During his more than 30 years in the food business, Panera CEO Ron Shaich has focused his attention on big picture issues that extend beyond the company, including healthy eating and food access.
Now he’s stepping down as CEO of the fast casual restaurant company—in large part to focus on a problem that extends beyond the restaurant realm: what Shaich says is short-term thinking in capital markets and the national debate.
“People used to own companies,” he told Fortune. “Today they rent stocks.” He added that with pressure from activists, “the life of a public company CEO is measured in weeks and months. How is that productive?”
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Shaich sold Panera to investment fund JAB Holdings in April, telling Fortune at the time, “I spend about 20% of my time explaining what I do and what I’m about to do,” he said. “I think being private, for Panera, doesn’t give us anything other than it frees us up.”
He was also ready to stop dealing with activist investors, saying that JAB gave the company “safe harbor and protection to do what we do and do the work to satisfy the guest.”
Shaich was on the board of Whole Foods until it was acquired by Amazon this summer. Whole Foods was under significant pressure from activist investor Jana Partners.
Shaich, who has spoken out on political issues and initially wanted to go into politics, is also concerned about the gridlock in Washington. “We’re competing with China, which has a 20-year plan,” he said. “We can’t get a budget passed. When asked if he would run for office, Shaich said, “I won’t deal with hypotheticals.”
He says his plan is “simply broadening his work.” “Here’s the reality: I don’t have enough time in the day and there aren’t enough days in the week.” Beyond his personal interests and investments, and the work he’ll continue to do with Panera (where he will remain chairman when the handoff takes place in January), he said that he’d been asked by JAB to help with some of their initiatives.
Shaich stepped down as CEO of Panera once before, leaving in 2010 and then returning to the top job in 2012 after realizing that he was still spending most of his time on the company. When asked how this time will be different, Shaich said, “We’re all more experienced,” adding that he’s now worked with incoming CEO Blaine Hurst for seven years.
The same day the leadership transition was announced, Panera also said that it had agreed to acquire bakery and café chain Au Bon Pain for an undisclosed sum. Shaich said that the announcements were not connected—that it “just happened to work out that way.”
Shaich founded Au Bon Pain in 1981. The company went public in 1991, and was acquired in 1993 by St. Louis Bread Company—the predecessor to Panera. In 1999 the company sold Au Bon Pain to focus exclusively on Panera.
“A lot of people’s first reaction has been that this is the closing of the circle,” Shaich said in reference to his co-founding of Au Bon Pain. He said the deal is “not about me or desire for closure.” He said Au Bon Paid has “wonderful real estate” in hospitals, universities, and transportation centers across the country. Those real estate locations fit well with Panera’s reputation for wellness, he said.
The deal is being done through Panera—but it adds to the growing coffee empire of JAB, which acquired Panera over the summer for more than $7 billion. Brands including Krispy Kreme, Einstein Noah, Peet’s Coffee, and Stumptown. “They are a very good owner,” Shaich said. “They’ve been great for us.”