The Story of Josh Flickner (Elger Bay Grocery and Gifts)

Jun 29, 2023

American Dream Achieved

IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability.  In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories.  It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The Story of Josh Flickner (Elger Bay Grocery and Gifts)

By Nesha Ruther

From a young age, Josh Flickner had entrepreneurial ambitions. His parents owned Elger Bay Grocery and Gifts, a gas station, restaurant and general merchandise store in Washington State, which they opened in 1992. Josh worked at the store from a young age, and while he cared deeply for its success, his ambitions were much larger than that of a single store. “I remember working for my dad at 17 as the cashier. He would talk about how someday I would take over the business, and I said to him, ‘Dad, I have bigger dreams. I want to take over the business, but I also want to have six Elger Bays,” he says.

Josh’s father encouraged his ambitions by teaching him how to run the business. “My dad had a very high standard for me and my work. If I was told to go sweep the sidewalk and I missed a cigarette butt, he would point it out and I’d have to go back and re-sweep the whole thing again. I’m appreciative of that work ethic he instilled in me,” Josh recalls.

Under his father’s mentorship, Josh learned that owning a business was hard work, and doesn’t mean being able to do whatever you want. “I remember when I was eight, I was stocking candy bars and decided to open one and eat it. My dad was like, ‘You’re stealing from the company.’ I said, ‘But we own it, I don’t understand.’ He had to teach me that just because you own the business does not mean you get to take whatever you want whenever you want. You pay for it somehow, some way.”

“My father always told me ‘Watch your pennies closely and the dollars will count themselves,’ That lesson was very vivid to me, and without it, I would not be where I am today,” Josh says.

These lessons impacted Josh, and he and his wife purchased Elger Bay from his parents when they retired in 2016. While Josh had previously run smaller side businesses, Elger Bay was his first large purchase as an entrepreneur. Not only was it a big step in his own career, but it was a necessity for his family.

“The purchase happened at a time when it was needed to save the family business,” he says. Acquiring the store did not come without sacrifice, At the time, Josh was living in Leavenworth, a nearly three-hour drive from where the store was located on Camano Island. “I worked a firefighter’s schedule where I would go to the store, stay in a rental house on the property for a couple of nights, and then go home and do it all again for the next week.”

It took two years of this schedule, with Josh away and his wife taking care of their kids at home, for Josh to get the store to a place where it could run without his regular supervision. “My general manager and the rest of my management team were crucial [to accomplishing this],” he says. “It speaks to how trusted and talented my management team was. To be a long-distance owner of a multi-million-dollar business and hardly ever have to be on-site was pretty awesome.”

While much of the knowledge of running a business came from his parents, Josh also learned to develop his own entrepreneurial style through the other enterprises he had grown and cultivated. “My father was very much of the mindset that since labor is the biggest line item, every hour he could run the cash register was money in his pocket. This is not untrue mathematically, but I realized that if I can make, for example, $30 an hour with my time, doesn’t it make more sense to pay someone else that minimum wage?”

“I feel like that approach is better because it’s more money for me and I’m giving someone else a job, everyone’s winning. The day I realized that was when I really embarked on trying to think bigger with my time and abilities,” he says.

For Josh, being a business owner is not simply an occupation, but a calling. A serial entrepreneur, Josh loves the process of establishing a business and building it to a point of self-sufficiency. Now married for 17 years and with nine children, Josh appreciates how entrepreneurship gave him freedom and creativity, while still allowing him to provide for his family. “I always pictured myself as somebody who would just keep starting businesses, get them to a self-sustaining point, have a team of people running them, and move on to start another endeavor,” he says.

Josh finds meaning in being able to create jobs in which others can succeed. “I believe that the Lord has given me the talents, experience, and abilities to make jobs for other people,” he says. “I’ve had opportunities to make more money working for other people, but in my conscience, I was not okay with that. I’m not an entrepreneur to make more money. It’s not even the fulfillment, flexibility, and freedom. I love being able to bless other people through my businesses. It’s more of a duty, a happy duty.”

Josh’s experience running business ventures spans across industries—many of which have had nothing to do with general stores. “I absolutely believe that the skills and experience I have translates into other industries. There are probably a plethora of other industries I’ve never even put my hand in that I would be at least moderately successful in because the core principles are the same.”

