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Howard Stoeckel's big claim to fame at Hamilton High School West, outside of Trenton, N.J.? He graduated. "It wasn't a given," he said.
How the chief executive officer of Wawa Inc., a chain of 559 convenience stores and one of the most respected retailers in the country, overcame a less-than-impressive high-school record is a tale of a young man who discovered early on that life wasn't always easy, but who had a talent for thinking big and making things happen.
Fortunately, life changed dramatically for Stoeckel after his grade-challenged high school years. A part-time job as a desk clerk at a Howard Johnson motor lodge, taken while attending Rider College, set the tone for Stoeckel's career of solving problems and established his attitude that "work is fun."
While still in his teens, Stoeckel quickly rose to an assistant manager's position at the hotel, which was in its heyday. He did a little bit of everything. At one point, when the owners left for more than a week for a summertime vacation in Acapulco, the young man found himself on his own, managing the sold-out hotel.
"The temps went up to 102 degrees, the air conditioning broke, the pool got contaminated," he recalled. "If it could go wrong, it went wrong. Boy, did I learn a lot fast. But I loved it – the entrepreneurship and meeting new people."
One of the most striking aspects of Stoeckel's career has been his ability to put his own stamp on whatever he has done, creating a place for himself and succeeding in positions he created from scratch. His first post-college job, for instance, seemed to be waiting for him to walk in the door.
Business degree in hand, Stoeckel lined up an interview with a company in Philadelphia just two days after graduating from Rider. "I have a phobia about being late, so I arrived an hour-and-a-half early," Stoeckel remembered.
To kill time, he walked to the flagship John Wanamaker department store, which had a soda fountain in the basement, to have a drink and kill some time. "Sitting on the stool at the counter, I saw a sign on a gallery above me that said 'Employment Office.' I figured I'd go up there and apply for a job as practice for my real interview."
He filled out an application and was asked to interview for a position the store needed to fill. He did, and was asked to stay for several more interviews that afternoon. Grabbing the opportunity, Stoeckel canceled his other appointment. At the end of the long day, he was offered a job – as assistant buyer of women's hosiery.
"Which I quickly turned down," Stoeckel laughed. "But they offered me another job."
That position – a newly-created management training slot in the transportation department – had Stoeckel working as a liaison between the Teamster truck drivers and the retail employees, a job that gave him two distinct views of retailing. He spent the next 13 years at Wanamaker's, starting in an office in the sub-sub-basement. "There was nowhere for me to go but up – literally," Stoeckel joked.
In 1969, he was promoted to human resources manager for a new Wanamaker's store in Harrisburg, Pa., yet another position that hadn't previously existed. A year later, he returned to the flagship store, working his way up in the human resources department for the next decade.
"Wanamaker's had many long-tenured people," he explained. "Employees who worked there 25 or 30 years would come into my office complaining, counting the number of years before retirement. I thought, 'How awful is that?' I felt bad for them. But I [promised myself] I'd never stay where I was unhappy.
"I've hit brick walls in my life," he continued, "but I've tried to do something about them. In business and your personal life, you need to create your own road map. It may not always work out, but then you need to find another path."
In 1984, he joined The Limited Inc., in Columbus, Ohio, a move that would greatly expand his horizons. Hired to work with senior executives in recruitment and development, six months into the job he became vice president of human resources for the company's wholesale division, Mast Industries, which designed and manufactured clothing for the parent's retail chains.
"It was an international business and my almost four years there changed me," he said. "I learned to think big, but also to focus. The Limited is called, 'The Limited' for a reason: They limit things. They do a few things that add up to something big. They don't try to do a ton of things. This shaped me as a business leader."
While The Limited was growing, Wawa was rapidly expanding and looking to beef up its human resources department. When an offer to join Wawa as vice president of human resources came in 1987, Stoeckel saw it as an opportunity to go back home to Pennsylvania.
"Initially, I wasn't convinced to make the move, but after meeting [former CEO, now chairman] Dick Wood and [Minister of Magic] Don Price, I realized it was a unique opportunity and this was a unique company — and I could make a difference and build something," he said.
The chain, with about 300 stores at the time, was facing major staffing issues and the labor market was extremely tight. "We didn't have all the building blocks we needed," Stoeckel noted. "But I was in a very fortunate position to work with the leadership here and put those building blocks in place."
