I don’t normally read business books, much less promotional corporate histories. I don’t like advertising and I don’t friend companies on Facebook. That’s why I found myself vaguely unsettled as I gulped down The Wawa Way.
“What? What’s a Wawa?” Within a fairly well defined area of South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, the question is unthinkable, but now I hear the question all too often. Since I no longer live in Wawaland, being sent The Wawa Way was the next best thing to getting a sub and cappuccino in the mail.
Wawa is a convenience store, a place to get milk, eggs, sandwiches, gasoline, but it’s more than that. It’s wildly successful. Newer, bigger stores appear closer and closer together. They stay busy and inspire unusual loyalty. There’s a wide selection of good food and you can fix your coffee yourself. Since they really took off when I was at the susceptible stages of getting hooked on coffee, starting to pitch in with the driving on family trips, and taking aimless late night spins with friends, I think the chain might be a defining part of my generation. When I think of Wawa, I remember my dad buying me cappuccino there after I missed the school bus, and our gratitude as Wawa added one store at a time to our long southern road trips. I don’t know anyone from back home who doesn’t happily jump out of the car at Wawa and head for their personal favorite items.
Reading about the history of Wawa was like reading the history of my hometown. I remember many of the changes as they happened: the advent of breakfast sandwiches, the coming of the gas station Wawa, the new coffee pots that still rankle. That was fun. I cruised through a lot of the business talk, but a few more substantial things stuck. Wawa is still a private company, but, as I learned, it came very close to going public about ten years ago. The author, former Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel, argues that public control would have worked against the company’s strategy of expanding slowly and never franchising. Instead of selling to Wall Street, the company sold stock to its employees.
As I hinted above, I have a jaded, if ignorant, view of business in general. “Free enterprise” is too vague an idea to be per se great for everyone. The Wawa Way makes a case for Wawa being one of the good companies, but other than the story of employee stock ownership, it’s a little vague. Stoeckel says that cashiers are the most important people in the business, but doesn’t say how much they are paid. He touts programs that are in place to help employees in need, but one doesn’t get a sense of whether employees struggle to pay their share of some more traditional health plan. He makes much of Wawa’s being closely connected to communities and knowing neighbors, and that’s plausible enough, although off the top of my head I don’t know many Wawa workers. But for all Wawa’s impression on the local culture, I can say that South Jersey is hardly a hotbed of radical labor empowerment.
When I looked at the book I was reading and examined my feelings about Wawa, I realized that while scoffing at advertising and corporate spin has definite appeal, a better appreciation of what business does well can also give one a better sense of its limitations. The best Stoeckel can offer is that Wawa felt really bad over their decision to cut the price of cigarettes. Soon we may be thinking about gasoline and the car culture that Wawa epitomizes so gloriously in the same way. Wawa may be my favorite big business, and it won’t save us from tobacco, sprawl, or global warming. Maybe when our representatives do their jobs and get on these problems, Wawa will turn its attention from the overhyped, underregulated Sunshine State and do something about the sad state of convenience food in New England.