One example of a universal truth of business is the simple power of a clean, tidy, and accessible bathroom. “I learned one of the easiest ways to set yourself apart from the competition in our area is by having clean bathrooms that don’t have signs that make people feel guilty for peeing,” Josh says. “It sounds funny, but in Puget Sound, you have to pay to use the bathroom at many gas stations. We put a sign on the road that advertised clean, public restrooms. It was super successful because we would have people who would come in and thank us repeatedly,” Josh says.

One such customer stopped to use the bathrooms and went on her way. However, she returned a few days later, and to say thank you bought $200 worth of gifts and fishing gear. “She told me, ‘I didn’t buy anything, but your bathroom was so clean, and it was such a relief to not have that guilt trip. I’m here now and I’m spending all this money because of that.’”

Another setting Josh later applied this lesson was not in the convenience store industry, but when working a contracting gig for the City of Leavenworth operating their large downtown event center. “Leavenworth, Washington is a very popular destination. They get massive numbers of guests year-round, and their Christmas lights alone would get millions of visitors throughout the whole month of December,” Josh explains.

“They would have these huge lines at every restaurant and downtown bathroom. It’s just nasty and miserable. Meanwhile, they had an event center that has 30-bathroom stalls per gender and is just sitting there locked up and empty. I pitched using it to the city, and my staff provided janitorial services. There was no charge for people to come in and use the bathroom. What was really cool was we got multiple wedding bookings for the venue from tourists who are like ‘Thanks for letting me use the bathroom. Wait, this is a beautiful space, could my daughter get married here?’ The profit on those rental contracts more than covered the janitorial costs for the whole month”

Another general principle is the need for quality employees. “There is nothing more important than having the right people,” Josh says. “You can have the best systems in the world, but if you don’t have the right people to pilot it, it doesn’t matter.

Josh recognizes, however, that to have strong employees, there needs to be strong leadership. “It’s a two-way street. You have to empower [employees], you can’t micro-manage them. I struggled with that for many years, so it was a learning curve for me as well. Learning where I need to hold tight, and where I need to be hands-off and say, ‘Have at it. Here’s your budget, and here are my goals however you want to accomplish them. I trust you.’ Some of the biggest home runs in my career have not been my ideas, they’ve been from people in the company taking ownership and running the business like it’s their own.”

Josh understood something many business owners are unaware of, to empower employees, they must have a firm understanding of their role as the boss. “I see my role as asking the questions needed to help employees flesh out their ideas so they can succeed. Ultimately, I’m still hands-off, but I’m filtering the project so it can be as good as possible. I’m asking, ‘Have you thought about the worst-case scenario, what are we going to do if this happens?’ I am challenging them to answer those questions and solve those problems,” he says. “The beauty of that approach is that there is less hand-holding, less safety net needed later on because I have prepared them up front.”

While some principles of business are universal, some elements remain unique to the industry. One factor that contributed to Josh’s success at Elger Bay was his ability to make the store an appealing stop for tourists and locals alike. “The conventional wisdom is don’t try to be all things to all people, and I think in many situations that is certainly true, but we set out to challenge that in the convenience store space,” he says.

The Elger Bay store was located at the entry point to Camano Island. Josh used the location to his advantage by making sure the store was stocked with anything anyone would need, either for a vacation to Camano or for the drive back to Seattle. “We tried to be that one-stop-shop so that by the time people got out to us, there’s nothing they could have forgotten that we didn’t have. Whether it was for boating, camping, staying at their summer home, etc. It was very successful and really helped endear the community to us,” he says.

One such customer lived in the area but worked at Boeing in Everett. The drive from Elger Bay to Everett was around 45 minutes. “He lived North of the store, so he never technically had to come to us,” Josh says. “Yet every evening he would come to our store like clockwork. He would get his pack of cigarettes, some beer, maybe a head of lettuce for dinner, or whatever it was that his wife needed. But here’s the thing, there were dozens of stores between his work and home, but he would drive past all those stores every day, drive past his house, go to our store to shop, and then drive back to his house. Where in our society are people going out of their way to stop at a specific convenience store? That just doesn’t happen.”

