Above: Harry McHugh with Frank McDonnell, President of the Donegal Society, in the Library of the Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center
By Marita Krivda Poxon
Harry McHugh, 73, Galway-born retired executive at Wawa Inc., spoke to members of the Donegal Association of Philadelphia who crowded the dining room of the Irish Center on Sunday, April 23. He was introduced by the association’s president, Frank McDonnell, who knew the speaker’s life story would be riveting after having met McHugh at an Irish Studies event given at Villanova University.
Indeed, McHugh’s climb to the top of the ladder at Wawa from humble beginnings in Ireland is inspirational. McHugh emphasized that he got lucky in life starting with his early years in Tuam, Galway, as one of 15 children born to a mother who championed education. After getting his leaving certificate at age 17 in 1960, he joined one of his brothers in New York where he worked for the state coding finger prints. Very soon he got an opportunity to work for NASA where he set up tracking stations to monitor orders transmitted to keep the space program running smoothly.
After McHugh lost his job following a massive layoff when the moon landing program slowed down, he landed a position at Wawa in 1973, a relatively small company at the time. He admitted that he really took the job to stay on the East Coast because he wanted to continue courting his Limerick born Irish sweetheart who lived in New York City and became his wife. Accepting the position at Wawa turned out to be the luckiest choice in his very lucky life.
Richard Wood, a member of a wealthy Quaker dynasty who had been reared by an Irish-born nanny, hired McHugh saying that he loved the Irish. Wood gave McHugh a chance to develop a systems department for his family’s small dairy farm. Established in the 1900s by an elder relative, George Wood, the dairy farm was called Wawa, a name derived from an Indian word for the Canada goose. The family dairy farm championed a hygienic process for bottled milk. Wawa dairy assured the public that their milk was safe to drink. Certified Safe Milk became their trademark.
With Quality Assurance as an early company standard, Richard Wood hired McHugh to help him innovate and grow their dairy business.
When supermarkets appeared after World War II, Wawa cut back on their milk delivery business and bought out their competitors such as Abbotts Dairy. The Wood family opened their first Wawa convenience store in Folsom, PA in 1964. By the time McHugh began working at Wawa in 1973, the company had opened its 100th convenience store in Marlton, NJ. The growth in the past 45 years has been phenomenal. Wawa currently runs 750 stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Florida which generate ten billion dollars annually.
McHugh’s early passion for education never left him. While at Wawa, he earned an MBA from Penn’s Wharton School of Business. He made education part of Wawa’s corporate culture encouraging his fellow employees to receive their degrees with a program in place at Immaculata University. Wawa has spent over four million dollars yearly on higher education for their employees. Always cognizant of his Irish roots, he has brought young people over from Ireland to work in local Wawa stores on the Main Line. These lucky Irish employees simultaneously have been able to earn their MBAs. Also, McHugh in his position as Senior Vice-President of Operations, has insisted that Wawa hire women who now are over fifty percent of the workforce.
McHugh holds deep-seated beliefs that stem back from his days in Ireland. A little known fact about him is that in 1957 he enrolled for four years, when he was thirteen, to be a missionary priest at Sacred Heart College in Ballinafad, County Mayo.
His mentor in the seminary was Father Ben Dolan who encouraged him to develop a strong, independent intellect. Much of the nature of his leadership at Wawa, McHugh has said, can be traced back to the values he learned in the seminary studying under this great priest.
Few Irish have risen so far, so fast in America as Harry McHugh. He himself credits much of this to luck in his life. But those who attended his presentation at the Irish Center know differently. It is his inherent strength of character and his amazing drive for self-education that has spearheaded his advancement.
He is not only a cultural ambassador for Wawa, he is also living proof that the American Dream is alive and well.