We in South Jersey think of Wawa as one of our own, even though it's based in a town of the same name in eastern Pennsylvania.
The Wood family business that opened its first convenience store 50 years ago this week and still controls privately held Wawa got its start in Millville in 1803 - 92 years before The Press published its first edition. David Copper Wood's iron furnace there became a foundry and textile factory called Millville Manufacturing Co. under his half-brother, Richard Wood.
After the Civil War, Richard Wood started Millville's first water works and natural-gas company, later adding an electric generating plant. The Wood family operated all of Millville's utilities until the city purchased them in the 1920s.
The Wood family also sold the land for what is now the city of Vineland to its founder, Charles K. Landis, for $7 an acre.
When textile manufacturing faded, the Wood family in 1902 started producing and delivering dairy products from Wawa, Pa., sourcing from dairy farms there and in Millville. The rise of supermarkets put an end to the milk-delivery business, so the endlessly entrepreneurial family, then under Grahame Wood, figured they'd better open stores for their dairy products and other items.
The first opened April 16, 1964, in a small Pennsylvania town several miles from Wawa headquarters. In 1968, the first Wawa in New Jersey opened in Vineland.
There are plenty of reasons we like Wawa. Its stores are large and well designed, making them quick and easy to get into, shop and get going. Most sell gas at competitive prices at lots of pumps, also maximizing convenience for customers. And of course, we love how easy the stores make it to buy a newspaper and coffee in the morning.
The 92 Wawas in local counties today provide jobs for 3,150 people, who benefit from a smart employee stock-ownership plan. Wawa employees are the envy of many investors, being able to buy a piece of a superbly run company with a very promising future.
We think that's a great way for privately held firms to allow retiring owners to get some equity out of their company, while aligning the interests of workers with "their" company.
And, as CEO (and Vineland native) Chris Gheysens has said, remaining a private company allows Wawa to take the long-term view needed for growth.
What we like best about Wawa, though, is how the Wood family faced the loss first of its textile market and then its milk-delivery market and reinvented the business twice.
That makes the Woods an example to business people everywhere.