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.

By
Melissa Vonder Haar, Tobacco Editor

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As CEO tenures go, eight years does not seem very long, especially for one who was the first non-family executive to direct an iconic family-built business.

And consider that Howard Stoeckel succeeded Dick Wood Jr., part of the company’s family dynasty, a beloved leader for 30 years and credited with leashing Wawa’s success to foodservice and a people-first culture [CSP—Nov. ’04, p. 26].

And yet there is little doubt about Stoeckel’s legacy. So admired by his associ­ates, Stoeckel has not earned only a single nickname, but a series of “middle names” exemplifying his many strengths. For one pillar of Wawa, the retiring CEO will always be known as Howard “A-Ha” Stoeckel.

“I’ve been on a lot of boards in my life and I’ve been around a lot of executives,” Wood, chairman of Wawa, tells CSP. “Howard is the best executive that I’ve ever been around, period. … He has the ability to envision things. When he says them, I don’t see them. But once they’re executed, then I go ‘a-ha.’ ”

Don Price can second Wood’s sen­timents. Price, former Wawa executive vice president and current “Minister of the Magic”—responsible for honing the customer experience—was part of the executive team that first hired Stoeckel as vice president of human resources about 25 years ago. The company then was slugging its way out of a brutal price war with fast feeders and competition with a supermarket channel that had embraced delis and extended hours.

“Our reason to be, a place for provi­sioning, was being undermined,” recalls Price. “We had come up with a line, ‘For people on the go,’ but we didn’t have the store sites, the products, the disciplines, the parking spaces, the high-traffic areas. So we had to reinvent ourselves.”

Here’s where Stoeckel earned yet another middle name: reinvention. During an executive team’s “bloodlet­ting meeting”—a review of where to cut costs—Stoeckel suggested that the com­pany do the unexpected.

“Howard said we can build what the customer wants,” Price says. “He believed the best way to do that was to invest in people and infrastructure.

“Here we are, our profits and sales are going down, and he was talking about investing.”

Such investments eventually included employee scholarships for continuing edu­cation, a management training program (“Camp Wawa”) and The President’s Club, which each year rewards the top 20% of Wawa store managers with a tropical vaca­tion and diamond ring. Partly because of this investment, Wawa not only survived the early 1990s but also has grown today to generate more than $7 billion from 600 sites across six states while boasting one of the industry’s lowest turnover rates.

An exec at that time told Wood he expected Stoeckel to last at Wawa only six months. The human resources position (now “Chief People Officer”) is one that Wood considers the toughest management slot to fill. But Howard “Reinvention” Stoeckel proved to be so multitalented that he was soon moved to vice president of marketing, then COO, then president, and finally CEO in 2005—making his mark in each of these roles.

As a person who wholeheartedly embraced the servant-leader model, Howard “Humble” Stoeckel did not per­sonally claim these successes. Although he has a knack for public speaking (hence yet another middle name, the “Storyteller”), power branding (“Brand Ranger”) and selling ideas (“Potential”), Stoeckel does not like to sell himself. If anything, he sees himself as one small piece in the storied history of a company he loves. Appropri­ately, the middle name Stoeckel has given himself is “Bridge Builder.”

“I’ve always viewed my role as some­what of a bridge from past to future leadership, being the first non-family member to be CEO, and my likely succes­sor would clearly be non-family,” Stoeckel says during a June interview at company headquarters. “You want someone better than yourself. You always want someone to take over who you believe will take the business to the next level.”

Stoeckel believes he has found that per­son in Chris Gheysens, current president, former CFO and a 15-year Wawa veteran. In exclusive coverage of this momentous transition, CSP sat down with Stoeckel, Gheysens and the men and women of Wawa who know the CEO best to discuss how he’s changed both Wawa and the c-store industry for the better.

It can be summed up in one word: vision.

The Big Thinker

“Howard’s mantra has been ‘think big,’ ” explains Wawa’s manager of public rela­tions, Lori Bruce, who served as Stoeckel’s executive assistant more than two decades ago. She points at the 4-foot-tall crayon that stands in his office. “It’s a signature of that mantra.”

Think big. Think about Wawa’s food­service program. The retailer has followed different paths, from a simple in-house offer to a brief partnership with co-brand­ing, to today’s fast-casual-to-go offer.

