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The Wawa Way
How a Funny Name and Six Core Values Revolutionized Convenience
With Bob Andelman
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Format:ebook $10.99 $13.99 CAD
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With a mixture of personal history and business advice, Howard Stoeckel discusses the last 50 years of Wawa’s growth, development, and expansion. It’s the story of how a small company with a funny name made a big difference, and all it took was a little goose sense.
Share of Heart
Jeremy Plauche is a burly, rowdy-looking guy—six feet, maybe 300 pounds, with the bold facial hair of a modern 24-year-old—but he admits that when he was getting the Wawa logo tattooed on his right inner biceps, the second “wa” kind of hurt. It’s just a little more tender in there closer to the torso. Totally worth it, though.
Plauche works night shifts for the rescue squad in Millville, New Jersey, where he also went to high school. It’s a little town about 45 miles south of Philadelphia, with a population of roughly 27,000 and four Wawas within about two miles. He’s made countless Wawa runs. He’s candid about his favorite product: “I’ll be honest with you—the peach iced tea.”
“I’m originally from Louisiana,” he says. “I tried to explain to my friends there what Wawa was and what it means to people who live up here . . . and they kind of didn’t believe me. Wawa is part of our culture. It’s part of our way of life.”
—Don Steinberg, “It’s a Wawa World,” Philadelphia Magazine, August 2011
The Wawa Way is not simply a motto, a slogan, or the title of a business book—it’s a way of life, a guide for valuing people, and a road map for building long-standing customer and community relationships. So it’s no coincidence that on the occasion of Wawa’s fiftieth anniversary, this book has become a reality.
Today, many retail businesses measure excellence by share of market: the percentage of total sales in a specific category that they control at any one time. Banks tend to measure success by share of wallet, and public companies by their share price. At Wawa, our measure of success has always come from a more human place—one that values people, not simply profit. We strive for something we believe is more important and more enduring: share of heart.
Companies that endear themselves to customers strive for a share of their heart. To earn it, organizations such as ours must make a personal and emotional connection. We need to satisfy a need. We need to be part of the community in which our customers live. And it needs to be much more than a buy-sell relationship; it should be a partnership, friends and neighbors serving friends and neighbors. Customers will then reward us with a larger share of what’s in their wallets.
(And when retailers do something wrong, customers are much more understanding of companies that have won a share of heart from them.)
If we were to pursue a share of heart relationship without building a strong foundation beneath it, ultimately the company would not endure.
The depth of passion and loyalty of Wawa customers has never ceased to amaze me. I know of no other company that receives such creative and surprising displays of affection and love from their customers. There are plenty of examples:
• The US military contingent stationed in Iraq that listed Wawa coffee at the top of their list of things they missed most.
• The long line of customers who camped out overnight to be first in line at the Wawa grand opening in Florida.
• The rock band that wrote a tribute song performed at a Wawa Hoagiefest event.
• The many couples who have chosen to have wedding photos taken at the Wawa store where they met—or even to hold the entire ceremony there.
• The five Wawa customers who together completed an almost two-year trek to visit every Wawa in existence—then 586 stores—to honor their friend’s memory and raise awareness for cancer research.
• The high school graduates who regularly choose a college based at least partly on campus proximity to a Wawa.
• The University of Maryland students who, when the company announced it would close an on-campus Wawa in 2007, flash mobbed the closing store to share their memories.
• The Wawa Facebook fans (one million and counting) who share their Wawa experiences around the clock, along with the splinter groups like People Who Miss Wawa (after moving away from our six-state realm) and If Wawa Was a Person I Would Get Married to It.
• The woman who, with the help of startled Wawa associates and customers, delivered her baby in a Wawa parking lot as she made one last stop on her way to the hospital.
• The group of friends whose love for Wawa beverages resulted in their saving their 64-ounce Wawa iced-tea beverage containers and building a couch solely out of the bottles. They called it the Wawa 64 couch, only permitting a select few to sit on it.
Part of what makes us special is our name. When people hear Wawa for the first time, many don’t know what to think. They are not sure whether it’s a play on words or an improper pronunciation of a thirst quencher, but there’s no doubt that many find it funny.
The origin of the name is actually fairly straightforward. Over a hundred years ago, our original dairy farm was built on land located in a rural section of Pennsylvania called Wawa, named by a local resident after the Canadian geese who flocked to a mill pond near Chester Creek.
