Sharan Kalva of C-Store Master: “Many think that bringing robots into a warehouse can replace human jobs”

Many think that bringing robots into a warehouse can replace human jobs. That is not the case. We’re actually able to hire more employees to work with the robots and complete the orders since the process is five times more efficient. Installing the robots at the warehouse will also make it easier for our company […]

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Many think that bringing robots into a warehouse can replace human jobs. That is not the case. We’re actually able to hire more employees to work with the robots and complete the orders since the process is five times more efficient. Installing the robots at the warehouse will also make it easier for our company to expand in the future.

As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharan Kalva.

Sharan Kalva is the chief operating officer for C-Store Master, a national distributor of convenience store merchandise specializing in tobacco and alternative nicotine products. C-Store Master is a leader in scan-based trade sales, utilizing proprietary software and technology. Based in Huntsville, Ala. — a pioneering city in aerospace defense and biotech — C-Store Master services 2,800+ independent convenience stores and 6,000+ chain stores in 26 states.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

C-Store Master is a family-owned-and-operated company. When my father Satish and his business partner Sandy had the idea for the company, I was studying industrial engineering at Auburn University. I always had an interest in entrepreneurship. When I got the opportunity to get involved with the family business on day one, that was a unique opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I knew I wanted to solve problems in my career and that was the focus of the company — solving the problem of North Alabama convenience stores’ distribution needs.

In the beginning, our ambition for the company was small. We envisioned solving the issue of product availability for about 100 stores, some that we owned and the others owned by our friends.

After I graduated, I worked at Stryker in global supply chain but remained as connected with C-Store Master as I could. I would often join in on calls after I got out of work. Our leadership at C-Store Master quickly realized that there was opportunity for growth in the region and in this segment. Instead of servicing only 100 stores — mainly owned by family and friends — we could expand outside of the area into other customer verticals and even other regions of the country.

When I had an opportunity to leave Stryker, I knew it was time to focus all of my energy on the family business and help it grow to the next level. I refused a really great job with a lot of travel opportunities to go to a company that was doing okay but not great just yet.

Since then, we’ve been able to innovate in a way that helps us be a stand-out distributor in our category and provide technological capabilities our competitors cannot offer. A primary catalyst to this growth was when our team embraced technology.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Imagine being stuck with a pallet of fidget spinners. That was our funniest mistake. A couple of years ago, fidget spinners were the most in-demand novelty item. We were selling a large quantity of them, but one day the demand was not there anymore and we were stuck with a whole pallet of them. The lesson learned was to not stock up on seasonal novelty items and order frequently and have lean inventory.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Karuna and PK were C-Store Master’s first full-time employees. They have been with us from day one and have helped get the company where we are today. They were actually full-time employees before me. They treat the business like their own.

Karuna and PK have both worked six days a week since the beginning. Now we have to tell them both they don’t have to come in on Saturdays anymore because we have a larger staff that can help accommodate the rapid growth. Most times, they still show up for the Saturday shift because they’re both so passionate about their roles and the company’s success. I admire their drive for our company.

Another great mentor that stands out is my manager at Stryker, Stacey. She put an emphasis on people and the relationship aspect of work, a stark contrast to the recently graduated engineer mindset I had. This helped me understand how to communicate, connect with people in a work setting and influence — all essential facets of running a company.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight was a great read to learn about the start of Nike, and it really helped me understand the mentality of growing a business and how to overcome challenges. You can join a company to make money but you really stay with it because it’s a passion.

Entrepreneurship is such a thrilling ride. You get to see a lot of people make mistakes, but you also get to see the great success after they learn from those mistakes.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

When we first started, we believed there was a lack of distribution services for convenience stores in our area. The mission has always been to take care of our customers with service unlike any other and cater to whatever they needed.

In the beginning, we knew our customers and what they needed. Along the way, we received calls from customers asking if we could expand our deliveries to additional stores or to their friends’ stores. We saw that when we took care of our existing customers, we could organically grow our customer base.

