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A pipeline to successful business

After his father passed away, a young Joseph Petrowski and his mother Ann opened a farm stand in Brockton, Mass., to support the family. One day, a customer asked for eggs, prompting Joseph to dash inside his home to fetch a dozen store-bought eggs to meet the request. That prompted his family to begin selling eggs at a market in Boston, which netted thousands in earnings over one summer in 1970.

Petrowski, now the CEO of the Cumberland Farms Gulf Oil Group, said that experience from his youth has benefited his business career by reminding him to pay attention to customers’ needs and look for ways to sustain long-term economic health.

“That taught me a lesson in business,” Petrowski told more than 100 audience members on Tuesday morning at Northeastern University’s CEO Breakfast Forum. The forum invites leading CEOs to speak to an audience of other senior executives from the Greater Boston area.

Cumberland Farms was founded in 1939 with the purchase of a 110-acre farm in Rhode Island for the primary task of producing milk. Today the company owns and operates nearly 600 convenience stores across 11 states. Cumberland acquired the naming rights to Gulf Oil in 1986 and acquired the company in full in 2005. The $13 billion a year enterprise employs more than 8,000 people in 29 states.

In welcoming remarks, Stephen W. Director, Northeastern’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, praised Petrowski for his leadership and noted his company’s novel approach to evolving and expanding.

“It’s an example of innovation and seeing things in a different way,” Director said. He added that Northeastern has taken a similarly innovative approach to higher education by launching graduate campuses that strategically align the university’s educational and research strengths with the needs of regional economies nationwide. Through the “hybrid delivery model,” Northeastern’s program offerings integrate both online and classroom learning.

In his keynote address, Petrowski compared the philosophy of successful companies with that of successful nations. Both, he said, not only survive but also thrive by recruiting the right people and spending capital in smart, strategic ways.

He noted that successful companies adapt to rapid changes in the business world, including new trends and technologies. “Many companies that die do so because they get the strategy wrong and don’t adjust to the outside circumstances,” Petrowski said.

Cumberland Gulf is currently is breaking into the electricity industry. Gulf Electricity, formed in January, currently serves consumer and small businesses in Connecticut, and in March the company became the official electricity supplier of the Boston Red Sox. Continued expansion into Massachusetts will come later this year, Petrowski said.

In explaining this move, he said, “We are a company that is well-known as Gulf. We have a million and a half customers who come through our stations every day, and we have the ability to handle the hedging, billing, inventory and distribution of all energy products. So why limit ourselves to petroleum or diesel or gasoline?”