Passing the Wawa Torch

Howard Stoeckel and incoming CEO Chris Gheysens reflect on leadership lessons

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

WAWA, Pa. -- In wrapping up his 25-year career at Wawa and eight years as its leader, Howard Stoeckel is confident the company has chosen the right person to succeed him as CEO in Chris Gheysens. The current president of Wawa has all of the traits of a natural leader, Stoeckel told CSP Daily News.

"I'd look at these marketing reports and say, 'Chris, explain this to me about why margins aren't better,'" said Stoeckel. "I was always 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."

Gheysens joined Wawa in 1997 as CFO, has served as president since January 2012, and will take over from Stoeckel as CEO in January 2013.

Of course, these are qualities that Stoeckel's colleagues at Wawa often ascribe to him, highlighting his ability as a speaker, motivator and cheerleader for associates.

"He's remarkable in his ability to be insightful about the right person, the right job; about store layout, about product development, about pushing people to be better than they are, about developing people," said Dick Wood, chairman and former CEO of Wawa, of Stoeckel. "He likes the expression 'to think big.' He has contagious enthusiasm. He has the ability to get ordinary people to do extraordinary things."

See Related Content below to view an exclusive CSPTV interview with Stoeckel and Gheysens about the leadership transition.

This commonality is a very good sign for Wawa, which not only is seeing a transition in leadership but is also embarking on an expansion in Florida and the roll-out of its new fast-casual-to-go format. And it's a transition that the chain approached with its characteristic eye on pace; Gheysens was announced as the next CEO a full 16 months before Stoeckel was due to retire, a tactic that the latter chalks up to the company's private ownership.

"In a public company, when you announce succession, someone comes and goes," said Stoeckel. "In a private company, you can do it logically and orderly. Succession takes planning, 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."

"I think that benefits all stakeholders when you have a very logical, orderly, thoughtful process," said Stoeckel, who admitted that in his first few months as CEO, he had a few sleepless nights as he tussled with the fact that he was the first leader of Wawa who was not from the Wood family.

"I realized I shared the same culture and values that Dick shared," he said, "but we're two different people. … I realized I had to have my own teachable point of view that embodied the culture and fabric of Wawa, and that I had to be true to myself in terms of my own leadership style."

Stoeckel sees himself as a "bridge" between the Wood family and the next generation of Wawa leaders, and always had succession in mind from his first day in the CEO's office.

"You're constantly thinking about talent, about the leadership team, and your successor," he said. "You clearly look for someone who embodies the values of the company, someone who is a servant leader. And you look for someone who people want to follow. We're not a culture where just because you have a title, people follow you. You have to earn the right to be followed each and every day."

And while Gheysens, with his CFO and accounting background, approaches some issues with a "different lens" than Stoeckel, who spent time leading marketing and human resources, both men are following the same roadmap, hammered out in consensus with the rest of Wawa's executive team.

"People are asking Chris, 'What are you going to do differently from Howard?'" said Stoeckel. "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."

For Stoeckel, retirement means the opportunity to travel, do some public speaking and teaching, as well as serve as vice chair of the Wawa board and head up a committee on strategic branding. From his perspective, the shift to this new phase in his life is as organic as Wawa's growth.

"This year has gone faster than any year I can remember," said Stoeckel. "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. So I feel very good about where we are in the process, and looking forward to the future."

For an exclusive look at Wawa's leadership transition and Florida expansion, see the September issue of CSP magazine.