We started slowly expanding to those additional stores. Before we knew it, we had quickly grown our original 100 stores to 600 stores. When we had the opportunity to purchase a beverage company, we ended up losing our vision a little.

We had to internally realign to get back to basics and think the next step through. During this process, we decided to build a new warehouse that could house both companies so we could properly scale. Stepping back to make this decision and hone in on our strategy allowed us to grow the business to where it is today.

Your company’s mission, values and vision are not a one-time thing. You should continually check to see how you measure up against what you created on day one. If you’re not, you must reconvene with your leadership to ensure your vision fits where the company is now.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Supply chain is evolving. Right now, we’re able to ship to a lot of different places so we can expand to new states. To do this most efficiently, we decided to invest in robotic solutions in our new state-of-the-art 130,000 sq. ft. warehouse. Through this partnership with Geek+, we’re able to give our customers the most efficient and best distribution possible.

This robotic system will help us serve more customers, make sure we’re aligned on our current inventory and help us grow as we’re completely out of space in our existing warehouse. We can get more diverse products to more locations, and in turn, serve more customers using this technology.

Building and investing in the new warehouse shows our commitment to our mission and values. We are really one of the only companies of our size investing this amount of money to make this new robotic system happen.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

For C-Store Master, digital transformation is investing in robotics solutions to expand the capabilities of our proprietary software.

A person manually picking one item for an order then walking across the warehouse to grab the next item in the order is very inefficient. Through the robotic solution, we’re able to pick 16 orders at once.

Many think that bringing robots into a warehouse can replace human jobs. That is not the case. We’re actually able to hire more employees to work with the robots and complete the orders since the process is five times more efficient. Installing the robots at the warehouse will also make it easier for our company to expand in the future.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Any company with supply chain needs or distributes products will benefit from digital transformation, especially through the use of robots. It’s also the right time for this technology. It’s easy to set up and pretty cost-effective too.

Investing in software and processes is a way to digitally transform your company even without a robotic solution. Getting a handle on e-commerce can set your company up for success.

This solution can also be helpful for companies that may have issues with staffing if they’re able to automate their process with robotic help.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

A brand came to us to distribute in certain areas. What they didn’t realize was there is a big gap in areas where distribution is not possible due to the current infrastructure. We offered to build that infrastructure to help this brand not only ship in those certain areas but across the country.

With our software and processes, we have the ability to ship all over the country. This is something our competitors are not able to do. We’ve helped the company achieve democratization of distribution. They don’t have to depend on 10 distributors. Instead, they can work with just C-Store Master to ship, fulfill and help grow their business by embracing e-commerce and online fulfillment.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

Tying into the last question, we’re putting in the effort to set up our supply chain so brands and other companies can take advantage of it. If clients aren’t able to invest in all of the efforts, we’re here to help them do that and achieve their goals.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Take advantage of e-commerce so you can cater to a wider audience not bound by a certain geography. Through digital transformation, you can serve more businesses/clients, no matter where they live.
  2. Improve your operational efficiency. We are implementing machine learning so that our software recognizes when to increase and reduce inventory by analyzing customer trends, weather and new products in the category and seasonality. This will drastically help.
  3. Data is gold. A huge part of digital transformation is to make sure all available data is being properly utilized to better understand every aspect of the business.
  4. Beat workforce constraints. You can find a few great employees, but finding hundreds of great employees can be difficult. We will be leaning on the robotic technology to supplement our exceptional existing employee base to expand the company.
  5. With new software, companies can carry a greater selection of products and get it to the customers faster than ever, offering better customer service.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

Great processes won’t be created in one big change but instead many small changes. Continuous improvement is key to instilling that culture of innovation to see how we can make the business even better.

Also, no solution is great right out of the box. We live by the mindset that those constant improvements can help the solution become even better than we initially thought possible.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s definitely easy to think about the next steps, next job and next opportunity instead of giving it your all in what you are currently doing. This was my mentality when I graduated and started working. The moment I understood this quote was the moment I have found the most success.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn to learn more about what we have coming up for C-Store Master.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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