Last Ride of the Brand Ranger
As Howard Stoeckel retires from Wawa, CSP takes a look at his legacy, vision and the search for a successor.
The Brand Ranger
Wawa’s “Brand Ranger”—a title he took on during his time in marketing—is another phrase used by many who have worked with Stoeckel.
“He has a sense to balance what’s great for the brand, financial decisions, customer decisions, and when it comes to our brand—whether it’s store design, marketing and positioning—he has been wonderful with that,” says Gheysens.
What else could explain Stoeckel’s pioneering efforts to take the brand into the untested waters of Florida? While the easy move might have been to extend down to closer states such as North or South Carolina, Stoeckel and his team recognized Florida as a possible new stomping ground for Wawa.
“His unrelenting focus on customer satisfaction resulted in what many would have thought impossible: The incredible Wawa brand that he inherited actually got stronger and brighter through his stewardship,” says industry friend Chet Cadieux, CEO of QuikTrip Corp., Tulsa, Okla. “It is relatively easy to make improvements at a bad brand because you have nothing to lose. It is unbelievably hard to improve a great brand because you have everything to lose.”
It’s a job that’s about much more than hoagies and signature dairy products; Stoeckel sees it as preserving the culture of the men and women who make up the Wawa team.
“We have an outstanding culture here,” Stoeckel says, “and the culture’s everything. Leaders here serve people and serve the culture. I’ve always viewed my job, whether as HR, CEO or in between, as nurturing and manifesting the culture.”
Constantly striving to do just that, Stoeckel has often remarked that he has more than 18,000 bosses: the Wawa employees he serves. Despite the hectic demands of a CEO, Stoeckel makes time to build relationships with all of his “bosses,” composing hundreds of handwritten notes a week to various associates, celebrating their successes at Wawa and in life. His wife helps in the task, baking cookies for employees during the holidays and often dropping a platter of treats by Wawa stores.
“Howard makes our flock feel like family,” says Price.
But while the shepherd may lead his sheep, Wawa has long been a bottom-up culture, in which the sheep are individu ally valued and rewarded. The company, for instance, launched an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) in 1972, a program that has grown so that 36.7% of the privately held company is now owned by associates. For Stoeckel, employee ownership is more than just a monetary reward.
“They have something that’s much more than a financial connection: It’s an emotional connection,” he says of associates who hold stock. “Wawa is an endearing and enduring brand.”
It’s a connection that Stoeckel points out precedes his tenure, not as CEO but of even joining Wawa in the late 1980s.
“It pre-dates me—I take no credit for this at all,” he says. “The philosophy with my predecessors had always been to share the success of this company, to deliver and make this company great. Servant leadership: We’re here to serve communities and our people, and to help them aspire to be all they can be.”
Counterbalancing Stoeckel’s demurral of credit, Wood says, “He’s too humble. It’s impossible to get him to take credit for anything. It doesn’t matter how much it was his personal interest and execution that got it done. He just won’t take credit for it.”
Kim Lopdrup is senior vice president of business development with Darden Restaurants, whose brands include Red Lobster, Olive Garden and The Capital Grille. Lopdrup, who has served on Wawa’s board for the past six years, cites Stoeckel’s embodiment of servant leadership as key to the sharp reduction in employee turnover over the past seven years. In fact, Stoeckel initiated a class in servant leadership at St. Joseph’s University for Wawa employees.
“For example, Wawa systematically increased pay of associates to improve retention, and yet at the same time, you virtually have to break the guy’s arm to get him to accept a raise,” says Lopdrup. “He inspired an associate medical screening program. We put a doctor on a bus and send it to Wawa stores to ensure associates get medical screenings, which is a tremendous benefit to associates and has reduced Wawa’s medical costs.” This focus on employees has helped cut turnover in the past seven years among store managers to 13% from more than 30%, and store-level associates to 45% from more than 160%.
While hesitant to accept praise for his successes, Stoeckel is very willing to own up to his blunders, such as a co-branding effort in 1994 that added Taco Bells and Pizza Huts to 120 locations.
“Howard said this was a mistake, and we ripped them all out,” Wood says. “He said our customers want the Wawa brands, not other brands.”
The ever-positive Stoeckel contends, “One thing this organization does is we’re willing to try things. I’ve never regretted trying things that didn’t succeed. If anything, I’ve regretted not facing up to the decision faster, and moving on.”
Despite this servant leader’s unwillingness to credit himself with Wawa’s success, those who have worked closest with Stoeckel appreciate everything he’s done for the company. So at this past April’s President’s Club celebration in Jamaica, Gheysens and Bruce decided to present Stoeckel with a diamond ring of his own.
In his acceptance speech, Stoeckel shared a frequent scenario. While he is sitting in a restaurant, people find out he works for Wawa and will ask which store he manages. To which he responds, “I’m not qualified to be a manager.”
“Then,” Wood recalls, “he went on to say, ‘Now I’m one of you.’ I just thought it was a wonderful testimony to Howard’s humbleness and ability to come up with a nice way to accept the ring.”
The Bridge Builder
Because he became Wawa’s CEO rather late in life, at age 59, Stoeckel began thinking about his successor early on. Gheysens, who joined Wawa in 1997 and was promoted to CFO in 2007, soon became an obvious candidate.
