Wawa President and CEO Chris Gheysens wants customers to spend less time in the store.
But he also wants them to keep coming back. So making each trip as quick and pleasant as possible is a high priority.
“The average time spent in a Wawa is 3 minutes and 46 seconds,” Gheysens told students during a visit Tuesday to his alma mater, St. Augustine Preparatory School in Buena Vista Township. “I have a team of engineers studying how to get that down, but we still want to make it the best 3 minutes and 46 seconds we can, be quick with a personal connection.”
With about 650 stores along the East Coast, Gheysens said Wawa plans to have 1,000 stores by the end of 2020, with more planned in New Jersey, and in Florida, where 109 stores could grow to 500. The company recently announced plans to add about 5,000 jobs.
“We look at places where we can open a lot of stores,” Gheysens said.
That’s good news for customers.
Carl Wilson stops at the Wawa on Fire Road in Egg Harbor Township every day. He recently went to Disney World where he saw construction of new Wawa stores in Kissimmee, Florida and stopped at a store location in Orlando.
“It’s good you can go down there and get the same coffee you’re used to here,” he said.
That consistency of quality is important to Wawa, which Gheysens said is one reason they won’t expand too much.
As the “lead goose,” Gheysens is also part of the Wawa brand and shares its values. He said he learned those values at St. Augustine .
Before joining Wawa, he told students he spent some time working for a bank.
“They paid me a lot of money,” he said of the reason he left accounting firm Deloitte and Touche, where he had been working. “But in a week I realized they didn’t share the same values I had. I crawled back to Deloitte. That was a big failure for me. But it taught me.”
A Vineland native, who also attended St. Mary’s School in East Vineland, then Villanova University, Gheysens shares South Jersey roots with Millville’s Wood family, who started the company. He said he knew when he interviewed with Wawa that it was where he wanted to be.
“People talk about values,” he told students. “But what does that mean? Wawa was a family run business. They wanted to do the right thing, make a difference in peoples’ lives.”
Now a Moorestown resident, he worked at the company for 17 years before he was named CEO in 2012. He began traveling to Wawas “on a journey to see what we stand for.”
He talked to vendors, customers and employees, and one story from a South Jersey customer stuck with him.
“He said he comes every day, gets his coffee, pays and leaves,” Gheysens said. “One day he had received some family medical news, and had to go to the hospital. He stopped to get coffee and on that day the lady behind the register put her hand on his hand and said, ‘You don’t look OK today. How are you?’ He told her had just gotten some bad news. She gave him the coffee at no charge and offered to talk with him a while.”
The man said he had to go, but all the way to the hospital all he could think about was the “unexpected caring” of that clerk, who happened to be the general manager of that store.
“I use that term a lot,” Gheysens said. “That’s not really business. There is zero training for that. That is the culture. It’s not just hoagies and gas. I don’t want to say that Wawa is saving the world. But when you can give people the idea that they are making a difference, you can create a family in your community.”
Still, business is not just hugs and caring. Among the current challenges is Amazon, which has plans to open convenience stories. A Wawa app is being developed so customers can shop ahead. Kale and quinoa salad is sold next to the hoagies. Nitrogen-infused coffee is coming.
The goal is to be indispensable.
John Clark, of Pleasantville, called Wawa his favorite coffee spot.
“I stop here every day to get my two cups,” he said. “They have everything.”
Asked if there was anything he woud add to improve the convenience store, he replied, “Maybe coffee delivery.”
Still a privately owned business, Wawa has no plans to go public, Gheysens said.
The company has about 27,000 employees and is the 36th largest private company in the United States, bringing in nearly $8.9 billion in revenue in 2015, according to Forbes.
About 41 percent of the company stock is owned by employees, some of whom now have $1 million retirement funds.
“Want stock?” he told students. “Come work for us.”
Student Matthew Fisher, 18, of Chesilhurst, Camden County, vice president of student government at St. Augustine Prep, said Gheysens was the best speaker they have had and generated the most questions.
“He has a lot of energy,” he said. “And Wawa is something we all know and love.”
Student Aiden Baltz, 17, of Medford, asked Gheysens to autograph his bottle of Wawa green tea.
Outgoing and a bit self-deprecating, Gheysens said he is often asked for a road map to becoming a CEO. He credits hard work, his belief in the company and its values, and luck — being in the right place at the right time when the position opened up.
As president of student government, Matthew Balestriere, 18, of West Deptford, got to lead Gheysens’ tour.
During a tour of the campus, Gheysens marveled at the expansion since he graduated in 1989.
“It still feels like home, just much bigger,” he said. “It still has that special feeling.”
He told students to value their time at the school and look for that same sense of brotherhood and caring in their work.
“My hope for all of you is to find the place where you jump out of bed to go to work because you know it is a place where you can make a difference,” he said.
Staff Writer Lauren Carroll contributed to this report.