The Big Interview: Pret A Manger

CEO Pano Christou explores how he’s making Pret more than just a workplace, but rather a thriving community for growth

In the bustling landscape of fast-casual dining, few names resonate as deeply as Pret A Manger.

With its commitment to quality ingredients, quick-service dining and friendly customer service, Pret has solidified its place as a go-to destination for urban professionals seeking a quick, delicious bite.

At the helm of the culinary brand stands Pano Christou, a visionary leader whose journey with Pret spans over two decades.

From his humble beginnings as an assistant manager to his current role as CEO, Christou’s tenure has been marked by unwavering dedication, strategic vision and a profound commitment to the Pret ethos.

Starting from the ground up

Christou’s trajectory within Pret is a testament to the power of starting at a grassroots level. “There are not many CEOs that started from the ground up like myself,” he reflects. Indeed, his five-year stint as a store manager provided invaluable insights into the intricacies of Pret’s operations, from frontline customer interactions to backend logistics.

With over two decades of experience at Pret, Christou’s ascent to the top is a tribute to the value of hands-on experience. “Understanding the mechanics of a store manager and the motivations helps unlock a sustainable business,” he says.

Christou’s journey within Pret is proof of the company’s commitment to nurturing talent and providing opportunities for growth. “I’ve done 10 different roles in that time,” he says. “Actually, my role as CEO is the role I’ve been in the longest. And I think that the reason I’ve stayed and other people, like myself, have stayed in practice is because of the opportunities.”

“Many people like me, our senior executives and directors, started by making sandwiches in Pret kitchens,” he says. “Pret gives people opportunities, irrespective of their backgrounds,” he adds. This diverse career trajectory, spanning various positions within the company, underscores Pret’s belief of internal promotion and development. “I think the reason people have stayed with Pret is because of the opportunities and the ability to share stories on their career growth,” says Christou.

Reflecting on his time as CEO amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, he recalls: “I took over Pret as CEO three months before Covid kicked in.” Despite the upheaval, Christou saw an opportunity to evolve the brand, focusing on global expansion and adapting to changing consumer habits. “The sector has transformed more in the last five years than it did in the 20 years before that,” he observes, highlighting Pret’s resilience and ability to innovate in the face of adversity.

And for those looking for advice on adverse external forces, Christou believes the best way to weather the storm is to “stay focused on your proposition”.

Empowering employees

Christou’s journey from store manager to CEO has instilled in him a profound appreciation for the frontline staff who are the backbone of Pret’s operations. “I would say I’m pretty hands-on as a CEO,” he says.

His commitment to understanding the intricacies of the business is evident in his regular immersion in store operations, from early morning sandwich-making sessions to lunchtime customer service interactions. Not only can you bump into Christou at a Pret store, but “every single employee in our support centres around the world work a minimum of two days a year in our stores,” he says. By actively engaging with employees on the ground, Christou gains valuable insights into the challenges they face and the opportunities for improvement.

At the heart of Pret’s success is its people-centric approach. Christou is a firm advocate for paying people what they deserve and investing in their professional development. “I’m a big believer in paying people what you can afford, not what you can get away with,” he states. “Unfortunately, the industry, while still changing, has a bad reputation for that,” he says. By offering competitive wages and opportunities for career advancement, Pret attracts and retains top talent, ensuring that its workforce remains motivated and engaged. “If you look at the London living wage, it’s currently £11.44, while for us, we have a bonus top up within our wages, that pays our staff on average £12.80,” he says. Christou is also committed to paying a living salary, regardless of age, “whether you’re 16 or 26, your age does not influence your wage.” Christou demonstrates Pret’s dedication to keeping loyal employees, while also fostering a supportive and inclusive work environment where every employee feels valued and respected.

With over 120 different cultures represented within the organisation, Pret strives to foster an environment where every individual feels valued and empowered to succeed.

Christou’s dedication to fostering a culture of feedback and transparency further underscores his commitment to empowering employees. “We have a number of forums where we get feedback. This allows employees to bring in information, insight and feedback on how we can evolve,” he explains. From annual opinion surveys to quarterly mini-surveys and mixed forums, Pret provides numerous avenues for employees to voice their opinions and contribute to the company’s growth and development.

Christou’s focus on employee empowerment extends beyond compensation to encompass career development and innovation. Over the last year, “around 80% of employees who became managers at Pret were promoted from within the company, rather than hired externally,” he notes, highlighting the company’s commitment to nurturing internal talent and providing opportunities for advancement. Moreover, Christou recognises the importance of investing in innovation, even at the expense of short-term margins. “Career development is a lot more important than it was 10-20 years ago,” he observes. By prioritising innovation and continuous improvement, Pret remains at the forefront of the fast-casual dining industry, attracting customers and employees alike with its commitment to excellence, fair pay and career growth.

Read the full interview in our June issue.

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