During his first visit to Wawa, Stoeckel was struck by the company's culture. After joining the team, one of his first priorities was to use that unique corporate culture as a selling tool for prospective job candidates. "I've never worked with a group of people as passionate and committed about achieving their goals," he said.
"A lot of what I've done in my career here has been about manifesting and nurturing the culture. It is our No. 1 competitive advantage. Our values and culture go hand-in-hand and make us unique."
While people come and go, he said, "The culture is the stabilizing factor in our success. It's the people who are important to our success, not the CEO."
While Stoeckel had the human resources department humming, Wawa's profits were not singing the same tune. "We call 1989, 1990 and 1991 'The Dark Days,'" Stoeckel said, noting customer counts were stagnant and sales were flat. In response, then-CEO Wood reshuffled the management team, putting Stoeckel in a marketing position. Once again, he was charged with creating something from scratch.
"This was the most significant challenge in my career," he said. "We had a highly-fragmented, decentralized marketing department, that wasn't really a department. Fortunately for me, there were great people here who understood what customers wanted and had the technical skills that I lacked. I had to build a structure to let those people succeed."
To help turn Wawa's sales around, Stoeckel went back to lessons learned at The Limited: less is more. "We were doing a lot of things, but the sum total of the parts did not add up to what we needed in terms of sales and customer counts," he recalled.
Stoeckel and his team put together "The Big Five" – five major marketing initiatives each year that would have a significant impact on the business. For example, the team branded the hoagie line, offered low-price cigarettes and promoted low-price sodas. "This let us focus our efforts on a few initiatives, let the customers know what we stood for," he said.
On Being a Leader
Indeed, the CEO believes the world's best companies keep things simple. "When I replaced Dick Wood [two years ago], I replaced a legend that ran the company for almost three decades and who was a founding family member," he said. "I felt the weight of the experience. I thought about how to preserve the best of this company and show stability in leadership."
To that end, he developed a game plan and called it UNO, which stands for unique experience, nimbleness and opportunity. "It was important that people knew we had a direction that was consistent with the past because everyone was asking me how things would change. I wanted to tell them that things wouldn't change, we were just taking everything to a new level."
A good leader must verbalize what he stands for, he explained. "People need to have access to you, to question you about your beliefs, and you need to keep the plan simple to get it to people at all levels of the company."
A great believer in having a game plan, Stoeckel said it is also important to articulate that plan with passion and enthusiasm, and align the organization behind it. "The game plan comes from the organization. It's not something I sit in a room by myself and think up," he said
If a colleague comes to him with a good, but complicated, idea, Stoeckel will break it down and simplify it. "There are things I'm not good at in business. I have my weaknesses. But one thing I'm good at is helping people simplify things."
Among the goof-ups Stoeckel has learned from: nationally-branded fast food. "I was the guy that put Taco Bells, Pizza Huts and Dunkin' Donuts in our stores. I thought co-branding was the wave of the future," he said. "It wasn't. I probably should have owned up to that issue much sooner.
"However, out of that came a commitment to our own brand. If we hadn't gone through that journey, we may not have as much of our product Wawa-branded today."
Stoeckel is an admirer of Trader Joe's, the specialty grocer. "It's cult-like, sells high-quality products that are their own brand at a good price, and is profitable." Stoeckel wants to take the Wawa brand to new heights. "Selling national brands doesn't make us unique," he noted. "But there is only one place to get Wawa Spring Water, Wawa Coffee, Wawa packaged nuts, Wawa yogurt, and now, our own energy drink, Mach W."
Stoeckel encourages others to push the envelope and make mistakes. "But based on my own experience, I feel it's important to face up to those mistakes sooner rather than later, and move on.
"We look for people who have a passion for the industry and our brand, are flexible and willing to do things to help us serve our customers better," the CEO said.
Many people think being CEO means "not having a boss. I have 18,000 bosses. I work for every single associate. The general manager of each store, in particular, is my customer. They are stakeholders in this business. I can't do without them, but they can do without me. It's all about the people who deliver the brand experience. They bring out the best in me; I hope to bring out the best in them. I'm fortunate to be part of the team."