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One bp leader’s insights on innovation and the value of listening to people

Release date:
29 May 2024

Debi Boffa, CEO of TravelCenters of America, reflects on her 28-year bp career, safety, and digital disruption.

Debi Boffa, CEO of TravelCenters of America (TA), stands at a podium and speaks at a presentation

This story is part of a “Leadership Notes,” a series that spotlights bp executives and emerging leaders.


Debi Boffa became CEO of TravelCenters of America (TA) when bp acquired the company in 2023. TA's approximately 19,000 team members serve guests in over 300 locations across 44 states.


Boffa is a seasoned executive, with over 26 years of experience at bp. She has worked across many sectors, including engineering, retail, sales, marketing and operations. She most recently served as both president of bp’s Retail Operating Organization, and president of bp subsidiary Thorntons LLC, where she led the integration of bp’s ampm business with Thorntons while concurrently overseeing the operations of more than 1,200 convenience stores nationwide.

 

Boffa sits on the boards of Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) and the National Association of Truck Stop Owners (NATSO) and is a winner of the CStore News Top Women in Convenience Award.


Boffa was born and grew up in New Zealand and earned an engineering degree from the University of Canterbury.

Here’s an interview excerpt, condensed and edited for clarity: 

 

Q: You’ve been CEO of TA for about a year. How have you seen the trucking industry changing? What’s coming next?

A: Disruption is coming at us from all sides, at all times, in all parts of our business - big and small. And digital is playing a huge role in that. There is no industry that can ignore the advances in digital tech.

 

Take the current headwinds for the freight market here in the US, for example. They’re causing everyone to look at how they optimize operations and minimize costs. Data and digital is the key for that. The coming trend is linking into multiple data sources to optimize processes. That’s going to be really important. That’s going to affect everything from route selection to where we place our sites, to the fuel and non-fuel offerings we provide and how we operate our sites.

 

For us at TA, the question is: “How can we free up repetitive, low-value tasks so our team members can interact and provide that value add for guests?” We really are a home away from home for so many—from motorists to professional drivers, and that’s what we want our staff focusing on – giving guests that incredible experience while they’re on the road.

 

It comes down to this: our people are valuable; we want to use them in the most value-add way.

 

Q: What’s one way TA is delivering that “home away from home” experience?

A: There are so many, but here’s just one example. If you stop at TA, our promise to our guests is that it’s going to be safe, clean, and friendly. That’s a proof point for us. We want people to think about us in this way.

 

We’re working with ECOLAB – our sanitary chemical supplier – to deliver an ECOLAB Science certified seal of approval for showers and restrooms at our sites.  We've partnered with them for years and they provide us with hospital-grade cleaning agents. Their advanced science certified cleaning program will ensure our showers, restrooms, common areas, and convenience stores will deliver on our promise.

Debi Boffa has a site visit at a TravelCenters of America (TA) location

Q: bp acquired Thorntons in 2021, and then TA in 2023. From your experience, what are the similarities in the retail cultures of front-line workers in both organizations?

A: In my experience, successful retailers are ones that understand and appreciate the pain points of their guests and their team members. We have a saying: “the guest experience will never exceed the team member experience.” You’ve got to get both right.

 

It’s been a long time since I’ve worked in the store. I can come up with the best idea here at the support center, but it’s only going to work if it works for the team. I remember an operations academy training course that bp ran a long time ago. One of the key lessons that still sticks with me was this: when you’re writing procedures, you’ve got to have the front-line people in on it.

 

Work imagined is different than work done. You can imagine cleaning the filter on a fountain machine, or changing a tire on a truck —but until you’re seeing it, in the environment where that action is taking place, until you are there in the physical space, you won’t fully understand what you need to know. You really do need that front-line input.  

 

Q: How do bp’s Safety Leadership Principles play into TA’s work on safety?

A: We follow them all, but let me focus on just one of the five principles – "Understand how work actually happens.” It’s a really important lesson. Any time you have a question, the front line workers probably know the answer, nine times out of ten. It goes directly back to what I said before: Work imagined is different than work done.

 

I’ve got a family at home, and I want to know when I come to work – when I choose not to be the one dropping my kids off at school – that it’s because I’m making a difference at work and I’m going to be safe while I do it.

 

Safety isn’t something that gets done on the side of the desk – it happens as you go about your job. TA is the second business that bp has acquired that I’ve had the privilege to learn from and work alongside outstanding people who have joined bp. And bp has a legacy of developing its safety culture expertise. It’s something I am quite passionate about, asking “How can I help others be safer?”

 

Q: What’s your advice for rising leaders in the industry?

A: Listen to your guest and your team. Your team are the ones with the answers. As CEO, my job is to clear the way so they can be fantastic. Those at the front line can see and feel that disruption soonest and they experience it most intimately. Serve the guest or serve someone who does.