When you pull your rig over for diesel, chances are you’ll buy something else as well. Food, cigarettes, lotto tickets, whatever. Making other purchases along with fuel during one stop might seem ordinary and obvious, but guess what? Someone had to think it up.
That person was Tom Love, and his creation is what are now the nationwide Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores. He is the owner, founder and executive chairman. Now 81, he still oversees everything, and his empire is growing as fast as ever, closing in on 500 locations, while branching out to include tire and other auto and truck part sales, truck parking facilities, on-site hotels, and more.
The Love story is classic Americana, using hard work, vision, street smarts, a loyal family, and dedicated employees to build something out of nothing.
Starting out small
Even billionaires had to begin somewhere. For Tom Love, it was in a small western Oklahoma town in 1964.
“I had just gotten out of the service, was married, had two very small kids, and no job,” he said in an exclusive interview.
With a $5,000 stake provided by his wife Judy’s parents, Love found an abandoned filling station in Watonga. “I leased it on the cheap and that’s how we got started,” he said. “That location was not a Love’s store. It was just a very low-grade filling station.”
Over the next few years, Love would open more just like it. The best was yet to come, but not without a scare first.
“We had an Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s,” he recalled. “It made our model of filling stations very vulnerable. We couldn’t find fuel. It was really nip and tuck. The ’70s was an interesting decade because it was full of dangerous trends. [President] Nixon put on price and wage controls. The fuel business was frozen, with allocation rules.”
Love needed to find a new business model—and fast.
“One of the signal entrepreneurship moves that we made in our company history was discovering the small 24-hour food store,” he said. “Convenience stores at that time didn’t have fuel. So, we came up with an idea that if we married the two together, a small food store with gasoline, it might work. We also introduced self-service gasoline. We knew we’d found something. It was really a eureka moment.”
Personally pumping gas was one thing, but running food stores properly was quite another.
“I didn’t have any expertise at all; it was learn as you go,” said Love. “When we moved into small food stores, I had to find a guy who knew what he was doing. And I did. His name was Larry Dillard. He really put the organization structure together that let us grow the numbers and keep it under control.”
Love couldn’t open fuel and food stops fast enough. But he still kept his eye on industry trends, determined to never get complacent.
“We were extremely successful with our new model, particularly when you’re the only one in town,” he said. “In 1980 [President] Reagan decontrolled everything, and the big boys started piling into the kind of concept that we’d been building. That’s the time when we decided to get out on the interstate and introduced self-service truck fuel.”
Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores is headquartered in Oklahoma City, OK. The locations are in 41 states, employing more than 21,000 people. Love’s provides professional truck drivers and motorists with 24-hour access to clean and safe places to purchase gasoline, diesel fuel, travel items, electronics, snacks, and more as well as a selection of restaurant offerings. On-site Love’s Truck Tire Care centers offer roadside assistance, tire care, and light mechanical services for truckers.
Love’s remains family-owned and operated. Tom and Judy Love have been married for over 55 years, and they live in Oklahoma City. Judy is secretary of Love’s Travel Stops and president of Love’s Family Foundation. Three of their four children work for the company; Frank and Greg Love are co-CEOs, while Jennifer Love Meyer is vice president of communications.
Tom Love makes no bones about his wife’s affect on the business.
“When we began, it was just she and I,” he said. “And I don’t say this gratuitously. I really don’t, but it wouldn’t have happened without her. You gotta have that support. When we got married, I couldn’t even balance my own checkbook. She did all the books, all the payrolls, covered all the overdrafts. And it wasn’t just her confidence and trust in what I was doing or what we were doing. She really played a central role for a long time—and still does today.”
Having his children intimately involved at Love’s has eased the pressure for the patriarch, especially now that the company has expanded into other ventures. It has also made going public a moot point.
“It’s extremely gratifying to have them in the business, and what’s even better is we all get along,” he said with a smile.
Could they outvote him?
“They probably could,” he said, laughing. “They never have, but that challenge may be in front of me.”
The third generation of Love’s is at hand, on grandpa’s terms.
“Several months ago, one of my grandsons was graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in entrepreneurship and supply chain management,” said Love. “He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. I said, why don’t you learn how to drive a truck? Get your CDL. If you think you’re interested in coming to Love’s, you’ll get to know our most important customer from that side of the windshield.
“And he has done that. And he loves it. He was able to begin hauling loads solo recently. The first night the air conditioning [in the cab] went out on him. He’s learning a lot. Another grandson works for the company, and he’s with our sales group on the East Coast. He calls on truckers and fleets. So the third generation is creeping into the business, which is great.
“One of the things you can lose in a public offering is control, which is something we cherish. We’ve had people talk to us [about selling], but we’ve done a pretty good job on family succession.”
Love said expansion continues due to a change in the business model.
“It wasn’t too long ago that we thought we were running out of space,” he said. “We used to have a rule of thumb about the gap between stores being 100 miles, but that’s coming down to 50 or 60 miles because more trucks are on the road. We’re confident we can keep the growth trajectory of Love’s pretty dynamic for a long time.”