Today, the name Wawa has come to symbolize the very best attributes of our company. Like a majestic flock of Canada geese flying synchronously in V formation, we employ the principles of teamwork, consensus, and mutual encouragement to keep our company flying high and moving swiftly. We think it’s the only way to fly.
When Grahame Wood opened the first Wawa store, he thought that it might be wise to have a more generic-sounding name that evoked the quick in-and-out convenience of our stores. But Grahame ended up sticking with Wawa because it was memorable and distinguished our stores from others. It’s a suitable name for our company because it’s intentionally noncorporate and actually fun to say.
I get such a thrill out of telling people I work for Wawa. They most always respond in the same way: “Wawa? I love Wawa!” That kind of fierce loyalty and intense emotion lets me know that they are not just buying their coffee or food there. It tells me that we’ve connected with them at a deeper level, well beyond their mind or their wallet, to a rare and special place: their heart.
Share of heart means customers referring to their Wawa as “my Wawa.” Shopping at Wawa is part of our customers’ daily routine. It’s a habit-forming experience. It’s like getting up and turning on the news, or logging on to Facebook for a daily fix of friends and family status updates. It becomes part of our customers’ lives.
When you share part of a customer’s heart, the service relationship changes. Customers become friends—and in many cases more like family members.
In Aston, Pennsylvania, one of our customers had cancer and was unable to physically get to the store. When Wawa associates from our Aston store 8027 heard about it, they adopted him and made certain that every day he received what he wanted in the store, in some cases delivering products to his home. Once recovered, he gave the store tremendous credit for lifting his spirits and helping him get back on his own two feet. It was the encouragement and the therapy he needed during a very difficult time.
This is one of the thousands of stories that play out across the company every day, year after year. In The Wawa Way, we’ll share more stories like this one and show how this kind of connection can make a company truly special—and very successful.
• • • • •
I imagine that people who know me sometimes wonder how in the world a C student and former bellhop from New Jersey got lucky enough to run one of the best companies in the world. I’d say it came down to a little luck, good timing, and a whole lot of heart.
I served as a Wawa company executive for twenty-five years, including being CEO from 2005 to 2012. This is not a position I ever imagined myself in. I lack the elite background of many corporate CEOs. I was not the captain of any football team or a member of any honor society. In fact, I barely made it through high school. My teachers told me to take wood shop, commenting, “You would be better using hammers and saws than textbooks.” When there was no red ink on my report card, believe me, there was relief in the Stoeckel household. I don’t recall what my class rank was in high school, but it was perpetually near the bottom. It was a cliffhanger as to whether or not I’d graduate, but in the end I squeaked through.
What turned me around was a job as a bellhop at a Howard Johnson motel. That’s how I got turned on to business. I was inspired enough to defy the odds and enroll in Rider College in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. I got off to a slow start but eventually worked my way up to assistant manager of the motel. Something about serving others appealed to me. Somehow I found my way and the sense of a higher calling, which I’d been lacking in high school.
I earned a bachelor of science degree in commerce from Rider with a major in business administration. I went on to work as an executive trainee at the John Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia, where I learned about the benefits of a family-run business. Then I moved on to The Limited in Columbus, Ohio, and Boston, where I learned about publicly traded business.
I finally landed at Wawa in the human resources department. Ultimately, I moved from vice president of human resources to vice president of marketing to CEO. At each step, I found I could be myself, serve others, and make a difference. In Wawa, I’d found a company that truly valued people—a company that believed ordinary people could achieve the extraordinary. Even better, I’d found my passion; it’s a feeling that resonates beneath everything that happens at Wawa.
In this book you’ll read about a lot of ordinary people who’ve achieved extraordinary things. Many of the stories that follow were shared over a cup of coffee in the local Wawa, or they are letters from customers received at our call center, or postings on our website, but they are all part of Wawa’s shared history. And you’ll read about what has led to Wawa’s success during the past half century—no doubt the same things that will drive results in the future. It’s not rocket science. It’s not algorithms. It really comes down to something that’s much more common, something that empowers the ordinary to become extraordinary. We call it the Wawa way.
In a two-year study of world-class service in convenience retail, researchers with the Harvard Business Review ranked Wawa’s customer service in a league with Nordstrom and the Ritz-Carlton: “They consider employees their living brand and devote a great deal of time and energy to training and developing them so that they reflect the brand’s core values. In fact, these companies make as much effort to groom employees as they do to develop pithy messages about what the brand is and does.”
