How Wawa stayed pri­vate— and how its work­ers won


About 14.4 mil­lion Amer­i­can work­ers par­tic­i­pated in em­ployee stock own­er­ship pro­grams (ESOPs) as of 2015, up from 10.2 mil­lion in 2002, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Cen­ter for Em­ployee Own­er­ship. The over­all num­ber of plans has de­clined, which the NCEO at­tributes to in­ac­tive plans some com­pa­nies reg­is­tered in the late 1990s, as well as low cre­ation rates since then.

ESOPs work like this: Once an em­ployee has worked for a spec­i­fied time and/or hours, a com­pany starts buy­ing shares for that em­ployee, of­ten us­ing credit. (At Wawa, any­one who’s worked more than a year, who’s logged at least 1,000 hours, and who’s at least 18 is en­rolled.)

Shares rise or fall with com­pany for­tunes; their prices must be re­ported. When a worker re­tires, or within six years of leav­ing, the com­pany must start pay­ing the shares’ cur­rent value. A Wawa share was about $900 when its ESOP ex­panded in 2003. It’s now worth al­most $10,000.

Ch­eryl Far­ley started part time at Wawa in 1982. In April, she re­tired from the IT de­part­ment—and promptly em­barked on a busy sched­ule of bird­ing trips around North Amer­ica; cruis­ing Alaska and the Caribbean; and vis­its to fel­low Wawa re­tirees, some of whom built beach houses with ESOP earn­ings. “Be­cause of the ESOP,” Far­ley says, “many re­cent re­tirees are do­ing things that many peo­ple would never dream of.”

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