Making 7-Eleven a heaven
Photo Credit: The Dallas Morning News
By SARAH MERVOSH
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/Nov. 19, 2012
Just after sunrise, the morning rush picks up at 7-Eleven. Igor Finkler - industrious immigrant, Beatles lover and the man who melted a CEO's heart on national TV - rings up coffee for the bleary-eyed.
Wearing jeans and a red-and-black 7-Eleven shirt, he could be any immigrant making his way in America as a convenience store clerk. Except that behind him - past the cigarettes and near the taquito grill - is a framed photograph. There he is in a blazer and tie smiling with Oprah Winfrey and the head of 7-Eleven.
Finkler's life changed in 2010 when he was featured on Undercover Boss, a CBS reality show in which corporate executives disguise themselves and work within their own companies. Finkler, then a truck driver for 7-Eleven, was paired with "Danny," who was actually Joe DePinto, 7-Eleven's president and CEO. After the show aired, DePinto stunned Finkler with a grand gift - his own store, on East Campbell Road near North Central Expressway in Richardson.
Two and a half years later, Finkler is learning the meaning of the American dream: Success doesn't come without hard work - even when you're handed the keys to your livelihood. He works more, sleeps less and gets paid about the same as when he drove trucks.
Still, having been thrust into leadership, Finkler is determined to make his store a haven of sorts for his customers. He gives an extra dollar in change now and again, paid out of his own wallet. He remembers names and asks about families. He smiles and does his best to make customers smile back.
With these small gestures, Finkler is doing his part to prove that anything - even a 7-Eleven - can be a force of good in this world.
Finkler is the man behind the register. The guy who cleans the bathroom and mops up spills. The one who'd be easy to ignore.
But he's also an immigrant from Kazakhstan who holds a master's degree in electrical engineering from his home country. He's a former Soviet soldier who now keeps small American flags on shelves in the store's backroom. He came to the U.S. in the mid-'90s seeking a better life for his wife, daughter and son.
In 2009, Finkler had been working as an overnight delivery driver for 7-Eleven for 10 years. One day, his boss told Finkler to train a new employee - something he'd done many times before. But this time, he was asked to sign paperwork so cameras could film him for a documentary about entry-level training.
The next day, Finkler was summoned to company headquarters. There, he learned the cameras had been for Undercover Boss and his "trainee" had been DePinto. At first,Finkler worried he might be fired. But DePinto loved him.
"He blew me away," the CEO said at the time. "His truck was immaculate. Every store we went to, the employees loved him, and when I asked about overtime, he said I should be able to get my work done in eight hours. Any more would hurt the company."
After the Undercover Boss episode aired in 2010, Oprah invited Finkler onto her show. That's when DePinto surprised him with keys to his own 7-Eleven. The gift meantFinkler didn't have to pay franchise fees or make a down payment, costs that total about $239,000 for an average store.
"I didn't expect that the boss will appreciate it so much," Finkler says. "To me, I just did my job."
The American dream
Running on energy drinks and water, Finkler has been at work since 4 a.m. It's now after 7, and he raps his knuckles on the counter during a rare lull. He plays air guitar to the Creedence Clearwater Revival song coming from overhead speakers.
At 50, he is thin and balding. He wears a Bluetooth headset in one ear. Each time the front door opens, Finkler perks up. He throws his hands into the air and shouts, "Good morning! How are you, my friend?"
Finkler sets an example for his employees to follow. He engages his customers in a way that's atypical for convenience stores - he once wore a sombrero and green sunglasses for a burrito sale.
He doesn't allow himself to get tired, or, if he does, to show it. He remembers an expression from the Soviet army: "There are no sick soldiers - only dead or alive."Finkler says he "simply cannot have a bad day."
He puts in 60 to 80 hours a week. The store sees about 800 customers each weekday, and last month's sales were up 8 percent from the previous year. But that's still 30 percent below the market average. Finkler says that's normal for the first few years of business, but not good enough. "Less than excellence is not accepted," he says.
"He won't quit until the job is done. He kind of expects others to act in the same way," says his son, Sergei Finkler, who works at the store. "I often have to remind him, you know, this is not the army."
Even when Finkler goes home for the night, he wonders how the store's doing. "He'll tell me, 'I woke up and I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about the business,'" Sergei, 23, says. "If it was his choice, he'd put a sleeping bag here in the office and just stay here."
For all the hours Finkler puts in, he hasn't given himself a raise since becoming a franchisee. He says he makes about $600 a week after taxes - slightly more than he made as a truck driver, but much less if you figure it by the hour. He gives any extra money the store makes to his employees, whom he considers family.
Finkler doesn't mind hard work. But in time, he hopes he'll be able to work a little less and sleep a little more. Then he might have more time for hobbies like having movie nights with his wife, reading Mark Twain novels and skydiving with his family.
Until then, Finkler sits in the back room, surrounded by Airheads, packaged cookies and Matador beef jerky. He bobs his head as he sings the refrain from the Beatles' "Across the Universe" - and almost gets it right.
"Nothing's gonna change my mind …"
'Their paradise place'
Finkler knows money can't buy him love - the Beatles taught him that. He doesn't work for the pay. He works for these people: Jason, who has a newborn baby. Melissa, who looks forward to joking with Finkler in the mornings. Sam, who feels like he's cheating if he goes to a different 7-Eleven.
"I love my customers," Finkler says. "My customers are my guests, for whom I was waiting all my life."
And they love him back. They know Finkler by name. They rave that the store is clean and the employees are friendly. They say they've never been to another convenience store like it.
"He makes your morning," says Melissa Cohn, who stops in daily. "He really makes me want to come in."
On his desk at home, Finkler keeps a ceramic tile that quotes Gandhi: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
He wants his 7-Eleven to be a therapeutic environment - a place where customers can relax, laugh and forget about their problems. "This is their paradise place," he says.
As Finkler works the register, Hope Cunningham Brown comes in. She works nearby at AT&T and often buys lottery tickets from him.
On this day, she tries her luck on a different number than usual. She starts to walk away, only to circle back when she realizes she forgot to pay for her coffee. Finklerwaves her away and pays for it himself.
Walking away with coffee in hand, she smiles.
But Finkler beams.