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The Heart and Soul of Wawa

By Don Longo

Henry "Harry" McHugh technically retired from Wawa Inc. on Dec. 31, 2008, after 36 years in various positions including chief people officer and chief operations officer. But if you called his office today, you'd be greeted by a message from the convenience retailer's "cultural ambassador," a newly created position only a company as people- and brand-minded as Wawa would have.

I know I am just one of literally thousands of people to be thrilled that Harry is staying in the industry, even if only on a part-time basis.

McHugh embodies the values critical to Wawa's unique culture, particularly the importance off its store associates and their dedication to delighting customers. As "cultural ambassador," he will continue to serve on the boards of several charitable and educational organizations, and speak to community groups while training and helping Wawa people develop new community programs.

McHugh currently serves as chairman of the Red Cross of Southeast Pennsylvania, sits on the board of governors of the Academy of Food Marketing at St. Joseph's University, and is a board trustee for Immaculata University, where all Wawa associates -- from part-timers to managers -- are eligible to attend credit-bearing classes.

Community service will be the other big focus of McHugh's new duties. He'll be speaking to community organizations and furthering Wawa's longstanding commitment to hiring people with special needs (or "special gifts" as he calls them).

McHugh's experience at Wawa ran the gamut from real estate and operations to human resources. He ran the real estate division during a 10-year period when the retailer added 300 stores. "Next to seeing people develop, nothing gave me more enjoyment than watching a store you opened pay off and show tangible results," said McHugh.

Prior to Wawa, McHugh worked for a firm that consulted on the NASA space program. "This was in the mid-60's before satellites," McHugh said. "I was working on how to handle all data transactions between tracking stations all around the world." The experience gained in logistics, communications and standardization was a wonderful forerunner for his 36-year career in retailing, where he faced similar challenges.

Creating a position called "cultural ambassador" is such a Wawa thing to do. The convenience retailer is among a handful of retailers that put a premium on culture and the role it plays in the company's success.

At one of 45 separate celebrations of store anniversaries in what is being called The Year of Wawaversaries, CEO Howard Stoeckel is quoted in our cover story as saying, "This anniversary is about digging deep into the soul of the brand."

To McHugh, that soul starts with Wawa value No. 1: Valuing People.

"Every company writes down their 'values,'" said McHugh. "I guarantee that Enron had a list of values, too. But at Wawa we went out in the field and asked our people, what should our values be? Then, we challenge ourselves every year to see if we are living up to those values." Management collects associate input through a yearly value survey, as well as at town hall meetings, store tours, adopt-a-store programs and even working in the stores.

One constant refrain I've heard from McHugh over the years is that this industry doesn't do enough to dispel the unflattering images that many in the general public have about working in a convenience store. He challenges the industry to do better.

"We are capable of so much good, yet we allow ourselves to be mislabeled," said McHugh. "Instead of complaining about the minimum wage laws, we should position ourselves as the employer of choice. Let McDonald's fight that [minimum wage] battle. We should concentrate on more important matters."

I can't think of a better ambassador for Wawa, or for that matter, the entire convenience store industry. Good luck in your new job, Mr. Ambassador!
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