Ron Shaich, Class of 1976, got his start in business at Clark. As a student, Shaich saw the need on campus for a source of snacks and essentials. So, he founded the General Store, which remained a student-run store until 2003.
Shaich went on to found Au Bon Pain, an up-scale food-service company, in 1981. After acquiring the St. Louis Bread company in 1993, Shaich had a vision for something different-the now highly popular Panera Bread restaurants.
Shaich describes his career as an entrepreneur:
If wisdom comes from experience, experience comes from banging your head against the wall. What matters, certainly from my experience of starting a business a second time, is not so much that I’m fighting the same battles I fought the first time around but that it informs and creates a set of perspectives that allow me to compete in the new world. In the first iteration of my life, I thought that everything was driven by profits, the outcomes.
But I began to discover that the outcomes were simply byproducts of something else. I spent the next 10 to 12 years of my life not just focusing on outcomes, but on the drivers of the outcomes, or the key initiatives that created those byproducts. Over the last five years or so, as Panera has become more of an institution, I’ve become increasingly focused on not just the initiatives but on the capabilities of the people and how they, in turn, can drive the key initiative.
All knowledge comes from iteration, from trial and error. All those experiences-if you’re smart, and you make sense of them, and you try to tell the truth-add up to something. We spend a lot of time at Panera educating people to focus on the key initiatives and let the byproducts take care of themselves.
I think for me, very personally, after you do this so many years, you always feel like it’s going to fall apart. It’s amazing how things survive. We don’t take our success lightly.
There are moments of really having fun, but there’s also a tremendous sense of responsibility. Because I realize how we got here. Yes, there’s good, there’s success; I get to do it my way. But it owns me. You go into the shower, and it’s on your shoulder. You drive into a parking lot, you see 500 cars and you realize people are depending on you. This is also a neighborhood bakery, and it’s got to be “of the community.” It can’t be “to the community.” Our Operation Donation is a mechanism or a means to do that. It’s a cohort of all of our contributions. We match contributions within our store and we give away perhaps $15 million to $20 million dollars worth of products each year.