Opinion: Our Golden Age Is Yet to Come

By 
Howard Stoeckel, Vice Chairman, Wawa

I started my retail career in 1967 at John Wanamaker, a family-owned department store chain founded in 1861 in Philadelphia. The main store at 13th and Market was an architectural marvel, with more than 45 acres of floor space on 15 floors. The building was made of granite over a steel skeleton. It was built like the rock of Gibraltar. I thought  Wanamaker’s would be around forever.

In the 1990s, however, Wanamaker’s, along with many other great department stores, closed, disappearing from a withering landscape where only a few landmarks, such as Macy’s, remain. It was then I learned you can’t take success and endurance for granted. You must rethink, reinvent, renew and reinvest in the business consistently. And that is what the c-store industry has done.

Three decades ago, there were distinct marketing channels: c-stores, supermarkets and fast food. We competed against one another in our own industry and lived in our own world. We focused on fuel, cigarettes and convenience goods.

Today, we compete not only with each other but also with QSRs, fast-casual restaurants, drug stores, dollar stores and niche specialty food retailers. We have rethought, reinvented, renewed and reinvested in our business. Our entrepreneurial spirit serves us well and has enabled us to endure.

I believe there is an underlying reason for our survival: We have always been community-based. Though our formats are bigger and many of us operate in multiple markets, we are still perceived as that neighborhood retailer. We have been able to grow yet retain that personal connection.

Looking Ahead

Whereas the Golden Age of Retail ended years ago for department stores, our Golden Age has yet to occur. Although our industry dates back to the first half of the 1900s, I believe we’re just entering our youth.

The young view the world with open eyes, a sense of unblemished possibilities and optimism. When you mature, your imagination becomes constrained. We must fight maturity. The culture that runs deep within our companies is our fountain of youth. Our cultures enable us to change, to respond, to keep our gear in drive and never in reverse. They have enabled us to endure the ups and downs in economic cycles and declines in core categories, take on new competition (e.g., hypermarkets) and transition into new businesses (e.g., foodservice).

My big question to our industry is this: How much time do we spend preserving and enhancing our culture? Do we spend as much time developing and measuring the effectiveness of our culture as we do strategic planning and budget reviews?

Why Culture Is Critical

I define culture as having a higher calling that motivates and aligns the workforce by having values that enable others to make decisions consistent with our higher calling, and by empowering others to take us on a journey and fulfill our higher calling.

During my tenure as CEO of Wawa, our higher calling was to “Simplify our Customers’ Lives” and be the “ ‘Cheers’ of convenience stores.” I spent considerable time nurturing, manifesting and measuring our values. But it’s important to realize that talking about culture isn’t the same as giving rise to and sustaining a culture.

We implemented more than seven years ago our Living Our Values program to celebrate associates who provide the life and breath for our six values. There are several features of the program. First, any of our associates can nominate another for recognition for living our values. Associates receive from the CEO a Values Card and a Values Pin celebrating their achievement. Second, each year we publish the best values stories in a Values Book distributed to each associate.

The storybook highlights the wonderful things our associates do to make Wawa special. Third, we annually have a companywide Values Day to celebrate and reflect on the ways our values define who we are and how they shape our success. All of our stores and offices receive a Values Cake showcasing how sweet our values can be.

As for our six values, they are:

  • Value People
  • Delight Customers
  • Do the Right Things
  • Do Things Right
  • Embrace Change
  • Passion for Winning

And last but not least, I made every effort to be a role model of servant leadership in the fashion of my predecessors, Dick Wood and Grahame Wood.

Great cultures enable our organizations to endure and pass the business along. Chester Cadieux passed QT to Chet Cadieux; Sheetz has gone from Steve to Stan to Joe Sheetz; and at Wawa from Dick Wood to me, and now to Chris Gheysens. Great cultures smoothly enable leadership transitions and build the company for sustainability.

Long live convenience stores. Stay young. The best is yet to come.