What happens when a company places service before leadership? Wawa Inc. did just that, and its chain of convenience stores has soared as a result. Jeffrey M. Cunningham, founder of NACD Directorship magazine and professor of leadership and innovation at Arizona State University, spoke with Wawa Chair Richard D. (“Dick”) Wood Jr. on the main stage at NACD’s 2015 Global Board Leaders’ Summit about the inner workings of the regional convenience-store chain that has grown into a $9 billion empire.
Originally an iron foundry established in New Jersey in 1803, the Wawa company has weathered many rounds of disruption to become one of three genuine cult businesses in the country, the other two being In-N-Out Burgers and Chic-fil-A. Wood ascribed his success at the privately-owned company that he has served since 1970 to the concepts of servant leadership and being a steward of investment in advanced technologies and innovations. A member of Wawa’s legal counsel at the beginning of his career, this descendant of the founder now serves as non-executive chair of the company’s nine-person board.
For the first half of the event, Cunningham interviewed Wood about the history of the company and Wood’s commitment to the philosophy of servant leadership. In a business context, this philosophy puts service to every stakeholder before any other facet of the enterprise. Wood takes justifiable pride in Wawa’s commitment to its 26,000 employees, including their ownership in the company. Wawa’s Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) has created such value for employees at every level that the organization last year received 300,000 applications for its available 3,000 open positions. The Wawa model has proven to be profitable not in spite of but because of its commitment to family and service.
Once the conversation opened up to questions from the floor, Wood described some of the business challenges he’s faced over the years and how he has surmounted them. When asked about his reputation as “Chief Paranoia Officer” and how even good CEOs often misread the signs, Wood said, “Every time it comes back to hubris. It always comes back to hubris. CEOs didn’t have enough paranoia.”
Wood’s observations on a form of CEO self-awareness that some dub paranoia was fascinating in relation to the earlier keynote presentation by Kwame Anthony Appiah on honor’s place in business. One way that Wood practices honor in his business is to ensure that Wawa’s six core values—Value People, Delight Customers, Embrace Change, Do the Right Thing, Do Things Right, and Passion for Winning—are so thoroughly woven into the company culture that every employee can recite them; and dozens of times each month, Wawa employees recognize their peers in writing for exemplifying those values day to day. Wood’s leadership of Wawa illustrates the type of professional ethics that Appiah touched on in his keynote speech.
Before closing, Wood addressed Wawa’s next step in its innovation cycle: a move toward diesel fuel. “Two big products are going to disappear,” Wood declared. “One is cigarettes, and the other is gasoline. We’re looking into alternatives to replace a commodity we think will disappear.” To support diesel as the anticipated new market source in fuel, Wawa plans to retrofit its filling stations.
Katie Grills is assistant editor at NACD Directorship magazine.