The Long and Shorti of It
by Joseph N. DiStefano
Wawa President Chris Gheysens ’05 (M.B.A.) wakes up and smells the coffee every day, whether he’s rallying management and store associates, sifting new-product sales and cost analytics, or pairing breakfast with a fresh-brewed cup. Around Philadelphia, Wawa Inc. is as familiar as a tank of gas or your morning coffee. The 600-store, 400 million customers-a-year chain enjoys a cult following, which it feeds by cultivating its workforce of 18,000 — half of them shareholders — toward the corporate goal of being “the world’s most appetizing convenience retailer.” Boosting production with partners like Amoroso’s breads, Tastykake, J&J Snack Foods and PNC Bank’s automatic teller network, Wawa constantly tests new products and services: espresso machines, in-store baking, fancy-cut produce.
Charged with balancing the new and the familiar, connecting with repeat customers, plugging deeper into a national supply network, and extending the brand beyond its Philly-South Jersey core, is Wawa’s next chief executive officer, Chris Gheysens.
As a 35-year-old accountant-turned-financial analyst, Gheysens earned his Master of Business Administration at Saint Joseph’s. Degree in hand, he integrated his fellow accountants and analysts into a unified team employing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software from Newtown Square, Pa.-based SAP America. They focused company data to answer basic questions such as how to know, quickly, when a fancy new sandwich or shift-staffing plan works, or fails.
Tapped as a vice president, Gheysens rose to the company’s top management team, serving as chief financial officer and chief administrative officer before he was named CEO-designate last year, pending predecessor Howard Stoeckel’s retirement at the end of 2012.
As boss, Gheysens still pulls a twice-yearly shift building hoagies and manning the register. As the chain grows, senior Wawa associates know it’s important to stay focused on what’s going on in the stores, with how the company is reaching the people Wawa depends on to keep coming back.
Today’s stores are among the busiest, by sales volume, in the industry. A new Wawa opens, on average, every two to three weeks. Employee turnover, which can top 100 percent a year in retail businesses that rely on streams of entry-level workers, has lately been down around 40 percent; the company depends on a cadre of veterans who build long careers managing stores, then groups of stores.
Gheysens’ goals include building Wawa beyond a regional brand and breaking out of its North Jersey to southern Virginia home base: After long study, its first Florida stores open in the Orlando market this year and in Tampa in early 2013.
Earning a degree at Saint Joseph’s, which Gheysens says “broadened his outlook and deepened his capacity,” has been a midcareer move for many rising Wawa executives. The company, based across the street from its original Wawa dairy farm in suburban Delaware County, Pa., has close ties to the University’s food marketing program and “many of our associates have finished their master’s in food marketing through programs at St. Joe’s,” Gheysens says.
Wawa is a family business, owned partly by an expansive employee stock program, partly by current and former executives, and partly by members of the founding Wood family. The Woods descend from the Delaware Valley’s early Quaker migration, which tested Christian moral ideas with practical questions of labor and capital, supply and demand, work and family life.
Their ideal of “servant leadership” to customers and workers is part of the Wawa catechism. Gheysens, a native of Vineland, N.J., whose father ran a chain of car washes, was taught compatible ideals in his own Catholic schooling — he graduated from St. Augustine Prep and Villanova University. He says he found at Saint Joseph’s a familiar “culture committed to serving others” that Wawa has applied, with help from Saint Joseph’s faculty, to the company’s own leadership development program.
Every CEO has brought something new to Wawa, says predecessor Stoeckel. Gheysens’ financial focus adds to Stoeckel’s people experience as an HR executive at the former John Wanamaker department stores; at Wawa, Stoeckel built on the record of predecessor Dick Wood, a lawyer and member of the founding family.
As a private company, Wawa doesn’t tell how much the boss is paid or how much the owners, including veteran workers, may get back in dividends or retirement some day. So we have to take Gheysens’ word for it — or look for it in the way the stores move customers through each day — that “the way Wawa is run, it’s not about the CEO, it’s about the 18,000 associates,” and strengthening their ties to customers, so they keep coming back. When he takes over at year’s end, “that’s not going to change,” says Gheysens.