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Q&A: Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens On the Welcome America! Festival

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This month, Wawa again embraces its role as title sponsor for Philadelphia’s weeklong Welcome America! festival. July 1-7, hundreds of thousands of visitors will descend on the area for an Independence Day blowout like no other—and the biggest celebration of its kind in the country. Consider it a trial by fire(works) for Wawa’s new CEO, Chris Gheysens, a Villanova University graduate who’s been with the rapidly expanding regional institution for the past 15 years. We chatted with Gheysens about his new role as “Head Goose,” his favorite Welcome America! events and, naturally, what he orders at Wawa.

MLT: Congratulations on your promotion. How have the first six months been?
CG: It’s been fun. I was lucky to have a great mentor and a great transition with Howard Stoeckel, our former CEO. You really don’t understand the pressure of the job—and I mean that in a good way—until you sit in the seat. Our business is healthy, our associates are happy, our customers seem happy, and we have a lot of good things going on.

MLT: What changes can we expect to see now that you’re in charge? 
CG: We have a fairly lean senior management team, which I’ve been a part of for a number of years. We don’t have a culture here where the CEO just comes in and changes things. I am putting a lot more emphasis on technology—specifically, mobility. We want to give our customers the ability to pay, order, get nutritional information and many other things on the smartphone.

MLT: How big can Wawa really get? 
CG: We’re at 620 stores today. We’re in a growth mode—that’s for sure. Florida and North Jersey are important to us as part of that journey, as well as our other core markets. We have plans for many more new stores both here and in Florida. We don’t have designs right now to be a national company; we have designs on being a multiregional company. We’re in six states—the five around here (Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia) and Florida. It will remain that way for a number of years.

MLT: What Welcome America! events are you most looking forward to?
CG: July 2 is Hoagie Day, and we’re going to build and serve a free four-and-a-half-ton Wawa hoagie on the lawn of the National Constitution Center. We’re also providing free admission to the center that day. Inside, there will be an exhibit on the history of the hoagie and Wawa.

MLT: All the New Jersey stores are now reopened after Hurricane Sandy. How have the communities responded?
CG: Initially, customers came in crying and hugging associates. It goes to show you that—especially with those legacy stores tucked along the barrier islands—Wawa really is a fabric of the community.

MLT: What do you order at Wawa these days?
CG: I’m addicted to our African-blend coffee. I have a penchant for the turkey hoagie on whole-wheat toasted, with a lot of veggies—it’s fabulous with a little ranch dressing. And you have to try our new Sizzli with the multigrain English muffin, egg white, ham and cheddar cheese. It’s fantastic. 

MLT: You received your undergraduate degree from Villanova and your master’s from St. Joseph’s University. Any potent Main Line memories?
CG: A lot of them, whether it was breakfast at Minella’s at all hours or any of the places college kids go. I have a fondness for Villanova and St. Joe’s. They helped shape who I am in a lot of ways.

MLT: After 15 years with the company, are you in awe of your lead-guy status?
CG: [Laughs] You know, that’s an interesting question. I’ve been asked that before, and I guess I don’t reflect on my success—I really don’t. I look at the responsibility I have to the million and a half people who come to Wawa every day [to make sure] it’s a great experience. The responsibility to 19,000 Wawa associates [to make sure] they work in a great place and are treated well. That’s my family; I really think of them as that. In my mind, I still have to earn the success for many more years. I haven’t quite done that yet.

For more on the Wawa Welcome America! festival, visit welcomeamerica.com.

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