“He can make the difficult simple,” says Stoeckel, echoing praise others have made of Gheysens. “I was always been impressed with Chris’ patience, understanding of the business and ability to make complex things relatively simple and to make people feel good. He’s always demonstrated the qualities of an outstanding leader.”
At Wawa, an outstanding leader means a servant leader. Wood lists Gheysens’ embodiment of servant leadership as the “biggest thing that drove his selection.”
“In the interview process by the board, he was asked if he’d stay if he didn’t get the job,” Wood says. “Chris’ response was, ‘I gave it a lot of thought. I think there are a lot of stakeholders here in this company, people who work here and own parts of the company. This decision is bigger than me, and I will stay as long as I can be helpful to people.’ I just thought that was a wonderful answer to that question.”
“Being a servant leader is a requirement for the job, and Chris has it in spades,” says Lopdrup, who adds that Gheysens “bleeds goose blood.” He also points to Gheysens’ abilities as a strategic thinker, having led the strategic planning process over the past few years that has helped Wawa find its “blue ocean”—or how to make Wawa unique. (See “Wawa’s Ocean View,” p. 55.)
While Stoeckel and Gheysens appear to share similar leadership styles, their paths to CEO are quite different. Stoeckel made his mark in human resources and marketing, and Gheysens came to Wawa with a background in accounting.
“Chris is not your typical CFO,” Stoeckel says. “He has a great understanding of the business, a great sense of the people, and he’s a great nurturer, too.”
One might wonder whether a financial geek should become head of a people-centric culture. Gheysens chuckles briefly and nods when asked.
“I have plenty of marketing and operations experience, but you’re right: I’m a finance guy by DNA,” he says. “Howard is more marketing and HR, so we look at things from a different lens. But it’s not just how you look at things—it’s the people around you.”
Wawa has approached the transition carefully and methodically, having announced Gheysens’ appointment to the CEO role a full 16 months before Stoeckel’s planned retirement. The extra time has allowed Gheysens to take on more and more of the CEO duties with the benefit of having Stoeckel there to guide him through the transition.
“Succession takes planning,” Stoeckel says. “There’s a process to it, it’s both art and science, and it’s valuable to give the organization time to work with you through these succession issues.”
An important aspect of that succession process includes providing the new CEO with a clearly established plan for Wawa’s future—something that Wood provided for Stoeckel when he took over in 2005.
“People are asking, ‘Chris, what are you going to do differently from Howard?’ ” says Gheysens. “We have a strategy in place. It’s a very collaborative, consensus-built strategy, and everyone in this company knows what our strategies are: We’re going to Florida, we’re ratcheting up on food and appetite appeal, and we’re sharing ownership with people. All of that’s in place, but it takes years, if not decades, to achieve.”
After 25 years at Wawa, Stoeckel is confident his bridge from the company’s past to its future is ready to stand on its own.
“It’s the absolute best time for the business to make the transition, and it’s the right time for me personally to make the transition at this stage of my life,” says Stoeckel, who plans to teach and perhaps speak professionally. And he will be involved in the company as the board’s vice chairman and chair of its strategic brand committee, responsible for weighing in on marketing and brand development.
“He is so much more knowledgeable than anybody else in the company about all of the retail concepts going on out there, and keeping up with them,” says Wood. “He’s a retailer. And that’s the biggest thing that I think Chris will lack on his team.
“I think Howard will be happy to play that role,” Wood continues. “He shares the same passion as the rest of us zealots for Wawa.”
Stoeckel’s Many Middle Names
- “Storyteller.” A cheerleader of the stores and a servant leader, Stoeckel has the unique ability to make some commonly espoused efforts relatable. “He finds ways to make them new and fresh, and tells examples he’s heard about,” says Don Price. “He makes them real, not platitudes.”
- “Brand Ranger.” One of Stoeckel’s many alter egos was “Brand Ranger.” “He knew that it would bring things to life. His ability to inspire and build excitement internally has always been incredible,” says Lori Bruce.
- “Celebration” and “Fun.” The Wawa President’s Club is a Stoeckel creation that best exemplifies his love of celebrating associates. When Wawa held the event at Jack Russell Memorial Stadium in Clearwater, Fla., Stoeckel—a huge baseball fan—entered from center field, dressed as Babe Ruth.
- “Potential.” Wawa CEO Dick Wood Jr. transferred Stoeckel from human resources to head of marketing, recognizing the exec’s creativity. “He has this incredible belief in people’s ability to do their best if you give them a chance,” says Don Price, citing how Stoeckel assigned then administrative assistant Bruce with the task of getting the President’s Club up and running. “He said, ‘You figure it out, you do it,’ and gave her enough of a chance to go run it.”
- “The Bounty Hunter.” When Stoeckel started with Wawa, the company had problems hiring and retaining good associates. So at his first management meeting, Stoeckel arrived on horseback dressed as a cowboy to introduce a new referral program branded “The Bounty Hunter.” “It was more about the creativity in execution and the way it got people’s attention,” says Bruce. “It was themed, it had a big message, it was exciting.”
- “Humility.” While Stoeckel will quickly point out the stumbles Wawa has made under his direction—whether it’s co-branding with QSRs or introducing strombolis, which flopped fantastically—he is loath to take credit for any company success.