Kimberly Bowers: From GC to CEO
Alumna Takes Charge at one of the Largest Independent Retailers of Fuels and Convenience Goods
When Kimberly Bowers, ’91, said “I’m wearing jeans right now” during a Monday morning call from her San Antonio corporate office, it personified her No. 1 priority as the new CEO of CST Brands — she wants to create an environment that prioritizes company morale, and build a robust retail culture for CST’s more than 1,900 locations and 12,000 employees.
Last year, Fortune named you one of its 50 Most Powerful Women in Business. How do you feel about being on the list?
It’s a great honor, but I did not expect it. We need more women in the C-suite. Women are great leaders who are not afraid to ask questions, collaborate to find answers, build reliable resources and accomplish difficult tasks.
Also, it’s made my father very proud. Everyone in my small town in Ohio has heard my story at least 10 times.
What have been your top priorities as president, chairman and chief executive officer of CST?
It hasn’t even been a year since CST Brands spun from Valero last May 1. My first priority was to unify the employees to create a cohesive retail culture. After several roundtables with employees, I came to understand there was a growing divide between employees who worked in the stores and those who worked in the corporate office.
I knew I had to get the culture right from the beginning because we came from such a great culture at Valero. I had to get people excited and comfortable with the change and create an environment where people felt motivated and excited about opportunities.
One change was the dress code at our San Antonio Service Center. People can wear jeans in the office as long as they are wearing a company-branded shirt. As a result, people are more comfortable at work. We also changed the dress code in the stores so store employees can wear jeans. I wanted more consistency among people who see our customers every day and the people in the office. We also changed the facial hair policy to allow men to wear beards and mustaches.
Getting out to the stores and understanding what goes on there every day is important. Every above store-level employee has to spend a certain amount of hours in our stores; the leadership team spends five days each year. I really want people to get a sense for what it is we’re asking of our store employees to make sure we understand what drives our business every day so we can improve it.
We have a big ship — one day we didn’t exist and the next day we did. It takes a lot of effort to change direction, and we are doing everything we can to continue to grow our footprint and expand what we’re doing in the stores.
You went from being on the legal/general counsel side while at Valero, to the business/leadership side at CST. How has that transition been for you?
It’s been a lot of fun, and wild and wooly at the same time. When I was GC at Valero, I had non-legal groups report to me, but didn’t have the profit and loss responsibility. Now, I have a board of directors I report to and need to work with to get their support, and it’s looking at strategy entirely differently. I’m not just affecting one piece; it’s the whole kit and caboodle.
Early in January, we did two overnight events with our store managers. There was a moment when I stood up at the Phoenix event in front of more than 350 store managers, and realized it’s incredibly impactful knowing that everything you do every day affects everyone in the room, not just yourself, and you need a culture that supports that.
You’ve practiced law at a firm, served as GC and now lead a company as CEO. If you could give a piece of advice about what legal path to take, what would it be?
Going into Big Law was helpful. It’s invaluable to get that experience early on because there is no substitute for working really hard at the beginning of your career. When you go into Big Law, you build direct relationships with clients as their service provider and I think that is an important step.
Going into the business side, it’s not the path I sought out, but the advice I give (which I tell my daughters) is to not define yourself early in your career. Once you move in-house, you really get to try a lot of different skill sets and approaches, and you have new opportunities along the way. The more open you are to new possibilities and opportunities, the better off you’re going to be.
If you draw a box for yourself and stay in it, you’ll miss opportunities to grow.
What do you mean when you say this isn’t the path you sought out?
I think when I left law firm practice, I was trying to find better home and work life balance. It was hard — I had young children. So I moved in-house and had a fairly calm start at Valero.
But the reality is, you are who you are and there are fundamental truths about yourself. One of mine is I don’t sit still well. My law firm mentor always told me: “Kim, you cannot change who you are,” and sure enough, six months later I was back to deals and late nights.
How did UT Law help prepare you for your legal career?
I think law school, and UT in particular, really helps you process information. When you’re in a leadership role, you have to be able to review the situation and know the facts in pretty short order, and clearly law school sets you up for that.
I was at a Valero leadership development workshop where we did a series of simulations. The top two scores were another lawyer and me, and it was largely because the simulations were very time sensitive with tons of information, and you had to make something out of it — similar to a law school exam.
The other asset is being better at writing. There is no substitute for being able to write succinctly; UT helped tremendously at that.
You’ve always been active in your community and with volunteerism. How do you find the time?
In the last year, I have been a lot less effective than I used to be. One of the reasons I left practice was to go to a company that was big on community service — and at Valero, it was an expectation. It was great to come to a place that allowed me, and wanted me, to do it. But this last year, I really had to start pulling back. As I move on, I hope to get back into it.