Jim Collins may have the corner on the “Great Company” book market, but Howard Stoeckel has been in the trenches of what it takes to create one.  The newly retired CEO of Wawa’s story captured the room at our Growth Strategies Breakfast this past month, his commitment to “Servant Leadership” apparent in the stories he told and his quiet yet compelling delivery.

From its roots as an iron foundry in the early 1800’s to its emergence as one of the most successful and profitable convenience store operators in the country, (Wawa is currently ranked 42 on Forbes’ America’s largest privately-held companies), Howard shared Wawa’s successes and mistakes over its 200 year history.

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With the publication of his book, “The Wawa Way: How a Funny Name and Six Core Values Revolutionized Convenience” due to come out this month, you can certainly read more about their road to success. (HINT: Buy it at a Wawa store if there’s one nearby.  It’s value priced at less than $10 🙂 )

Until you get a copy though, here’s my 5 key takeaways from the morning…

1)      Listen and Respond to Your Customers – “If you win ‘share of heart’, you’ll keep customers for life” is Wawa’s driving philosophy.  Harvard Business Review writes that Wawa has created a “living brand”, one that is responsive and ever-changing and built around their employees who are living examples of their culture.  Serving coffee, making hoagies and providing surcharge-free ATM access – hallmarks of their brand today – all were ideas that came from their customers.  And – implemented in part by customer-centric store managers without “corporate approval” just because their customers consistently asked them.  BTW, Wawa makes enough hoagies annually to feed the entire population of NYC seven meals each AND the coffee it sells – over 195 million cups in a year – would keep Niagara Falls going for 21 seconds.

2)      Become Integral to Your Market – Howard shared with us that you can’t be a store manager unless you work your way “up from the bottom.” And all store managers are expected to make each Wawa “part of the community” and impress regular customers who will come in five times a week – or more. This policy is essential to sustain and maintain the Core Values and culture that are the “Wawa way.” The result is the legendary service that Wawa customers can expect and deserve.

3)      Communicate, Persist… REPEAT – Excellence isn’t arrived at by accident.  Underlying Wawa’s commitment to responsiveness and service are numerous processes and systems that have been implemented over time and are essential ingredients when it comes to maintaining their brand promise.  But some of those systems which were implanted to speed delivery of product and improve efficiencies weren’t initially greeted with open arms by employees or customers.  The reaction was quite negative when Wawa decided to take the automated order entry system that they had seen QuikTrip used in Oklahoma and apply it to their own stores.  But, as Howard shared with us, they persisted.  They communicated the change, tied it to the outcomes that they expected from the change and how the change would help drive their commitment to responsiveness and a quality experience AND then they repeated…and repeated and repeated. “

Now”, he joked with us,”Our customers love that they can order sandwiches and drinks “their way” and they don’t have to stand in line waiting for service.  They can finish their shopping, pay for their items and their order is done.  You can still talk to the people behind the counter.  But they’re getting their jobs done quicker too.”

4)      Learn from and Remember Your Mistakes– All “jabs” to Collins aside, Wawa actually brought Jim Collins in to work with them a few years back on their strategy and BHAG.  Howard referenced Collins’ lesser known, but noteworthy book, “How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In” when he spoke to some of the mistakes the company has made over the years, including the “Dark Days” in the early 1990’s where the company got off track.

“Don’t be leading edge.  Be ‘bleeding edge’ and borrow from those who have also been successful,” he stated.  Including your competition.  The Sizzli sandwich for example? A great hit – and a copy of breakfast sandwiches served at McDonald’s.

And my fifth takeway?

5)   Serve Your Constituents Always – Your associates, your customers, your stakeholders, your vendors and partners and your community are all part of what make your company successful.  They’re all vital to your success. With an attitude of service, humility and willingness to change and adapt you will win people over and grow the business as well.

And if you’re on the road to becoming a GREAT company, we’d love to hear your story too. Drop us a line!