The Way We Were: Hugh Howton

The Way We Were: Hugh Howton
Jane and Hugh Howton at a National Association of Convenience Stores convention

Hugh Howton has two and a half bathrooms in his Ortega Forest home. What may seem to be an insignificant bit of information has great significance to a man who didn’t have a bathroom in his home until he was eight years old.

“It was during the depression,” Howton explained. “My dad worked as an iron ore miner in Alabama and we lived in a mining camp. Later he left the mines and we moved to West End, a suburb of Birmingham.”

U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy

Howton graduated from West End High School and went to one year of Massey Business College. “I couldn’t afford to go to college,” he said, however, this enterprising lad sacked popcorn for 10 cents an hour at age 14, then ushered at the local theater and worked at Holiday (Baker’s) Shoes part-time during high school.

In 1948 he was an enlisted man in the Navy and served 13 months active duty in Birmingham; then, after being turned down for flight school for medical reasons, was accepted into Officer Candidate School.

The Korean War extended his service for one more year but Howton’s diligence and work ethic paid off in a big way when he got involved in organizing the Thursday evening dances at the YWCA.

As chance, or fate, would have it, the sales manager of U.S. Steel at the time was on the Board of Directors of the YMCA in Birmingham. “Through my success in organizing the dances he got to know me and I was selected to attend the U.S. Steel management course – a 52-week school. I got $392.50 a month,” said Howton. “There were 13 men in the group and I was the only non-college graduate but I graduated No. 2 in the class and was promoted to salesman in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1953. I covered Louisiana and Mississippi.”

It was in Hattiesburg that he met his future wife, Jane Baker. “Three different couples tried to introduce us. Each one wanted the privilege of being the ones who claimed the introduction. She was at Old Miss, but had gone to New York for about a year,” Howton said. “I liked her the first time I saw her and three months after we met we were engaged.”

The couple married in New Orleans, Jan. 21, 1956, and took a trip to Panama City, stopping along the Gulf Coast to honeymoon. Now 61 years later, Howton is quick to recognize his wife as being a supportive partner. “She was always pushing me, waiting when I got home and supporting my business ventures.”

A promotion to Senior Sales with U.S. Steel brought the family to Jacksonville in 1959, where they lived in San Marco. Then, the young couple lived in Hattiesburg until Howton was transferred to Shreveport, Louisiana. He said that he got to know a customer’s brother who had a convenience store a few blocks from his house and this, with backing from “one of my millionaire customers,” led to him opening a store in New Orleans, then another.

“In one month we had five Pik-a-Pak Stores!” he said. “Wiley Fairchild of the WR Fairchild Construction Company said if I would quit U.S. Steel, where I was making $15,000 a year, and move to New Orleans to open more stores he would guarantee me $20,000 a year for five years.” Howton left U.S. Steel in 1961 for the convenience store industry.

Older brother, Milton (seated), Hugh Howton

Older brother, Milton (seated), Hugh Howton

“In October of 1961 I met with 7-Eleven and the big boys to learn about the business and then had 14 stores and two under construction when I sold my interest to Li’l General Stores in 1963,” Howton said. “I became president of Pik-a-Pak in Hattiesburg, then Quick Stop in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I sold my interest in those stores in 1966. Pik-a-Pak stores are now known as Circle K Convenience Stores. That was before they had gas pumps at convenience stores but we put in two. Today, 80-plus percent of all retail gas sold is in convenience stores,” he said.

Howton related that he was semi-retired for a while – at age 40 – and played golf every day for two years. In another inspired move he bought a place called Burger Town in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.                   

“Hattiesburg is just a fine, beautiful little city. Burger Town was right across the street from University of Southern Mississippi,” he recalled. “It was a cross between MacDonald’s and Burger King but also sold Po’ Boys (sandwiches).”

In the first of many offices to come Howton was elected president of the National Association of Convenience Stores and “dabbled” in that for a while. He modestly stated that “it was just one of those things that happened.”

By 1971 the Howtons had three children: Leigh was born in 1960, Joseph in 1969 and Hope in 1970.

1971 was a pivotal year for the Howtons since Hugh’s friendship with Tom Bruner inspired a move back to Jacksonville so the two businessmen could open Bell Wholesale Tire Company. “Then I bought Southern Piston Rings on Davis and Houston Streets – down in Jacksonville’s old Red Light District. We sold automotive parts and did engine rebuilding,” he said.

Also in 1971 Howton was asked to be a fourth in a golf game with Rear Admiral Larry Geis, which led to his involvement in the Navy League, serving as president of the Navy League Jacksonville Council, state president of the Navy League and also served on numerous other state and local boards.

He was president of the USO’s Local Council, then became Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army in Florida and was awarded a courtesy rank of three-star general. As part of educational experiences for civilians, Howton organized visits for 215 executives to go 15 at a time to view fighter plane mid-air refueling, and arranged for 450 civilians to spend the night on an aircraft carrier.

After being invited by Gov. Bob Graham to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee he was appointed Chairman of Military Affairs Committee and served from 1977 to 1997.

Jane and Hugh Howton, Jan. 21, 1956 wedding

Jane and Hugh Howton, Jan. 21, 1956 wedding

In 1983 Howton formed National Advisory Group (NAG), an association for convenience store retailers. His daughter Hope worked as an administrative assistant and son Joseph was executive vice president until Howton sold the company in 2005.

He explained that in 1983 they had nine members and 200 associate members. They held 40 conventions six months apart in 27 different cities. The goal of the organization, said Howton, was “to bring upper management people together to solve problems, learn new ways of doing business, connect store owners with retailers, learn about new products and labor laws.”

“Robin Springer and his son John, the former pianist at Timuquana Yacht Club, traveled with us for 17 years to play; we had an open bar; we did everything first class,” he said. “People made contacts, developed relationships. It was for upper management and their families. It was personal and brought people together.”

The organization is now in its 35th year and, although considerably larger, still adheres to the goals of its founder for the development of personal relationships for all members and fills the niche for small and midsized convenience and petroleum store chains. 

Howton credits his business model of personal connections as instrumental in his success. “I have met many nice, successful people through playing golf and enjoy the friendship of many people I’ve met over the years,” he said. “If you couldn’t answer your telephone you could not be on my payroll. Being personal – that has kept my organization going.” 

Daughter Leigh Philips said, “My family and I are so proud of him. I’d like to think that I aspire to his hunger for success but, thanks to him, I didn’t have to grow up that way (in poverty). At a young age he was determined to change his future and so he did. He had an insatiable drive to get out of where he was.”

Dr. Cal Hudson is a neighbor and longtime friend. “He is so attentive to details, so dependable,” said Hudson. “A real self-made man – very successful and one of the nicest guys.”

Howton has been totally involved with community life in Jacksonville as a member of Timuquana Country Club, the Florida Yacht Club and as a member of both St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and the Meninak Club for 46 years. 

After recent knee surgery and rehabilitation, Howton is now looking forward to celebrating his 89th birthday on Sept. 23 with Jane and his close family: Leigh and Mike Philips, Hope and John Eller, Joseph and Robin Howton, and grandchildren Peyton Philips, Ashley, Anderson and Baker Eller, and Harper and Harlee Howton.

Howton is anticipating socializing with friends, and attending his Third Friday Luncheon Group. After all, he is retired now – or so he claims.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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