The Wawa way is our living and breathing recipe for success. It is built upon three fundamental elements that seem to fly in the face of traditional corporate success:
• a business model of private and shared ownership
• a management philosophy of servant leadership
• a culture driven by six core values
Private ownership lets us take a long-term point of view that is not tied to the whims of Wall Street. Shared ownership allows us to deepen the commitment of our team members and share the risks and rewards across our entire company. Our core values have been the company’s touchstone since its founding.
In the pages that follow, we’ll share the details of this recipe with you. The Wawa Way is more than a history book. It’s a handbook for a new era in consumer relationships where the culture and values of a company become the new measure of true and sustainable success. It’s proof that a small business with a funny name and a rich history can succeed against bigger, better-funded competition—and in the process help make the world a better place.
Some call it business sense. Others call it common sense. I call it goose sense. Whatever you call it, it’s the shaping force that makes the Wawa way a living, joyful reality for countless people.
Welcome to the Wawa way!
“What Is a Wawa?”
The I Love Wawa group on MySpace.com has more than 5,000 members, making it the largest of several Wawa-related groups on the online-community site. Over on Livejournal.com, there’s a group called We Love Wawa, with about 950 members. This would be pretty ho-hum if Wawa were an indie band or video game. Instead, it’s a chain of convenience stores.
—Rob Walker, “Convenience Cult?” New York Times, July 30, 2006
The name always catches people off guard. “What the heck is a Wawa?” they ask.
And it’s not just our funny name. One of the downsides of having such a unique and special store is that it’s often hard to describe to people who don’t already know us. We’re not a coffee shop, but we sell more coffee than many national brands. We’re not a restaurant—we have no place to sit and no waitstaff—but we sell more meals than the majority of fast-food restaurants. We’re not a gas station, but we sell three to four times more gas than many traditional big-name stations. And we’re not exactly a convenience store, but our stores are open 24/7, 365 days a year, offering customers more ways to simplify an increasingly hectic life.
Although our core purpose is to simplify our customers’ lives, our business is anything but simple. We serve more than 500 million customers a year, and we are known for our Wawa-branded products, like teas, milk, coffee, and freshly made hoagies and sandwiches. (Hoagie is a regional name for the classic Italian sandwich also known as a sub, grinder, or hero.) Traditionally, hoagies are built-to-order sandwiches filled with fresh meats and cheeses as well as lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, topped off with a dash of oregano on an Italian roll. As you’ll learn in this book, hoagies have become a big, much-beloved part of Wawa’s brand identity. Those daily purchases add up to 190 million cups of coffee and 60 million sandwiches a year. At our surcharge-free ATMs, there are more than 75 million transactions a year. We also sell 1.8 percent of all the automotive fuel purchased in the United States.
When we started in the convenience store business in 1964, we were the alternative to a supermarket that was then operating on limited hours and not open on Sundays. People would stop on their way home, grab deli, produce, or a dairy item, and go home to enjoy it with friends or family. Over a period of time, however, we evolved into a restaurant-to-go for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the in-between snack occasion, or an afternoon pick-me-up.
Today, our biggest competitors aren’t supermarkets or even 7-Eleven; they’re McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and ExxonMobil.
Along the way, we went from small stores that had fifteen parking places surrounding 2,400 square-foot shops to big stores of more than 5,600 square feet with more than fifty parking places. That was a revolutionary development in the convenience store industry. We spend more on choosing locations and building stores than anyone else in our industry. Where others would spend a million or two on a single location, we spend two to three times that.
Because we’re so unique, we intentionally resist labeling ourselves. Many people simply give up on describing us to their friends and just say, “You just have to go there. You’ll see.” Actually, they are almost correct. When a customer visits a Wawa, it’s what they see, feel, taste, smell, and hear that defines our offering. It’s not any single sandwich or beverage or gas price. We have always focused on the total experience.
Wawa dominates the landscape because we’re a habit-forming, ritualistic type of brand. Remember the TV sitcom Cheers, set in the fictional Boston bar and restaurant where “everyone knows your name”? That’s how many customers think of us. We’re the Cheers of convenience stores, a place where you’re known by name, and where the customers and associates all treat each other like family.
We’re that neighborhood store; a place where Mary behind the food service counter, Pete at the specialty coffee bar, and Mimi at the cash register are all friends and neighbors, where they are known for serving their friends and neighbors each and every day.
