Wawa's new boss

Wawa’s next boss learned business at his dad’s carwash, and drinks his coffee black. One or two cups a day.

And, Wawa-style, he doesn’t want to look like he’s risen too far from the convenience-store army he leads. “This company isn’t about the CEO. We have 18,000 associates, and this is really about them,” says Chris Gheysens, Wawa’s past chief financial officer and current president, who is scheduled to take over as chief executive when Howard Stoeckel retires at year’s end. 

At 41, Gheysens is a 15-year Wawa veteran., joining as a young Villanova grad ( he later got a St. Joe’s MBA) after a stint in Deloitte’s retail accounting practice. He’s part of the team of relatively youthful executives Stoeckel put together to lead the company’s expansion beyond the mid-Atlantic, as it prepares a new generation of stores (costing $6 million each), and continues its marathon experiments with new food and drink and gadgets.

Gheysens “has got goose blood. Just like all of us,” says Stoeckel, referencing the company’s flying-goose logo. 

“I have grown up at Wawa, working alongside the operating lieutenants. I was in on the decisions at the meetings, Gheysens said. The "strategies we’ve set forth are not going to change." He spoke in a storeroom sit-down after he and Stoeckel joined workers at one of the company’s frequent in-store morale boosters -- a rally at Wawa’s Claymont, Del. location to thank Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., for easing federal reporting requirements for private companies as part of President Obama’s so-called JOBS legislation.

“We’ve put together some of our most aggressive store growth plans. We’re going to retrofit our stores” to speed things up with digital signage, and expresso machines, and maybe in-store bakeries , Gheysens said. That's after Wawa centralized food production at South Jersey plants owned by partners like Amoroso’s, J&J Snack Foods and McLane’s.

 “The new stores will focus on fresh food to go,” said Stoeckel. “New store designs will have a kitchen with work stations, differnet from the stores today. There’ll be a digital screen , menu boards to showcase food, and real expresso machines. In fact we’ll be rolling those out to all stores this year. More and more. food service is critical to our long-range strategy. We want to be the most appetizing conveniance retail store.” Still missing; tables and chairs; the emphasis is still on getting you in and out, and come back soon. 

Stoeckel, a former John Wanamaker department store executive, was the first non-Wood family member to run what’s now a 600-store chain selling more than $5 billion yearly of gasoline, soft drinks, coffee, hoagies, Tastykakes, Herr’s chips, pretzels, and other items for immediate consumption.

The Woods still own half the company; current and former executives, about 20 percent; an employee stock-ownership program, the rest.

Gheysens, who lives with his wife and four kids in Gloucester County, grew up in Vineland, where his father owned a string of Sparkle Kleen car washes. “My father is a significant inspiration,” Gheysens says. “He didn’t have the education adn the things he has afforded me in life. He started with a painting-contracting business. He worked hard. He’s the most down-to-earth man I know. I never heard him use a bad word.

”That fits Wawa’s squeaky-clean style; it’s a place where executives talk about management by “servant-leadership,” as if they were church elders praying over how to improve the Sunday school, instead of ferocious competitors in a tough retail market. Stoeckel and Gheysens say the company’s private ownership makes that style, and long-term planning, possible. 

Gheysens and Stoeckel say private ownership allows for long-term planning and steady growth. Maybe so: Wawa shares private ownership with Vanguard, Aramark, and some other growing Philadelphia companies, at a time when publicly-traded giants like Sunoco and Cigna have been downsizing and leaving town.