Panera CEO Explains His No. 1 Priority As A Leader

Ron Shaich paneraMichael L Abramson/GettyRon Shaich is the founder, CEO, and chairman of Panera Bread.

Panera Bread founder and CEO Ron Shaich says that maintaining competitive advantage is his top priority as a leader.

“If we don’t have a reason for people to walk past competitors and come to Panera, then we don’t exist,” Shaich tells Business Insider. “Losing competitive advantage is the greatest risk in business, and that’s where our focus is.”

In 1981, Shaich oversaw just four cafe locations in the Boston area. Over the years and after several iterations, Panera has grown to nearly 2,000 locations in the US and Canada, 80,000 employees, and a market capitalisation of $US4.5 billion.

But, as any business grows, it gets harder to maintain competitive advantage.

When a company first starts out, it’s full of what Shaich calls “discovery people,” or folks that are always trying to figure out “where the world is going.”

As a company matures, “delivery people” begin to take over, he says. They focus on “limited risk” and sustaining the business, and stick to the language of “what happened yesterday.”

The key, Shaich says, is to never let that get out of balance, so that you don’t wake up one day and realise that the company has become exclusively “delivery” and not at all “discovery.”

“I view my role as CEO as protecting those that discover ways to build competitive advantage,” Shaich says. “Our job as leadership is to protect and enable leaps of faith, making sure the company is there when the future arrives.”

Top-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has echoed this sentiment, saying that the best leaders harbour and protect brilliant people, even if they are sometimes disagreeable.

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