Selling gasoline today is a business completely unlike it was 10, even five years ago. Old-fashioned service stations where uniformed attendants would fill your tank, check your oil, or wash your windows are largely the stuff of pop culture museums. They have been replaced by self-service, pay-at-the-pump convenience stores where, instead of getting a new pair of tires, we're more likely to grab some chips and a Diet Coke. The people who own these stations in the United States are changing, too, to include more women and nationalities than ever before.

It was in the face of this transformation, not to mention one of the most successful years in the company's history, that Chevron held its Marketers' Convention last November at the Walt Disney World Dolphin. With 4,000 attendees, it was the most heavily attended meeting in Chevron's history, because word was out that the company was going to do something that might radically affect the dealers' everyday business.

Unifying the Company The meeting's theme, "Facing the Future: Retailing the Chevron Way," marked a distinct break with the past. For the first time, the company's independent dealers, the stations that are directly supplied with gas by Chevron, and its jobbers, the retail outlets that supply the gas to Chevron (most of Chevron's distribution network), were brought together. Reorganizing this way broke decades of segregation between the two dealer classes.

"We felt we could bring them together as a group that was geographically sorted as opposed to trade class-sorted," says Dave Reeves, general manager of retail marketing. "One of our main goals [at the meeting] was to show we have a new attitude about how we want to conduct business with dealers and jobbers. We would like a much closer relationship. We acknowledge the choices they have as they go about deciding which brand they will fly at stations they own. Acknowledging that, treating them as customers, getting closer to them, and trying to add more value to their business [are ways] to retain their business into the future."

Instead of featuring a stream of senior officers droning on about their areas of operation, the meeting's opening session featured just Reeves. In his opening remarks, he told the group, "On the street corner, you are Chevron and you're all retailers. But what binds us together are the hallmark, our credit card, our gasoline, our store operation, and, most of all, how we treat our customers."

Within two weeks of this meeting, Exxon and Mobil announced their intention to merge, setting off alarms among their dealers. Chevron couldn't have chosen a better time to improve relations within its own network. "It's all timing in this business," says Al Sardelich, Chevron's coordinator of special events.

Custom Video Hits Home A key tool for unifying dealers and jobbers was a videotape the company produced of station operators from coast to coast. Chevron hired production company Jack Rouse Associates of Cincinnati. The company's team traveled 10,000 miles by van and showed up at stations to film without warning, armed only with a letter of introduction from Reeves. Eighty hours of videotape were reduced to 11 minutes for the meeting. Operators and their employees spoke openly--sometimes insightfully, sometimes comically--about their experiences on the job, their customers, and what it meant to sell Chevron products.

Not that Chevron hasn't used video before, but this was the first time Chevron allowed anything spontaneous. "In the past, we combed the dealer network to find the person who was doing everything absolutely right," says Bob Harness, vice president of Jack Rouse Associates. This time, "if the dealer got up that morning and didn't shave, wasn't wearing the right uniform top, didn't have the correct signage up, or was selling the wrong brand of cigarettes--we shot them anyway. Because they're doing a good job and we need them."

The video was narrated by country music star Charlie Daniels. "You are the fabric of America," Daniels said, "and Chevron, the brand, is you." The traveling theme was reinforced by a remarkable stage set of a rural highway disappearing into the horizon behind a Chevron billboard.

The Changing Face of Dealers The convention theme for the first time targeted women--as dealers, customers, and now, the new president of Chevron Products Co. In a video focused on the growing role of women within the network and as customers, a bemused woman dealer told this story: "I had some lady who needed oil in her car. I put it in, but she didn't believe me, so she came back the next day and had it double-checked."

Chevron takes on Orlando: host hotel, the Walt Disney World Dolphin Another female dealer nailed the customer service issue for her fellow operators: "You don't see the same people day in and day out unless you're doing something right!"

The convention's keynote speaker, trendseeker Faith Popcorn, confirmed the role of women in the workplace, marketplace, and boardroom with a stack of statistics that indicated her gender overwhelming men in business by sheer numbers. She also told a story about a client who showed how out of touch he was by calling her "Honey."

"Anybody who calls me 'Honey,'" she said, "goes into Chapter 11."

The women in the audience roared with laughter.

Reaction to Popcorn ran along gender lines. Several men interviewed just didn't "get" her; most women did.

Cementing the growing power and respect for women in the Chevron network was Patricia Woertz, who was named Chevron Products Co. president just weeks before the meeting. She is not only the first woman named to that high-ranking post at Chevron, but also the first in the oil industry.

"I couldn't have planned the timing (of her promotion) any better," Sardelich says.

On the Tech Edge Technology was another important meeting component, as the company introduced a new online project to connect its entire dealer network and take more paperwork out of the supplier/dealer relationship. Computer kiosks at the convention's trade show gave dealers the chance to test-drive the company's new intranet. And a duplicate monitor higher up allowed anyone who was timid about going online to watch from a step or two away.

Not everyone was thrilled by the intranet announcement, especially the smaller dealers who didn't own business computers or weren't yet on the Internet. Others, such as Ann and Donald Compton, jobber/dealers in Birmingham, Ala., were pleased with the way the concept was introduced this year--as opposed to years past, they said, "when some fellow in Chevron's corporate offices would say to the group, 'This will be a good idea for our stores,' when in reality, they'd never spent a day in a store."

At the foundation of the Chevron Marketers' Convention, which is held every other year, stands an eight-year partnership between the oil company and Jack Rouse Associates of Cincinnati. Rouse's representatives have acted as much as strategic advisers as meeting producers.

"They have become an integral part of everything we do," says Al Sardelich, Chevron's special events coordinator, who is retiring after 37 years and the production of 10 conventions in the last two decades. "They have learned our history and goals, where we're coming from, and what we want to present. They also follow our industry. And they'll sit with Dave Reeves [Chevron retail marketing general manager] or myself and have appropriate questions, because they have that knowledge.

"They always want to put forth a great product," he says. "They know how important this meeting is, and this is a long-term project for them."

Sardelich says he has also relied on the Rouse professionals to improve the public speaking skills of Chevron's younger executives. "One thing our company doesn't do well is take our young managers and teach them stage presence," he said. "They'll go from [speaking at] meetings of 12 people to 3,000 people and can't handle that." Rouse personnel "lifted everybody up to the next level," he says.