As for where the company decides to build, Love said that “we hear from customers where we are needed and wanted. Our real estate guys, the project managers, are out turning over rocks all day, every day looking for locations across the country.”
Interacting with truckers for over half a century has helped Love to make crucial business decisions.
“The trucker is our primary customer,” he said. “We do very well with the four-wheelers too, but the model is set up for the trucker. He has needs, and if you don’t meet them, you’re not going to capture him. You’ve gotta have enough room for him—and parking. Finding what’s really important to him and how we can create value has led to broadening us.
“First we bolted on sandwiches, then on quick-serve restaurants, then began to expand stores to build a trucker supplies section in stores,” he continued. “Now we can take care of not only tires but lubrication and light mechanical services. All that happened because customers wanted it and told us that.”
While he has cut down on travel, Love still enjoys visiting new locations to mix with employees, who no doubt are delighted to meet the legend in person.
“It’s pretty inspirational. It’s one of the neatest things to see the people who really do the work and get to know them a little bit,” said Love. “Every Monday morning, there are two airplanes that take off from Oklahoma City loaded with our operations people.
“They’re going in different directions and are out there all week. Frequently, there is a Love with them, which makes a big difference. My daughter Jennifer probably spends more time on business reviews than she does in the office. So the family touch kind of comes through.
“People still vote with their feet,” he continued. “If they’re not happy, they go somewhere else. We must be doing something right. It must be a pretty good place to work. I’m fond of doing new things to keep the atmosphere electric. I hope Love’s is someplace where people are proud to work. And I rarely hear towns having concerns after we open because we’re employing their citizens.”
Love never forgets his humble beginnings.
“I’d like to say that we had this planned back in 1964 when we opened that first filling station, but it would be a lie. I am definitely surprised to look up now and see what we’ve been able to accomplish as a team. To hang around for 50 years is prima facie evidence of an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. That I can guarantee you.”
Giving back to help the next generation
Tom and Judy Love began their travel stop enterprise with a $5,000 loan. Now, the founders of Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores are giving back to help other entrepreneurs achieve success.
The Tom and Judy Love Foundation recently gave a $5 million gift to the Michael F. Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma (OU). The funds will support several entrepreneurship programs, including the Tom Love Innovation Hub, which was formally dedicated May 3.
The center is designed to motivate and support entrepreneurs by giving them the resources they need to design, experiment and bring ideas to life.
“The Love family provides valuable opportunities for our students so they can build a better future for themselves and our state,” said OU president David L. Boren. “We are grateful for all Tom and Judy have done and continue to do for our community.”
Tom Love has never been afraid to try new things. He combined his fearlessness with an innovative approach to “highway hospitality” and turned a single filling station into an industry-leading business.
Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores always offered a product everyone needs—motor fuel. But Tom Love realized true growth would come from seeing opportunities others didn’t and turning them into reality. That’s why Love’s began offering food items, electronics, additional services for professional drivers, and even hotels on their properties.
Tom Wavering, executive director of the Tom Love Innovation Hub, said the Loves are role models for future entrepreneurs.
“We want to show our students they can achieve the same level of success as the Love family,” Wavering said. “Our facility gives them the tools and education they need to excel in a rapidly changing business environment.”
Along with the Tom Love Innovation Hub, the foundation’s gift will fund the Tom Love Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program, create the Tom Love Endowed Scholarship in Entrepreneurship, and support additional projects at the Tom Love Innovation Hub.
“Our company would not be where it is today without our entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to making a difference,” Love said. “I hope the investment from my family helps inspire Oklahoma’s next generation of bold innovators.”
- 1964: Tom and Judy Love incorporate Musket Corp., the predecessor to Love’s Country Stores, and lease an abandoned filling station in Watonga, OK, for $5,000.
- 1972: The first Love’s Country Store opens in Guymon, OK. The store combines a convenience store concept with self-service gasoline.
- 1978: Love’s Country Stores expands to 60 locations in small communities in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. In-store delis were added to make fresh sandwiches on-site.
- 1981: Love’s adds to its 90 existing Love’s Country Stores by opening its first interstate Love’s Travel Stop on I-40 in Amarillo, TX.
- 1985: Love’s adds a full range of gifts and novelties to its retail locations.
- 1992: Love’s debuts quick-service restaurants in its locations with a Taco Bell Express in an Oklahoma City travel stop.
- 1999: Love’s partners with Children’s Miracle Network to hold an annual in-store fundraiser. Over the next 19 years, Love’s will have raised more than $20 million for children’s medical research.
- 2008: Love’s debuts its Truck Tire Care concept, offering roadside assistance and tire care at select travel stop locations.
- 2010: Love’s acquires 20 Pilot Travel Centers and six Flying J locations as a result of antitrust concerns regarding the Pilot-Flying J merger.
- 2014: Love’s celebrates its 50th anniversary. Love’s hospitality debuts with the opening of a Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndam in Pecos, TX.
- 2015: Love’s launches a full-service tire inflation system called TirePass.
- 2016: Love’s acquires Trillium CNG, adding 37 CNG locations, and Love’s opens a record 47 new stores.
- 2017: Love’s enters into its 41st state (Montana) and acquires 52 Speedco locations.