An Interview with Bill Sapp from Sapp Bros.
By Erik Larson and Kelsey Nilles, Creighton MBA students
Bill was raised in a family of nine on a farm outside of Ashland, Nebraska. His dad was a cattle feeder during the Great Depression. Bill was the youngest of four brothers who all helped their father out on the farm. During World War II, there was a lot of land that wasn’t being farmed. This is how his dad really started farming. The boys were very ambitious while working on the farm. They would get everything done for their father as fast as they could so they could go work for the neighbors, who actually paid them for their work. The brothers learned to work together on the farm, which in turn helped them learn how to work together in business. Bill believes that his childhood raising and the work ethic he learned on the farm are two large contributors to why his business has been so successful.
In 1960, Bill and his brother Lee bought a Ford dealership in Ashland, Nebraska. Over the course of the next couple of years, they bought other car dealerships. They had bought 52 acres of land in Omaha that GMC wanted to build a dealership on. However, there was another GMC in the area, so they couldn’t build on in their territory.
With all of this land, they decided to build a truck stop. On July 7, 1971 the first Sapp Bros truck stop was open for business.
Sapp Bros has 16 travel centers ranging from as far east as Pennsylvania to as far west as Utah. Travel Center #17 will be opening this summer in Missouri. A large majority of the travel centers are located in Nebraska along Interstate 80.
There are some very unique characteristics about these travel centers that are different than the others. Sapp Bros does not sell any pornography or alcohol in their truck stops. You can also find chapels at most of the stops. The travel centers take pride in their very clean restrooms. They try and give people a reason to come to the truck stops. They take pride in taking care of their customers by welcoming them, smiling, and providing clean and safe facilities. These truck stops have opened up many doors to some really good possibilities in life, and that is one thing that Bill is very thankful for.
Throughout the course of the interview we asked some specific questions about Bill Sapp’s ethical ideology and how this has been applied to Sapp Brother’s as a whole. A few of his responses we felt really portrayed Bill Sapp’s ethical beliefs. These questions were: Can you define ethics and tell us what ethics means to you, do you think there is a difference between personal ethics and business ethics, and finally describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle and one that was hard to handle.
Q: Can you define ethics and tell us what ethics means to you? Do you think there is a difference between personal ethics and business ethics?
A: First and foremost we felt how he defined ethics was a focal point of our conversation. Bill’s opinion about ethics is that of a Judeo-Christian mentality in that we should model our ethical decisions after the teaching of Christ. He believes that we should treat others the way we would want to be treated ourselves and through that mentality an individual can live the life that Christ intends us to live. Bill reinforced this idea in the answer to his next question: Do you think there is a difference between “ethics” in general and “ethics” in business? Bill’s response imparted the notion that our ethics should not change when we enter the work place. One’s ethical ethos should remain consistent throughout their life and should not waiver in an office setting.
Bill states that creating an ethics program was just a natural occurring action for the company to take. There wasn’t an incident that prompted the formation. The way their truck stops strive to operate from the very beginning has been based in good, strong, moral ethics. Sapp Bros does have a hiring policy and sometimes they do have to let people go who don’t fit the type of profile that they want. When they do have to fire someone, they try and do it in the nicest way possible and still be loving with their actions. This is another way that goes to show how deeply rooted the ethics and Christian ways are in the company.
The ethical culture of the organization is very apparent. Besides not selling alcohol and pornography, they don’t tolerate swearing. Bill has politely asked individuals to stop swearing in their truck stop. Employees used to wear pins at work that said, “It is my goal to treat you, our customer as a guest”. Along with having a chapel at most stops, there are free testaments for truckers and bible studies for them to participate in. For creating an ethical culture, Bill says from experience that if you set the example, then most individuals will follow it.
Q: Describe an ethical situation that you have faced that was relatively easy to handle.
A: Bill gave two examples that showed just how he effectively applies his ethical prowess. In each of these examples, we saw the depth of Bill’s compassion and the implementation of his compassion. Additionally, both of these stories depicted how Bill, as well as the Sapp Bros. as a company, follows these ethical values.
In the nature of Bill’s religiously themed ethos, the Sapp Bros gas stations do not condone swearing on the premise. A regular at one of the gas stations, whose was affectionately called Bear, choose to challenge this rule and Bill respectfully asked him to stop. Bear did not appreciate this and choose to continue to swear. Eventually, Bear was asked to leave. A few weeks later, Bear’s home burned down. Bill felt that since Bear was part of the community, it would only be appropriate to help him rebuild. Bill placed a donation bucket at his gas stations and proceeded to match all the donated proceeds. When given the donation, Bear cried and from then on stopped swearing.
Q: Describe an ethical situation that you have faced that was hard to handle.
A: The next story that Bill imparted to us was when an individual complained about his paint job. The costumer attempted to blame Bill for an acid wash when Sapp Bros no longer used acid to wash trucks. Bill immediately offered to refund his money and even after the customer threaten Bill with violence, he still refunded him his money and paid for an additional car wash.
Bill’s actions were not required and most businesses would see these acts as either a temporary act of good will or an unnecessary expense. Sapp Bros is not like most businesses. These acts define who they are and what they stand for. Bill alluded to the fact that this was something he would do again and again. His decision was based upon the idea that this is what God would want us to do.
Bill had a few mentors throughout his 84 years of life. He credits his parents to helping him create a solid foundation to build his ethics upon. While he might have fought a lot with his brothers, they too helped mold his ethics and he looked up to them, especially since he is the youngest. The Christian family he grew up in helped mold his life. When he was 18, he decided and proclaimed by his own choosing that he wanted to be a Christian and follow Christ with everything he does. His actions have always exemplified Christ and he continues to learn more by having bible studies twice a month. Bill believes that Christ is the best mentor you could possibly have.
Bill was very humbled about being inducted into the Omaha Chamber Hall of Fame in 2015. He felt honored to receive the award and hopes that his employees take pride in working for Sapp Bros. At the Chamber Hall of Fame banquet, Bill had an interesting observation about all four men who were honored. He said they all had four things in common in their speeches: they first thanked their wives, they respected their employees, they respected God, and they were hard workers. Bill truly believes that successful people travel down the path of treating others right. By having a Christian base and treating others right, the Omaha business core values all fall right into place.
When asked about challenges that younger business professionals face, Bill relates it all back to the Church and one’s upbringing. He believes that churches, regardless of the denomination, need to work hard on children and teenage relationships. Your ethics comes from two places: your home and the church. If you are raised in a Christian home that has good morals and values, then you will carry that with you into your professional and personal life as you grow older.
Throughout our interview, Bill imparted an ideology that permeates through his company. As not only a business and community leader, but a devote Christian, his actions and the actions of his business must meet his own expectations of how he sees his ethical duties. As the Bible says in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all through Christ”, Bill seems to follow this and has successfully created a gas station empire centered on these ideals.
© 2017, Kracher & the Business Ethics Alliance