Though most entrepreneurs start brand-new businesses, there’s room in the definition of “entrepreneur” for people who buy into an existing small business and help it realize its potential.
In that expanded sense, Dan O’Neill of North Platte can rightly be called an entrepreneur.
He had worked for 14 years — the first nine of them in North Platte — for Kearney-based Cash-Wa Distributing Co. when the late Paul Trumble and his wife, Jacque, invited him in 1996 to join their Kwik Stop convenience-store chain.
It’s doubled in size and scope since then, reaching from the Panhandle to east central Nebraska and standing out for its 24-hour service and enhanced product lines and services in its smaller communities.
“I want to make sure credit is given where credit is due,” said O’Neill, 60, president and CEO of the 24-store chain. “I’ve been very, very blessed and fortunate to have good people.”
He especially cites his comptroller, Connie Breach, who joined Kwik Stop a few months after O’Neill; corporate office manager Sharilyn Prokop, who came in 2000; and accounting veteran Loretta Harris, who arrived a year after that.
O’Neill and his wife, Judy, own 16 Kwik Stop locations, while the Trumble family owns the other eight. Corporate offices are next to the Trumbles’ original store at South Jeffers and B streets.
About 180 people work for the company in Nebraska and Colorado, O’Neill said, one-third of them located at Kwik Stop headquarters or the chain’s six North Platte stores.
It’s easy to trace O’Neill’s interest in the retail grocery business. He and the rest of Sam and Margaret O’Neill’s seven children grew up working alongside their parents at the former Sam’s Market in Sumner, half an hour northeast of Lexington.
“Mainly, I worked in the meat department with my dad,” he said. “We used to cut up a lot of meat back then.”
The elder O’Neills, who owned their store from 1952 to 1988, sent all their children to Kearney State College, the future University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“But Saturday was a big day at the store, so we’d drive back Saturdays from Kearney and cut meat in the store,” said Dan, a December 1981 graduate.
He joined Cash-Wa as a delivery-truck driver while taking his last two night classes at KSC. He moved up in May 1982 to a full-time sales job, which required his first move to North Platte.
When a district sales manager’s job opened in 1991, O’Neill transferred to Cash-Wa’s Kearney headquarters. “But I missed North Platte. I really did.”
He didn’t lose touch, however, because Cash-Wa asked him to keep serving his North Platte clients. One of them was Paul Trumble, who had founded Kwik Stop with his wife in 1974.
After five years in Kearney, O’Neill went out to dinner with Trumble during one of his North Platte visits. “He asked if I would be interested in coming to work for him and he would allow me to buy into the business. He wanted to build some more stores. ...
“It was a leap of faith. But if I was going into business for myself, that was the time to do it.”
O’Neill came aboard as director of operations, rising to president in 2000. Paul Trumble, who died in 2016, kept his co-ownership promise when he semi-retired in 2006.
“I always considered him my boss,” O’Neill said.
Kwik Stop, which had 11 stores in 1996, sold its Lexington and Broken Bow stores during O’Neill’s first years. The chain now stretches from the western Panhandle to northeast of Grand Island, while also dipping into northeast Colorado at Holyoke.
O’Neill said he prefers to operate in cities with less than 50,000 people. “We’ve had some opportunities in Grand Island. There are places for sale all over. I just don’t have any desire to be in those places. They present a whole different set of challenges.”
If customers should happen to visit different Kwik Stops across western and central Nebraska, they’ll notice they’re not exactly cookie-cutter — particularly in the chain’s smaller towns.
That’s where customers will find fresh pizza, fried chicken and deli sandwiches in addition to grocery staples and the snack and personal items motorists expect to find. The smaller Kwik Stops used to rent movies as well, O’Neill said.
“In our rural communities, we try to be the hub of the community,” he said. “I think my roots help me identify with those stores.”
O’Neill also makes it a point to support the community institutions, festivals and other services that fuel the pulse of life in the towns Kwik Stop serves.
“I think a business has an ethical responsibility to give back to the community,” he said. “There are some (institutions) that won’t stand on their own. The arts are a big example.”
No matter the size of the market, O’Neill takes pride in Kwik Stop’s coffee brewed from 100% Arabica beans. “We don’t have as much smoke and mirrors” as major coffee chains, he said. “But it’s pretty good.”
Most notably, not one Kwik Stop ever closes — a choice O’Neill considers a more secure one, even in the wee hours.
“People say, ‘Why would you be open 24-7?’” he said. “Most of the (criminal) incidents happen when people lock up their doors and leave. People know we’re always open.”
To O’Neill, the best tips on successful entrepreneurship are the old-fashioned ones he learned from his parents and at Cash-Wa.
“Just concentrate on your own locations, being aware of the competition but not dwelling on it,” he said. “Don’t dwell on things that you cannot control.
“And regarding employees — which everyone complains about — appreciate your good ones.”