By making every effort to treat customers like family and ensuring the store was stocked with their needs, Elger Bay elicited a kind of customer loyalty that is rare in today’s world of fast-paced, instant gratification. “Everyone on my staff, not just me, would know customers by name. We knew what their preferences were, we knew about their family and their work. This gentleman in particular knew we always had his favorite stuff, and he could count on us, so he didn’t have to stop at those other stores,” Josh explains.

This sense of community and small-town intimacy is not only what drew people to the store, but to living and vacationing on Camano Island. By making Elger Bay the physical embodiment of what people loved about the community at large, Josh was able to build the store into something bigger than itself.

This kind of general store, that extends beyond the basics of a convenience store, was also something the Puget Sound area notoriously lacked. “Brands like Wawa, Kwik Trip, Cumberland Farms, people in the rest of the country might take these for granted,” Josh says. “But they don’t exist here in Puget Sound, there is nothing like that.”

Josh drew inspiration from the way that gas stations on the East Coast and Midwest were not simply gas stations, but easy-to-access carriers of the staples for everyday life. “These operations are very high-quality in terms of their food, their service, the cleanliness. We tried to emulate that as a little mom-and-pop single store. I was aiming to be similar to them in every way we could.”

Part of what makes Josh such a skilled entrepreneur is his ability to identify areas in which customer needs are not being met. Where others might simply see a fault, Josh sees an opportunity. “I see potential that others don’t,” he says. “I see potential in people, I see potential in systems to be better. I see potential in businesses. I am constantly going into any retail or service business, and I can’t help but examine and analyze the business to see what can be done differently or better.”

In 2020, Josh decided to move his family to Idaho to pursue new business ventures outside of Washington State. “The timing was good to find a new owner. There was potential for them to enhance the value [of the business] and it was a profitable time for me to exit. Between my family, wanting to move out of Washington, and the timing from an investment standpoint, it seemed a really good decision,” he says.

Josh reached out to IBA to facilitate the sale of Elger Bay Grocery & Gifts. “The process was great. There was so much that Oliver at IBA did, it was honestly a lot less work than I was prepared for. It speaks to how great their team is. [IBA] is well worth the money,” he says.

For business owners looking to sell, Josh recommends finding someone who will truly listen to them and support them, even in difficult moments. “The thing I appreciated most [about IBA] was their willingness to listen to me vent at points where I was frustrated and take that with a grain of salt. It was great to have somebody who could talk me down off that ledge without making me feel stupid or wrong for being concerned,” he says. “Oliver constantly said, ‘I understand where you’re coming from,’ or ‘Hey, you’re misunderstanding this.’ He challenged me and when I was wrong, he would push back while still helping me through it.”

Since moving to Idaho, Josh has begun developing multiple other businesses. One thing to note about Josh is that he is incredibly humble. Getting him to toot his own horn is a little like pulling teeth. However, he tentatively admits that the decision to sell has proven to be beneficial for his other ventures. “I’m having opportunities come to me that are only there because I’ve exited a multi-million-dollar business,” he says.

While Josh never intended to sell his business, the ability to build up his family business, make it successful, and exit it profitably is not lost on him. “The reality is that we bought the store for nothing. We were able to work with Craft3, which is a non-profit lending institution. If it weren’t for them being willing to see my resume and passion, and investing in me to help buy the family business, it would have gone under. Through a lot of hard work, the grace of God, and the folks at Craft3, I was able to buy the business and get our feet under us. A couple of years later I was able to refinance with a regular bank and the rest is history. For me, it was especially satisfying to be able to do that.”

“We were able to build the business with nothing, so now, I’m excited to see what we can do now that we are starting with something. My honest hope is that whatever we do won’t just be for my profit, but a blessing to other people as well.”

For Josh, the American Dream is not a fixed point, but an ongoing pursuit that is passed on from parent to child. Josh’s father taught him how to run a business and provided him with the skills to grow Elger Bay into something bigger than his father could have ever imagined. “[My father] wanted to see me succeed far beyond what he ever achieved. I think that’s what any parent wants for their children. I want to do well, I want to be successful, and I want my children to be even more so.”

Josh has never been attracted to entrepreneurship for its ability to make money, but rather its ability to create opportunity. “I like trying to create opportunities for others, that’s always been my goal. For my customers, for my employees and their families, and for my children,” Josh says, the land of opportunity indeed.


Nesha Ruther

Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in Narrative Northeast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.