BY COLIN KRIEGER
After more than 20 years in business, Columbus entrepreneurs Bobby and Tina Watkins announced Tuesday that they have sold their flagship convenience store, Tina Watkins 45.
In an exclusive interview with The Packet Tuesday, owner Bobby Watkins said that he and his wife had reached a deal with regional fuel center chain Sprint Mart, and that the new ownership group would be coming in first thing next week to take over the popular store located at 712 Hwy. 45 N. in Columbus. Watkins said that, after over 30 years in the gas station game, his wife had decided it was about time to “hang up the pump.”
“She came to me a little while ago, and she told me was tired – that she was done,” Bobby Watkins said with a smile on his face. “So, I’m just a guy, I don’t always get things right away, so I got her to take some time off with her family, get some rest.”
Tina Watkins went away for nearly a month to spend time with relatives in Alaska, but Bobby Watkins said he was kind of surprised when he picked her up at the airport and she said she hadn’t changed her mind.
“She says to me, ‘Bobby, maybe you didn’t understand me — I want out,’ ”Bobby Watkins said, laughing. “I guess I’m just like any other husband; I apparently wasn’t listening good…and when your wife tells you it’s time to go, well, it’s time to go.”
Bobby Watkins said he now understood his instructions and he already knew who he would call. He reached out to Charles Morris, an executive with the Sprint Mart office in Jackson. Bobby Watkins said the deal went down smoothly, and the most important stipulation his wife and he had was not up for discussion.
“I told Charles (Morris), I told him that my team was important, and that they all get to stay,” he said. “They’ve been loyal to us since the beginning, and we wanted to make sure they’d be OK when we’re gone.”
Bobby Watkins said that the executives at Sprint Mart were excited to acquire the store, as it has been bucking national trends and thriving in recent years. The station has always been known for its competitive gas prices, but he credits their customer-first policy as the key to their success.
“Even in times of turmoil, we thrived,” Bobby Watkins said. “I think its because we always listened to the people, tried to give them what they want. Our customer loyalty was unreal.”
The Watkins said their most cherished memory will be the relationships they had with their customers. Both recalled that there are several patrons who have been coming to the store since they were little kids. Bobby Watkins said one of the most important strategic moves they made was during the remodel of the store in late 2007/early 2008. While the couple was remodeling the station, at the time known as Amoco 45, they decided to design the parking lot so it was more accessible to the neighborhood behind the store. Another key decision at the time was to add a Hunt Brothers Pizza area near the registers, which Bobby Watkins said helped tremendously when the time came to sell.
“When we sat down with Sprint Mart, they were pretty impressed with our pizza traffic,” Bobby Watkins said. “It turns out, we are the busiest Hunt Brothers Pizza in Mississippi; I gotta credit my mom for that there.”
Bobby’s mom, 79-year-old Jewell Watkins, comes in nearly every morning and prepares the pizzas for the day. The elder Watkins is so adept at her trade that Sprint Mart is keeping her on for a while as a production consultant. She agreed to stay on and train workers on the extensive prep it takes to keep the pizza kitchen ready for business.
“My momma can move,” Bobby Watkins said. “She’s got her area all perfect, all set up. Most days, she’ll come in and knock out over 100 pies without breaking a sweat. She’s a treasure!”
The Watkins made sure to say that they haven’t been alone in building their business over the years, crediting 15-year veteran team member Doris Butler with helping them to run what they considered the tightest, cleanest ship in the business.
“Doris has been a blessing,” Bobby Watkins said. “She’s loyal, she’s a hard worker, and she knows what people want, that’s a hard thing to find these days.”
The Watkins’ children served the majority of their childhood working with their parents, with daughter Deandra now living in Dallas and son Ryan manning the home front. Bobby Watkins said that Ryan is learning the ins and outs of the other family businesses, Watkins Washeteria and the family U-Haul rental outlet. The Watkins both have roots in Columbus, with Tina Watkins having growing up in New Hope and Bobby Watkins attending Caldwell High in his younger years. Tina Watkins got her first work experience working in daycare, while Bobby Watkins spent nearly 20 years working for the Winn Dixie grocery chain, learning priceless information about inventory and price control that helped him later in life. The Watkins had two gas stations prior to Watkins 45, one in West Point and another on Highway 12 across from where Lowe’s Home Improvement Center is located. It wasn’t until 1992 that the couple decided to invest in the location on Highway 45, known at the time as Billups Service Station.
