Celebrating Wawa's Hero

Mitch Morrison, Vice President of Retailer Relations

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Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, is cast into the pit, literally broken by Bane. When he’s healed of his physical wounds, he swings from a rope that brings him halfway up.

Freedom is within reach, but a great jump must be made. He fails. He builds himself up through painstaking exercises for another run, yet he fails again, just like those who preceded him. Except for one: a child of prodigious determination.

Batman learns that a mere leap of faith will not yield freedom. After that leap comes an onerous climb, brick by brick, stone by stone.

Many journeys are arduous and seem­ingly endless. The Israelites had to wander 40 years to achieve their holy status. America needed a civil war to become a true united state. Apple had to retool itself to find its inner core.

To find the light means discovering purpose in its very journey, absorbing the lessons of every step, knowing that each is its own destination.

Today, we honor Wawa and its retiring chief executive Howard Stoeckel. I know Howard, but not intimately. Our personal encounters have been relatively few, our conversations no more than a dozen. Yet it takes but a short time to appreciate his presence, his humility and sense of responsibility.

Howard is not about flash and sizzle. He’s about thinking big and climbing each rock to get there. Don Price, sagely former executive and currently Wawa’s Minister of Magic, shared a story with our editors Samantha Oller and Melissa Vonder Haar. It was more than two decades ago and Wawa was struggling, its foodservice niche under siege from bigger, deeper-financed QSRs. The leadership had convened what Price describes as a “bloodletting meeting.”

What would be cut, who would be let go, which stores would close: the typical questions raised when businesses scramble to hold on. Howard was dif­ferent. “Howard said we can build what the customer wants,” Price recalls. “He believed the best way to do that was to invest in people and infrastructure.”

Instead of taking out, Wawa put in. Rather than slash its soul, Wawa built its brand. It was this perilous period that would cement Wawa’s fate. Today, Wawa is a $7-billion chain closing in on 600 sites. Far from resting on its laurels, the iconic Pennsylvania brand continues to climb, rock by rock, stone by stone. It is branching into new territory and launch­ing a new concept. Its journey is not done.

Nor is Howard’s. After 25 years that have seen him grow from marketing guru to becoming the first non-family member to guide this historic chain, Howard is stepping down. Retiring.

In truth, I’m not sure retiring is the right word. Retirement implies cessation, or turning in for the night after a hard day’s work. For a person who is often described as a builder of bridges, Howard is transitioning, having served as the span that brought Wawa from generations of the Wood family to a new generation to be led by Chris Gheysens.

Howard, however, is more than a bridge. As a child ushers in the lessons and values of his parents to his own children, Howard has sewn a culture of servant leadership into Wawa’s sinews. At the same time, he’s added his own stitch, threading Wawa with his own impression of won­derment, creativity and purpose. I have met few as bright who are as humble as he is, and who truly delights in celebrating the rewards of his people. And not surpris­ingly, Chris is resolute in presenting him­self as an extension of Howard, a bearer of Wawa’s torch.

In “The Dark Knight Rises,” Batman is prepared to give his life to save Gotham City. He is asked who will protect the people once he is gone. A sense of despair sets in for those who know his secret.

Heroes, Batman replies, are born every day. They are the ones who volunteer a coat to warm the child who is cold. They are those who cast a caring eye when others are indifferent or without hope. They are about serving their people and encouraging us to see the greatness in ourselves.

Howard is such a hero.

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