Our customers also don’t fit neatly into a single demographic box. At any one time you’ll see a construction worker, a businesswoman, teens, kids, soccer moms, college students, and seniors all moving around the store like they own the place, chatting with associates, holding the doors for each other. The stores have a great community vibe that begins at dawn and lasts all through the late-night hours.
Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at the Wharton business school, says that when you think about it, Wawa might not even be a convenience store in the traditional sense anymore—the place you’d go as a last resort for a can of soup. That role has been assumed by drugstores like CVS, Walgreen’s, or the dollar stores. Really, Hoch says, “Wawa has become a fast-food restaurant with a gas station.”
The equation isn’t as simple as it might sound. Having gas pumps is heavy baggage for any food retailer; no gas retailer has been known for appetizing food. Made-to-order food is a complicated and ever-changing mountain to climb. Having both puts us in a space all our own with one of the highest degrees of difficulty of any retailer. We have had food inspectors in Florida who said, “I can’t inspect this store because I’m a convenience store inspector. We need a restaurant inspector to come in here.”
Customers share this impression. Many comment, “This is no convenience store. This is a restaurant.” We like hearing that, because it tells us we’re achieving a level of attractiveness, comfort, and quality that our competitors can’t match. When you’re in the experience business, you can never afford to become a commodity, interchangeable with any other store around the corner.
Some would say that the notion of trying to orchestrate millions of positive experiences in the face of so many variables, products, people, prices, and programs is not possible. Imagine how fast-food restaurants would fail if they also tried to sell gas outside. Imagine what people would think about buying fresh-tasting produce at a traditional gas station. Now imagine hundreds of stores doing exactly that for thousands of customers 24/7 in a way that makes everyone happy!
That’s what Wawa is. More than a store, more than a favorite restaurant, more than a fast and friendly fueling stop. It’s a positive part of our customers’ lives. Believe me, it’s not easy, but our associates creating tens of thousands of good feelings every day is our true sustainable advantage. Is there any better way to serve our communities?
Birth of a Family Business
And in flocks the wild-goose, Wawa,
Flying to the fen-lands northward.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Song of Hiawatha”
As you can imagine, a business that is unique—and uniquely successful—generally has a unique story behind it. And that’s certainly the case with Wawa. It would take far more than one book to spell out everything that has happened since the Richard Wood family first moved to Philadelphia in 1682, the moment that set in motion a family business that has evolved and changed dramatically during the more than 330 years since. From the days of Lincoln to now, the Wood family’s influence has been felt far beyond the borders of the Keystone State.1
Today, you can find evidence of this in cities such as New Orleans and Charlottesville. There you’ll see the same name stamped on many of these cities’ original fire hydrants: RD Wood & Co.2 The Wood family is no longer in the business of making fire hydrants, but this history is still very important to Wawa today. For a company that remains privately held, this rich heritage holds lessons about adaptation and the importance of change that its leaders still use as a point of reference.
After arriving in Philadelphia, succeeding generations of the Wood family crossed the Delaware River into southern New Jersey, settling by 1716 in what is now Cumberland County. They farmed and got into a variety of occupations that centered on shipping produce and cedar logs to communities all along the Delaware Bay. Eventually, another Richard Wood established a store (it still stands today) in Greenwich on the Cohansey River. Two of his sons, David and Richard, who would play roles in the businesses that spawned Wawa, got their starts in that little store on the corner of Ye Great Street and Bacon’s Neck Road.
David C. Wood branched out, opening his own stores in nearby communities and expanding his trade to include such exotic imports as Spanish “segars,” watches, and a full line of household china. In 1803, he and a partner saw opportunity in the growing demand for decorative and utilitarian cast-iron products that could be made using local bog iron. They constructed a foundry and furnace on the Maurice River in Millville and opened an office on Water Street in Philadelphia to market their wares. The furnace and foundry produced stove plates, fire backs, fence posts, and water pipe, which was timely because many cities were busy replacing old wooden water pipe systems. Millville Furnace ultimately shipped pipe to many cities along the Atlantic coast.
"Corporate histories are seldom engrossing and even less frequently do they touch an emotional chord, but that's exactly what the books does. Wawa fans, and general business readers, will relish this empowering story."
Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW
"The cult of Wawa lives on...The company's six core values and a leadership style focusing on employee ownership with a strong sense of corporate social responsibility are major topics. Written in a light, conversational tone, though, this is a quick, engaging read. VERDICT A must-have for Wawa devotees and recommended for others interested in a behind-the-scenes look at an East Coast retailing legend."
- On Sale
- Apr 15, 2014
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Running Press