned companies, and most have made great contributions to not only their businesses and their employees but also the community -- and it has just been really thrilling to do that, and I will miss that.”
What she's going to enjoy is some flexibility in her personal calendar. That extra time will afford her the chance to visit some of her favorite places, such as New Orleans, Santa Fe, New Mexico, New York City and Charleston, South Carolina. She also has a 2-year-old grandson who will occupy lots of time and bring lots of joy.
Retirement does not mean goodbye, however.
"I don't intend to become disconnected to some of my long-term business associates. I'll probably still call Doug and go meet at Jimmy's Egg, and we'll talk about our grandkids, and that'll be great because one of the benefits is that I have made some great friendships through the process, not only professional associations," Taylor said.
And that's something to keep in mind for students interested in a banking career.
"Young people who think they are going into the financial services business think it's a very structured, analytical process, but they need to understand that the numbers are only the beginning of the process. The numbers only allow you to get to the next step and have deeper conversations about strategies, about what might work and what might not work and why you think those are the solutions," Taylor said.
Be prepared to create great relationships, relationships like the one Alison Taylor has had with Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores for more than three decades.