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The conversation that shook the life of Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich

Every opportunity seized is another lost — but not choosing is the worst choice of all.
A man standing in front of a display of pastries at Panera Bread.
Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • In 1996, Ron Shaich — then CEO of Au Bon Pain — had to make a momentous trade-off decision.
  • He couldn’t access sufficient capital to revitalize ailing Au Bon Pain and simultaneously grow his new concept, Panera Bread. He bet the house on Panera.
  • In life and business, says Shaich, everything comes down to the choices you make and the “will and skill” you bring to the paths you choose.
Excerpted from Know What Matters by Ron Shaich, published by Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright © 2023 by Ron Shaich. Reprinted courtesy of Harvard Business Review Press.

There are moments in life when your whole perspective is turned on its head — when you experience what can only be described as a paradigm shift. For me, one such moment came during Christmas break in 1996. I was sitting on a beach in the Caribbean — one of the most beautiful spots in the world — and feeling profoundly unsettled.

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What occupied my mind that day, like most days, was my company. Specifically, the division of the company we’d now named Panera Bread. I knew instinctively that it was something truly rare in the restaurant world. Panera had a real shot at evolving into a nationally dominant brand — something only one in a thousand concepts ever achieve. It had just had a phenomenal year, posting double-digit annual same-store sales gains. The new café format was beloved by customers. But it was the second smallest division of the company, with just a modest number of cafés dotted across the Midwest. Au Bon Pain was the established, legacy brand. And Panera would require significant investment of time, energy, and human and financial capital if it were to grow into its potential. Mostly, I worried that we weren’t taking proper care of this precious but still unproven gem, because it was just one division among many that needed our company resources.

Sitting on that beach, a place where I do a lot of my best thinking, I poured out my concerns to a friend. He was quiet for a moment, then turned to me with a simple but radical question that shifted the entire paradigm of my thinking:

“What if, instead of Au Bon Pain owning Panera, Panera owned Au Bon Pain?”

The answer came out of my mouth before I could rationalize it away: “If I had any guts, I’d sell the other divisions of Au Bon Pain, take the capital and the best people, and bet everything on ensuring Panera is able to fulfill its destiny. And I’d move down to St. Louis myself and make it happen!”

The choice was clear — if I had the courage to make it.

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Leadership — and life — is all about choices. You can be a victim to circumstances and other people’s agendas, or you can make a choice. The choice may not always be clear at first, and once it becomes clear, the choice may not be easy to make. But it’s still yours to make. And the quality of your business and your life depends on you doing so. When you reach that deathbed moment and you’re reviewing your life, you’ll realize that everything comes down to the choices you made and the will and skill you brought to the path you chose.

The pertinent adage here is, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

The pertinent adage here is, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Most people can only do a handful of things well in a lifetime. So, if you’re going to do things well, you need to do less. You need to pick the things that matter and let go of the things that don’t. Fewer things done well: that’s the recipe for a successful business and an impactful life.

That means saying no to some things so you can focus on others. I’m often amazed by how frankly childish people can be about this need to make trade-offs. They insist they can have it all, even though ignoring the trade-offs doesn’t make them go away. Trade-offs are inevitable. Choosing one thing means not choosing another. Every opportunity seized is another lost. And not choosing is still choosing — it’s the worst choice of all.

If you’re alive, you’re in the trade-off business. And if you’re in business, well, that’s what being a leader or manager is. We get paid to manage the trade-offs, to make decisions, and to understand opportunity costs. Sometimes they might be small choices, like whether to hire a new team member or invest in new product development. Other times, they might be enormous choices, like the one I contemplated while sitting on that beach: selling one company so the other could have a chance to thrive.

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