It’s intimate, pleasant, conveniently accessible, and habit forming. For the Ph.D student taking a head-clearing break from his dissertation, the stroll down to Wawa to greet friends behind the counter and clutch his morning coffee serves as a vital communion. For the soccer mom who has dumped kids and spouse at the appropriate stations, the Wawa pilgrimage offers a chance to pick up gas, a forgotten supper ingredient, and a smile; and just maybe something for herself.

“For countless numbers of people, coming to Wawa has become a part of their daily routine — a very enjoyable part,” says Howard Stoeckel, retired CEO and current vice-chair of Wawa’s board. In this snatch-and-grab age, where consumers are units and turnover rate is king, the 50-year-old east coast convenience chain somehow breathes a breath of fresh, personal air into those stopping by any of its 651 shops.

How does Wawa distinguish itself? Some of it Stoeckel modestly credits to good fortune. The rest has been carefully crafted and is described in Stoeckel’s newly released “The Wawa Way: How a Funny Name and Six Core Values Revolutionized Convenience.”

As guest speaker at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon, Stoeckel presents the success pathways of Wawa, and offers his many experiences within the $7 billion, family-held company. The luncheon is held Thursday, July 10, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, 100 College Road. Cost $70. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.

A through and through Jersey boy, Stoeckel grew up in Yardville, just a few miles from where his father worked as purchasing agent for Trenton’s Delaval Turbomachinery Company. Attending Rider College (now University), Stoeckel gained what he terms “an excellent, high-level, and very valuable education” and graduated in 1967 with a bachelors in business administration. He is currently a trustee of Rider University, after having served as a chairman to the Board from 2008 to 2012. From Rider, Stoeckel crossed the Delaware and took his first taste of retail in Philadelphia’s king of department stores, John Wanamaker. Starting literally in the basement as a trainee, he rose to vice-president of recruitment and development. He then worked for the retail chain Limited Inc. as vice-president of human resources.

“My move into Wawa was really a fortunate accident,” notes Stoeckel. “I had an afternoon job interview and thought I’d get in a practice run by applying to Wawa that morning.” Liking what they saw, the Wawa managers hired Stoeckel on the spot in 1987, and he never made the afternoon interview. Stoeckel became the first non-family member to take over the Wawa CEO helm in 2005, and three years later he was appointed as board chair. Now “retired,” he still maintains a guiding hand as the firm’s board vice-chair.

“From my earliest days, I could see that Wawa was a unique company, and that I was stepping into a culture that had worked well and innovatively for (then) 25 years,” says Stoeckel.

What’s a Wawa? If you are an Ojibwe Indian, wawa is your traditional word for a tasty Canada goose. If you were George Wood in 1890, Wawa was the name of the village and railroad stop in Pennsylvania’s Delaware county where you bought 1000 acres and imported Guernseys to launch a dairy farm. In 1964, when the public began buying milk at stores, George’s grandson Grahame Wood opened the first Wawa convenience store. Today, the company headquarters remain on the same site, and the Canada goose remains on the logo.

Wawa convenience stores have continued their base in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, with a recent expansion this year into Florida. Half of the stores sport gasoline pumps that are collectively responsible for 1.7 percent of all the gas sold in the U.S. America has turned to a convenience store method of shopping.

The private advantage. Last year Forbes ranked Wawa as the 47th largest privately held company in the U.S. “There’s a great freedom to not having Wall Street or private equity investors,” says Stoeckel. “We are not pressured quarter by quarter, and we are able to take the long view, building our company according to customer, not investor needs.”

For Wawa, this long view has meant a steady expansion. Until a year ago, the company grew within a 200-mile radius of its base. New items, such as an increased variety of groceries, have been adopted only after they have proven themselves popular with customers. Stoeckel admits that Wawa’s success is more of a creep, than a leap.

This does not mean, however, that Wawa is devoid of shareholders. Over 38 percent of the company is employee-owned. Any of its 22,000 employees, even part-timers, upon working 1,000 hours for the company are entitled to enter the stock-sharing program. Most take full advantage. “It’s all part of our upside down management strategy,” explains Stoeckel. “We are what I call a servant leadership. We at the corporate headquarters function here to support our associates and the independent managers of our stores.”

The people brand. Does it work? Does Wawa’s concentration on its people as much as product bring results? The idea of bringing in select coffees, and the idea of bringing in hoagies — two of Wawa’s biggest sellers — came from employees working behind the counter. “We are seeking to be the ‘Cheers” of the convenience stores. The place where everybody knows your name when you come in.” says Stoeckel.

Making this personal relationship an actual goal more than mere promotional lip service takes work. Associates are trained in attitude as well as skills. The top management maintains a constant round of meetings with staff at all levels. They labor to imbue the concept that Wawa is a center of neighbors helping neighbors. To cynics, this may sound a bit fanciful, but for Stoeckel, it is part of the business-as-family aspect of the Wawa culture that he instantly absorbed when he first came on board.

Lessons Learned. Wawa’s success has not been all a stroll through the pasture. When the firm initially decided to sell gas, it brought in major brands and blended them with their own stores. It proved so confusing to customers, that Wawa hastily got out of the fuel business and did not bring back the gas pumps until 1996. Likewise, when Wawa decided to pick up on the trend of offering more supermarket foods in convenience stores, it allied itself to mainstream food brands, which again brought about the same customer misunderstandings.

“Through it all, we’ve learned to stick with and embellish our own brand and to keep ourselves flexible,” says Stoeckel. One of the benefits of not being married to assets has been Wawa’s ability to move quickly into the currently profitable locations. Throughout its history, the company has closed 392 stores. Often, these closings are made to move to a better locale down the road, or bring in gasoline service. It all lies in knowing the customer needs.

Next time you enter a fast food or convenience retail plant, pause and look at their operation. Then ask yourself, “Am I being served quickly because the management wants me in and out fast — or because they are trying to give a little aid to the customer’s time-starved schedule?” The difference is obvious and makes all the difference in your day.

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