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May 21, 2018
The Inside Story of Wawa, Taking Over the East Coast
 

In February, a few days after the Philadelphia Eagles had won their first Super Bowl, a suburban convenience store celebrated. Hard.

The early-morning event nominally marked the reopening of the renovated store--a squat, tan outpost on a busy road--but it also doubled as an outpouring of football frenzy. Green-and-white noisemakers rattled. Eagles cheers punctuated the formal remarks. The mayor spoke, backed by rows of potato chips, while rush-hour commuters darted in for coffee and breakfast sandwiches. A towering goose mascot helped cut a big red ribbon.

In the backroom, wedged between computer servers and a first-aid kit, a brown packing box of Newport Menthol Gold at his feet, the man largely responsible for this $10 billion family empire grinned. "People ask what a non-executive chairman does. I tell them: Whatever he wants!" jokes Dick Wood, 80, who possesses, beneath the kindly exterior of a soft-spoken Florida retiree, a spine of steel. "I think I'm a myth."

Among entrepreneurs, almost. Most family businesses don't survive the third generation, yet Wood is comfortably watching his multi-generation company thrive. That would be Wawa, the much-beloved convenience store that you likely know either intimately or not at all.

Now Wawa's semi-retired chairman, Wood was the second and longest-serving chief executive of a four-CEO company, one that has weathered 54 years of family in-fighting, recessions, and several failed expansion attempts. Wood kept Wawa private, but also started handing it off to non­-family leaders more than a decade ago, betting the best way to ensure Wawa's future was to separate it from its founding family. His wager paid off. Wawa is still aggressively growing: It now has almost 800 locations­--none franchised--and 30,000 employees in six states (plus Washington, D.C.).

Founded in 1964 by Grahame Wood--Dick's first cousin once removed--Wawa began as a roadside dairy market in the Philadelphia suburbs. Its founder likely wouldn't recognize Wawa today, as it expands throughout the East Coast and audaciously tries to muscle out of the gas-station ghetto to compete with the likes of Panera, Starbucks, and Sweetgreen.

After decades of pushing cheap gas and cigarettes and made-to-order sandwiches to suburban crowds, Wawa is starting to
de-emphasize two of the three. The current CEO, Chris Gheysens, is swapping in Tesla charging stations, kale salads, and small-batch coffee, most of which customers can order on their phones (or Wawa's ubiquitous touchscreens). Gheysens calls this Wawa's "barbell" strategy: continue to offer the cheap staples that attracted longtime customers, while expanding into cities as the newest health-conscious, gourmet-inflected, casual-lunch option.

"We'll open up a store this year in Center City Philadelphia that won't sell cigarettes. It won't have gas," says Gheysens, 47, a South Jersey native who looks the part, down to his violet-and-black-plaid blazer and the big Eagles pennant in his pleasantly low-frills office. "When a convenience store doesn't sell cigarettes and gas, that begins not to be a convenience store."


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