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Former Wawa CEO Stoeckel talks lessons in growth

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Howard Stoeckel Wawa SBDC

Howard Stoeckel, the former CEO of Wawa, said the company aims to cluster stores in an area to make it appear bigger to the consumer. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – When you’re running one of the region’s most highly regarded companies and one of the largest private companies in the country, one must have a firm foundation and a continuous eye on innovation for the sake of the customer, according to Howard Stoeckel, the former CEO of Wawa and a current board member.

“Even though we’re a big company with over 1,000 stores, and we’ve grown tremendously and will double our size in the next 10 years, I preach constantly that the customer doesn’t care. Our employees don’t care that we’re that big. They care about their one store. We have to think small,” Stoeckel told a crowd Oct. 26 at a Delaware Business Times – Delaware Small Business Development Center series event.

Howard Stoeckel Wawa SBDC

Former Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel is credited with growing the store’s own brands, expanding to Florida, and more. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Stoeckel came to Pennsylvania-based Wawa 37 years ago from the John Wanamaker Co. to serve as director of human resources, working his way up to become the first non-Wood family member to run the convenience store company. After a respected eight-year tenure, Stoeckel stepped down and was succeeded by current CEO Chris Gheysens but has remained involved in the company ever since including writing two books on the history and culture of the company.

Stoeckel is credited with developing employee reward programs like the President’s Club for top managers, boosting the company’s product brands including its ubiquitous hoagies and leading Wawa’s ambitious jump from the mid-Atlantic to Florida market, among much more.

He shared that Wawa’s strategy of clustering stores seemingly too close to one another is built by plan and backed by data.

“We want to build a lot of stores close together because that’s good for the supply chain, and it also makes people think you’re bigger than you are. You can have 50 stores and be tightly together and people think you’re huge. And if you have 50 stores and you’re scattered, they think you’re small. So, our philosophy has been that clustering stores makes you look bigger than you are, and it keeps the competition out,” he explained.

While Wawa started out as small corner stores that offered grab-and-go snacks, it has evolved into larger format stores that offer gas service. Stoeckel said the company is eyeing even larger format stores that would be located on interstate highways, especially as it opens stores in North Carolina and Appalachia.

“We’re probably going to open travel centers as we go up and down some of the interstate highways. We will build bigger stores because we want to accommodate not the huge trucks, but bigger trucks,” he said.

Although some competitors have leaned into self-service counters and drive-thru options to speed up service and reduce headcounts, Wawa’s customers continue to prefer to come into the stores to interact with staff and other customers for what the company refers to as the “five-minute experience,” Stoeckel said.

“We are testing what we call fly-by windows, where if you are really in a hurry you can order on your app and pick it up in a window … But our customers don’t like drive-thru, they want to come into the store,” he said.

Business is a series of learning from your mistakes and improving when given second chances, Stoeckel advised.

Howard Stoeckel Wawa SBDC

A crowd came to 1313 N. Market St. to listen to former Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel recount the growth lessons of the popular company. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

That included not having Wawa brand beverages in Florida stores for their launch – “we got creamed [for that],” Stoeckel recalled – and releasing this year’s popular pumpkin spice-flavored coffee too early, with inventory running out weeks before Halloween.

One of Stoeckel’s biggest flops was a stromboli with Delaware ties. An entrepreneur from Newark approached Stoeckel about placing his stromboli in Wawa stores, and early reviews from about 20 Delaware stores were good. They were excited enough to invest in rolling out the product to all its roughly 500 stores at the time, buying equipment and setting him up at a commissary, Stoeckel recalled.

“It failed miserably. We couldn’t duplicate what the guy created. So somewhere there’s a warehouse filled with strombolis,” he said.

Those lessons learned are part of why the family-run dairy store named for its hometown of Wawa, Pa., has turned into a cultural force that ranks among the largest private companies in America, doing billions of dollars of business every year, Stoeckel said.

“We’re spreading our wings. We’re flying further today than we ever dreamed we could fly. We continue to innovate, and we learn every day because change is faster, quicker and more inevitable than ever before,” he said.

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