Students Learn Leadership On the Go at Wawa

Rider students seeking a role model in business leadership and excellence can simply follow the footprints that lay before them. Forty years ago, Howard Stoeckel ’67 found himself in a position today’s students can relate to: a Business degree in one hand with the other trying to open the doors to a career.
Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rider students seeking a role model in business leadership and excellence can simply follow the footprints that lay before them. Forty years ago, Howard Stoeckel ’67 found himself in a position today’s students can relate to: a Business degree in one hand with the other trying to open the doors to a career.

Today, Stoeckel is the chief executive officer of the Wawa convenience stores, overseeing 571 locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and ensuring that customers can quickly purchase their favorite built-to-order hoagies, freshly brewed coffee, and any number of other products that make their day that much easier. What’s more, Stoeckel has also served as chair of the Rider Board of Trustees since 2008.

But ask Stoeckel if he envisioned this when he graduated from Rider, and he won’t pretend he – or anyone else – could have. “It wasn’t until years later that I fully valued my education. It helped me get to where I am today,” he said. “But if you had asked me in 1967 if I could ever see myself leading a major company or chairing the Board at my alma mater, the answer would have been ‘absolutely not.’ In fact, my classmates would have thought it was a joke.”

Obviously, Stoeckel enjoyed the last laugh, and says that today’s students can, too. He shared his thoughts on business with a group of 20 students from Rider’s Leadership Development Program (LDP) at the Wawa Leadership Trip on Thursday, January 21 at Wawa Corporate Headquarters in southeast Pennsylvania. The trip was sponsored by Rider’s Center for the Development of Leadership Skills (CDLS).

“Over the past few years, the CDLS has taken numerous Leadership Trips to places such as National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the Lower East Side Business Improvement District in New York and Mercer County Waterfront Park, home of the Trenton Thunder,” said Laura Seplaki, associate director of CDLS and director of LDP. “So, as I was considering our options for this year, I asked Mr. Stoeckel if he’d be able to host us at Wawa, and fortunately, he was more than delighted to have us.

Stoeckel spent hours with the students, who are also members of the Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honor society, detailing his own rise up the corporate ladder, but also explaining the evolution of Wawa, established 200 years ago by the Wood family as an iron foundry that manufactured cannon balls.

Just as the company morphed from iron to textiles to a dairy by the early 1900s, Wawa has shaped itself to meets the needs of its consumers, Stoeckel said. The first Wawa convenience store opened in 1964 and since then has grown to become the 72nd-largest privately held company in the United States. Wawa sells more than 190 million cups of coffee each year – all under oversight of Stoeckel.

“To succeed, a company has to stay young,” he said. “Businesses that mature will die.”

Stoeckel also spoke with the students about the job searches they will soon undertake, and urged them to look closely at the DNA of a company, a term he uses to describe the culture, personality and makeup of a business.

“All companies have personalities, so find one that matches yours,” he said, highlighting a number of Wawa’s core values, such as valuing people, delighting customers, embracing change and doing the right thing. “We make our business decisions based on these values.”

Stoeckel also reminded students that they can learn through mistakes, pointing to Wawa’s decision in the 1990s to install Taco Bell and Pizza Hut outlets inside Wawa locations. “People love those restaurants, but they didn’t love them inside our stores,” he admitted.

The Wawa Leadership Trip also included a leadership panel discussion, in which Stoeckel teamed with Wawa executives from accounting, human resources and talent management. Students were able to ask the panel questions about business, management and career paths during the free-form session, before being led on a guided tour of the Wawa Dairy, across the street from the corporate offices, dubbed “Wawa University.”

Students said they found the day-long tip helpful, and enjoyed Stoeckel’s insights into what makes Wawa tick. “His idea about DNA was interesting,” said Nicole Lawrence, a Communication major. “These days, it’s almost like you want to take whatever job you can get without any thought to the fit, so that’s something I’ll think about.”

Finance major Alyssa Vile appreciated the way Stoeckel articulated Wawa’s aim to focus on its strengths. “It’s just as important to know what you don’t do as what you do,” she said.

Afterward, Seplaki called the trip a success, noting that it’s important to utilize Rider’s alumni network for such events. “Not only does it connect our current students with talented and accomplished professionals from whom they can learn valuable lessons, it also reinforces to students that their education at Rider is a strong foundation for future career success,” she explained. “Mr. Stoeckel is a wonderful example of a Rider alumnus who used his collegiate experience as a springboard to build a prolific career. By sharing with the students that he was not much different from them while in college, he inspired our students and proved that they, too, can become great and influential leaders.”

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