Would-be store managers learn the Wawa way

Posted: September 13, 2007

Brian Hayes is training to be a Wawa general manager in the Reading area, where the fast-growing convenience-store chain is butting heads with Sheetz.

But Hayes is unfazed by the rival from Western Pennsylvania. "They're no competition," he said, during a pause in a program Tuesday at Wawa's corporate university next to the landmark Wawa dairy along U.S. Route 1 in Delaware County.

When told later about Hayes' remark, Wawa's chief executive officer, Howard B. Stoeckel, was pleased. It shows a "passion for winning," on which Stoeckel lectured after lunch.

Wawa has had a corporate university since 1995 as a virtual umbrella for all of its training, education and development programs, but last year a big Wawa Corporate University sign went up in front of its former conference center.

"We wanted to have a visible symbol on Route 1 of our commitment," which is backed by a $20 million budget, said Mike Woerner, director of organizational development.

Tuesday's session was part of a program called "New Beginnings." Stoeckel said the program gave him a sense of the talent of new general managers, general-managers-in-training, and corporate employees.

The program, which is offered six times a year, also gives Stoeckel and other senior executives a chance to teach the culture of a company that traces its roots to a South Jersey iron foundry in 1803. As a convenience-store operator since 1964, Wawa has engendered a fierce loyalty among many customers.

One of the stories told over lunch Tuesday was about a woman who celebrated her birthday at a Wawa in Bridgeton, N.J., last month, stopping by with friends for hoagies and a cake before a night out.

For Dave Shultz, general-manager-in-training at a Wawa on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, the tours of headquarters and the beverage plant were opportunities to put faces to the voices he hears over the phone and to see where his orders for milk, iced tea and other beverages come from.

Wawa Inc., with 575 stores in five states, remains majority-owned by the founding Wood family. Employees own 29 percent of the company, which had $5 billion in sales last year and employs 13,000 to 16,000, depending on the season. Including executives, the nonfamily percentage stake is in the low 30s, Stoeckel said.

Employees obtain their stock through an employee stock-ownership plan, which they participate in after one year of working at least 1,000 hours, or slightly more than 19 hours a week.

Wawa general managers, who have evolved into heads of a management staff as the stores have gotten bigger and play a crucial role in keeping Wawa's reputation intact, earn an average of $70,000 a year, the company said. The figure is higher - more than $80,000 - for stores that sell gasoline.

But first, they go to school. In operating a corporate university, Wawa has plenty of company. Think the Walt Disney Co. and McDonald's Corp.

The number of companies using the term "university" has increased over the years, though it is not clear how many companies have buildings devoted to them, said Michelle Leberfeld, director of human-capital events for the International Quality and Productivity Center, of New York.

What really matters, she said, is having a budget and someone in charge. "Then people will pay more attention to it than if it's an ad hoc activity."

Locally, Campbell Soup Co. plans to devote part of its proposed $73 million employee services center in Camden to Campbell University.

About a year ago, Commerce Bancorp Inc., Cherry Hill, opened a new building for Commerce University - which started in 1993 - in Mount Laurel. Last year, 6,700 employees took classes and this year the number is expected to exceed 7,000, said Rhonda Costello, dean of Commerce University.

"It's important to us," she said. "Frankly, your company is only as good as your employees." Commerce had 11,800 full-time equivalent employees at the end of last year.

Like many corporate training sessions, the Wawa event got personal, with all participants sharing a little-known fact about themselves.

Stoeckel, who has been CEO for three years and turns 62 this year, got a great laugh by telling the story of being Howard B. Stoeckel 3d, a moniker that led his family to call him something other than Howard.

"My nickname for more years than I like to remember was Howdy Doody," after the 1950s television character, Stoeckel said.

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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