“The bar’s higher on foodservice; the competition is keener, and everyone around you is taking their business to a higher level, so you can’t stand still,” Stoeckel says, explaining the company’s foodservice evolution. “We in the c-store industry have to work that much harder to establish our reputation. If you go into a new Five Guys [Burger and Fries] loca­tion, you know exactly what they stand for when you walk in. In our case, because we’re in so many businesses (gas, conve­nience, food), it’s not as clear in the minds of the consumer.”

Stoeckel has strived to elevate Wawa’s status as a “restaurant that sells gas.” One of the ways he’s done so is his reinvention of the chain’s popular made-to-go hoagie sandwich. He named the sizes “the Clas­sic” and “the Shorti.” “As we go to new markets, we’ve branded it the ‘hoagie, ’ ” says Wood. “Howard took [the brand] to a whole new level.”

That new level, on full display at Wawa’s first Florida site (see p. 55), fea­tures an expanded menu, fresh hoagie rolls baked in newer store locations and a yearly summer “Hoagiefest.”

Stoeckel is the first to admit that com­peting with the likes of Five Guys and Panera Bread has not always been easy. Quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and fast-casual restaurants can open a new site in a fraction of the time it takes Wawa to open a new location, run a national-scale advertising budget and enjoy an instant cachet with customers.

As a regional player, Wawa must fol­low different rules, which require build­ing a name in each new state it enters. Such hurdles may seem daunting but are not a negative.

“Overcoming all of those obstacles makes us stronger and more enduring in many respects,” Stoeckel says. “One thing we in this industry understand is convenience and location and how to satisfy customer needs quickly—better than I think anyone else.”

Such dedication to the fast-casual-to-go concept is something Stoeckel’s successor intends to strive for when he takes the reins.

“Howard is a visionary,” says Ghey­sens. “Fast casual to go is an example: being able to look in the future and paint a concise picture of what it should be for us. Then not only do that, but convey it and communicate it in a way that people get it, and then they rally around and get motivated. I think I just described a great CEO, and that’s what Howard is for us.”

The Great Communicator

Described by Wood as “silver-tongued” and “as good a public speaker as I’ve ever heard in my life,” Stoeckel has earned a reputation as an engaging storyteller, a reputation that’s quite apparent when Stoeckel is asked to explain the appeal of a cup of Wawa coffee and why the chain is reintroducing full-service baristas at its new sites.

“Coffee’s much more than coffee—it’s the overall experience. It’s how it’s engi­neered, it’s the dedication of people to the coffee experience, it’s that morning ‘Cheers’-like experience,” he says, referring to the 1980s sitcom that takes place in a bar “where everyone knows your name.”

“Howard finds ways to make concepts new and fresh by communicating real examples,” Price says. “He makes them so that they’re real, not platitudes.”

Stoeckel’s status as an “a-ha” problem solver prompted Wood and other Wawa executives to move him from human resources to marketing during the “dark days” of the late ’80s and early ’90s, a time when Wawa’s store expansion had come to a complete stop. Recognizing that something needed to be done, Wood believed Stoeckel’s creativity was ideal for senior vice president of marketing.

“I always think marketing is in many ways the most important position to fill in the company,” says Wood. “Not neces­sarily the hardest; HR is harder. But in marketing, you need someone who’s a visionary, not afraid to take a risk, has good judgment. Someone who carries credibility with store operators.”

With his big thinking and ability to get others on board with creative solu­tions, Stoeckel excelled in the position and positioned himself to become the first non-Wood to lead Wawa.

“He naturally had wonderful instincts. That’s why I go back to the ‘a-ha person’ judgment,” says Wood. “He’s remarkable in his ability to be insightful about the right person, right job, about store layout, about product development, about push­ing people to be better than they are, about developing people.”

Bruce was one of those people Stoeckel pushed to a higher level. When he came up with the concept of the President’s Club, Stoeckel encouraged Bruce—an administrative assistant at the time—to take the idea and run with it. Twenty-four years later, The President’s Club is one of Wawa’s most popular events, and Bruce has gone from admin­istrative assistant to head of PR.

“He has the ability to get ordinary people to do extraordinary things,” Wood says.

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