Kayla Brown has been working at the Pilot Flying J travel center on Watt Road for only two years, but Pilot Company has been a part of her life for much longer.
Her father, John, has worked at Pilot for 30 years, and Brown’s watched him support her, her mom, and two sisters for her entire life. So when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Brown decided it was time to give back.
“I love my dad, and I wanted to help him out,” Brown said. “But I fell in love with it, too.”
She is just one of the thousands of team members keeping travelers moving at truck stops across North America and a proud employee of Knoxville’s Top Workplaces winner.
Pilot is this year’s first-place winner in the large business category. It’s the fifth time the company has received the designation in the Knoxville area and the second time they’ve taken first place.
Top Workplaces 2022: See the full lists of Knoxville companies that made the cut
Team members come first
Founded in 1958, the oil and convenience store company employs nearly 2,500 people in the Knoxville area. According to Pilot, it has more than 28,000 employees across the U.S. and Canada and is the largest fuel supplier in North America, providing more than 14 billion gallons of fuel annually.
But Pilot is in the guest service business, and at the core of that business is its people, said Jamie Landis, the company’s vice president of team member experience. That “people first” culture starts with meeting the needs of Pilot team members in the field.
“We believe in this value chain: team, guests, financial. Take care of your team first, the team will then care for your guests and the financials will come,” Landis said.
Landis started reimagining the team member experience when she joined Pilot a year ago, and the company’s willingness to build and improve is part of what brought — and keeps — her there.
“What we’re doing, it’s just fun. It’s fun to improve the experience for our teams, and it’s exciting to be able to build and to have the alignment and support and backing of our leadership team,” Landis said.
A big part of reimagining that team experience meant getting out in the field, meeting team members like Brown, and asking them what they want, what they need, and what the company could do better.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re delivering the best team member experience to make sure that we’re able to recruit and ultimately retain the best of the best,” Landis said.
Top Workplaces small winner: Kramer Rayson builds workplace where employees ‘stick together’
Top Workplaces midsize winner: Pinnacle Financial Partners preserves culture through growth
Fueling and feeding employees
One way to improve the team member experience: rolling out fuel discounts.
Gas prices are soaring across the country, but Pilot team members pay 15 cents less per gallon every time they fill up.
“With the rising cost of and pressure on gas prices, we thought that was going to be a really good benefit per team member,” Paul Shore, the chief people officer at Pilot Company, said.
The fuel discount system started in April when Landis was speaking with a team member in the field. Pilot employees can fill up at any gas station and get the discount through an app on their phones.
Pilot’s in-the-field team members also receive complimentary meals. During each shift, team members get $10 to spend on food, which Landis says helps ensure employees aren’t working hungry.
“These are quick wins that… immediately meet the needs of our people while removing some of the boulders that get in the way of getting the job done,” Landis said.
But the company isn’t just focused on “quick wins” for its employees — it’s focused on long-term career paths and getting employees the resources and opportunities they need to reach their goals.
Fostering career pathways
Samantha King, a data and analytics strategy manager, knew she wanted to be a project manager long-term when she started at the company nine years ago. She’s stayed because Pilot has helped clear that path for her.
“Pilot has always been leaning in with me as far as my career path and journey and ensuring that I am where I have a desire to be, as well as where they have a need for me,” King said. “It’s been a working relationship on making sure that I’m able to follow my career path, desires and goals.”
King said Pilot gave her the time to get her project management professional certification, which can take weeks to achieve.
She’s not the only one thinking about her future in the company. Brown, a store co-manager, is also looking for her next opportunity.
“I just really can’t wait for the future and opportunity and growth. My five-year plan is definitely to be a district manager,” Brown said. “That’s definitely something that (I have a) passion for.”
To learn what she needs to be successful, Brown plans on attending Pellissippi State Community College and ultimately transferring to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to continue her education with help from Pilot’s tuition reimbursement program.
“I don’t think a lot of other places have your back. Pilot does. With the maternity leave and tuition reimbursement program, they just try to help people become better,” Brown said.
Brown is 21 weeks pregnant, so she’ll be taking advantage of the six weeks paid parental leave policy later this year. Meanwhile, King just got back from having a child, and as she’s balancing being a first-time mom and a career shift that happened right before she went on leave, she values her company even more.
“Pilot has definitely leaned into that as much as I can lean into that and allowed me the space to be a mother,” King said.
It goes back to that team first — and King would say family first — culture that Shore says is crucial to success and one of the main priorities of CEO Shameek Konar when he started in 2021.
“The guest experience will never exceed a team member experience,” Shore said. “That made us really think about if we were doing everything that we should be doing, need to be doing, to support that team member.”
Second place: United Cleanup Oak Ridge LLC
Although the Manhattan Project took place 80 years ago, Oak Ridge still feels its impacts today. For one, there’s environmental cleanup work that needs to be done, and that’s where United Cleanup Oak Ridge comes in.
Today, with 2,041 employees in the Knoxville area, UCOR is cleaning up project-era facilities at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex, as well as remediating soil at East Tennessee Technology Park. While this sounds like complicated work — and it is — the company maintains a “culture of caring” through children’s advocacy work and workforce development.
While multiple employees cited the meaningful work that takes place at UCOR, the community impact is just as important.
“I am proud of what I do,” one employee said in a Top Workplaces survey. “And I know I am making a difference.”
Third place: First Horizon
When it comes to banks, they don’t get much bigger than First Horizon — at least in Tennessee. As the largest bank headquartered in the Volunteer State, the business has been making a financial impact since it was founded during the Civil War, now with a “secret weapon” called Firstpower.
That’s the name First Horizon gives to its unique culture — a culture that’s constantly evolving as the bank continues to grow. First Horizon has 8,555 employees in the United States, and multiple employees said the company’s strong values contribute to a satisfactory work environment.
“I feel like management cares about me as a person,” one employee said in a Top Workplaces survey. “The company as a whole feels this way about our customers, and its shows in how we do business.”
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Top Workplaces: Pilot Flying J fuels Knoxville area employees