Wawa's CEO-to-be has 'goose blood' in him

Chris Gheysens, the president and soon-to-be new chief executive officer of Wawa Inc. “I have grown up at Wawa,” he said.
Chris Gheysens, the president and soon-to-be new chief executive officer of Wawa Inc. “I have grown up at Wawa,” he said.
Posted: April 15, 2012

Wawa’s next boss learned business at his dad’s car wash, and drinks his coffee black. Cup a day. Maybe two.

“This company isn’t about the CEO. We have 18,000 associates, and this is really about them,” the workers Wawa relies on to keep heavy users coming back at 600 stores, says Chris Gheysens, Wawa’s past chief financial officer and current president, who is scheduled to take over as chief executive when Howard Stoeckel retires at year’s end.

At 41, Gheysens is a 15-year Wawa veteran. The Villanova graduate (he later got a St. Joe’s MBA) joined after a stint in Deloitte’s retail-business accounting practice. He’ll head the team Stoeckel put together to lead the company’s expansion beyond the mid-Atlantic, as it prepares a newly designed line of stores (at $6 million each), and tests, as always, new food and drink and gadgets.

Gheysens “has got goose blood. Just like all of us,” says Stoeckel, referring to the company’s flying-bird logo.

“I have grown up at Wawa, working alongside the operating lieutenants. I was in on the decisions at the meetings,” Gheysens said, in a storeroom sit-down at Wawa’s Claymont, Del., store after a rally to thank Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) for easing private-company auditing compliance rules as part of the so-called JOBS Act.

“We’ve put together some of our most aggressive store growth plans. We’re going to retrofit our stores” to speed things up with digital selection, espresso machines, and maybe in-store bakeries, he said.

Wawa had worked in recent years to centralize food production at South Jersey plants operated by partners like Amoroso’s, J&J Snack Foods and McLane Co.

“The new stores will focus on fresh food to go,” said Stoeckel. “New store designs will have a kitchen with workstations, different from the stores today. There will be digital signage and menu boards to showcase food and real espresso machines. In fact, we’ll be rolling those out to all stores this year. More and more, food service is critical to our long-range strategy. We want to be the most appetizing convenience retail store.”

Still no chairs. This remains a store for mobile America: Come and go, be back soon.

Stoeckel, a former John Wanamaker department-store executive, was the first non-Wood family member to run what’s now a chain generating yearly sales of $6 billion-plus, marketing gasoline, coffee, hoagies, Tastykakes, Herr’s chips, and more for quick consumption. The Woods still own half the company; current and former executives, about 20 percent; and an employee stock-ownership program, the rest.

Gheysens, who lives with his wife and four kids in Gloucester County, grew up in Vineland. His father owned a string of Sparkle Kleen car washes. “My father is a significant inspiration,” Gheysens says. “He didn’t have the education and the things he has afforded me in life. He started with a painting-contracting business. He worked hard. He’s the most down-to-earth man I know. I never heard him use a bad word.”

That fits Wawa’s style; it’s a place where executives in a ferociously competitive retail business talk about management by “servant-leadership,” like church elders improving the Sunday school.

Gheysens and Stoeckel say private ownership allows for long-term planning and steady growth. Maybe so: Wawa shares private ownership with Vanguard, Aramark, and some other growing Philadelphia companies (and public but family-controlled Comcast), at a time when publicly traded giants such as Sunoco and Cigna have been downsizing locally.

Shift at Wells

Hugh Long, the Southern banker who went native in Philadelphia as the former First Union Bank’s top executive

here starting in 2004, has been put in charge of U.S. business banking for successor Wells Fargo & Co.

With Long in his new post, Wells Fargo is folding its Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania-Delaware region into its New York-area region under Michelle Lee in New Jersey.

Long says he’ll oversee “several thousand” bankers and support staff serving regional firms with $2 million to $20 million in yearly sales. “It’s a great opportunity to contribute to a company that adopted me,” via merger, “just three years ago. I am flattered beyond all measure,” Long told me.

Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 and JoeD@phillynews.com and @PhillyJoeD.

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