Over the years, the Watkins said they’ve had more than their fair share of funny stories, including the time the price on the pumps was set wrong on Memorial Day 2008, shortly after the store had finished a remodel. As chronicled in a front page article of The Packet that week, employees at the shop had called Tina Watkins to learn how to adjust the prices on the pumps down a few cents to compete with Wal-Mart’s price cut. Tina Watkins was able to walk them through it over the phone, but the price ended up being keyed in as .38 cents per gallon, instead of $3.80, due to an error in decimal placement. The error wasn’t realized until Bobby Watkins was called in to help and he pulled up to the station and noticed a line of cars extending nearly 300 yards south towards the old Magnolia Bowl. Bobby Watkins said the situation was stressful at the time, but ended up helping the station in the long run.
“Whew, buddy, it was something to see,” Bobby Watkins said of the experience. “We lost thousands that day, but at least we didn’t have to have a big, fancy grand opening.”
Some of the memories aren’t so great. Bobby recalled a robbery a few years back that left his wife of 30 years battered and bruised.
“This fella came in the store, wearing a hat and all. He pulled out a big ol’ knife and threatened Tina – said he wanted all the money,” Bobby Watkins said. “Now, if you know Tina, you’ll know that that was mistake number one – she ain’t giving you no money.”
“She told him she wasn’t gonna give him the cash, he came around the counter and beat her something bad,” Bobby Watkins continued. “He even kicked her when she was on the ground. She was outta work for a month, it was horrible.”
Bobby Watkins said he never let on how much he was worried for his wife’s health and safety, but he did make a statement when he issued a bounty for the suspect’s capture. Roger Larsen, longtime publisher of The Packet, helped advertise Watkins’ $5,000 reward for the bandit. The wanted poster was printed in the paper and simply showed the hat the culprit was wearing during the robbery, and some information on the crime. The large reward had calls coming in from all over the area.
“Maaaaan, we got some calls,” Bobby Watkins said. “I even had a few mommas call me sayin’ their kid probably did it! That money got people talking, but we never did get the guy.”
Bobby Watkins said that he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon, and he will continue to operate his other businesses in the area, as well as tinker with his collection of hot rods.
Tina Watkins said that she hopes to travel more with her newfound free time, including spending more time with her daughter in Dallas as well as family in Alaska. Her grandmother, who is of 100 percent Eskimo heritage, lives in Kotzebue, Alaska, surrounded by her extended family. Tina Watkins plans on spending some significant time with her in the coming years.
“I love going up there, it so beautiful,” Tina Watkins said. “You can hunt big game, it’s just so beautiful there.”
Kotzebue is a small island in Northeast Alaska of about 27 square miles home to 3,200 residents, and it is in the Northwest Arctic Borough. Bobby Watkins said the area is very remote, accessible only by air most of the year and surrounded by wilderness.
“When you go hunting out there, you’re gonna need two folks,” said Bobby Watkins with a sly smile. “One to hunt and one to look out for the bears. You’re just part of the food chain up there.”
Sprint Mart will take over operations Monday morning, and Bobby Watkins said that the shop will be closed until about 10 a.m. that day while the new company does inventory. Watkins said all indications are that the company is going to keep nearly everything the same, including food specials and the extremely popular ethanol-free gas. He added that the customers are likely to see substantial drops in cigarette and beverage prices, as the new company has much larger buying power than his one store.
Bobby Watkins did make sure to mention that he looks forward to finding new ways to fill up his wife’s free time.
“She had a birthday a lil’ while ago – guess what I got her,” Watkins chuckled. “I got her a push lawn mower, the doctor said it’s really good for her arthritis! I’m fortunate she didn’t kill me, but I’m lucky to have her, real lucky.”