This Is an Incredible Pair of Co-CEOs


The Motley Fool's readers have spoken, and I have heeded their cries. After months of pointing out CEO gaffes and faux pas, I've decided to make it a weekly tradition to also point out corporate leaders who are putting the interests of shareholders and the public first and are generally deserving of praise from investors. For reference, here's my previous selection.

This week, I want to highlight the co-CEOs of Panera Bread , Ronald Shaich (a co-founder of Panera Bread) and Bill Moreton, and point out why they've made such an incredible dynamic duo for shareholders, employees, and the community.

Kudos to you, Mr. Shaich and Mr. Moreton
You can ask just about anyone and they'll tell you that operating in the restaurant industry isn't easy. There are countless factors that can undermine companies in the food business.

To begin with, poor economic growth conditions act to keep consumers in their homes and away from restaurants. Higher payroll taxes, for instance, are reducing consumers' budgets and forcing some to eat out less. This has been one of the main setbacks for restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday , which has tried boosting its marketing budget on numerous occasions and emphasizing its specials to drive traffic, but has been largely unsuccessful in doing so.

Food inflation costs are another gigantic concern. Food input costs rarely stay stagnant long enough for it to matter for restaurants, so the ability to pass along price increases to customers is paramount. Chipotle Mexican Grill , for example, delivered revenue growth of 13% in the first-quarter but saw comparable-store sales growth rise by only a meager 1%. Chicken costs are rising and the company's antibiotic-free meat naturally costs more to begin with, meaning that unless the company raises its prices -- which it'd rather no do for fear of driving consumers to its peers -- it could see its margins shrink further.

For Panera Bread, though, it's been like watching a symphony perform in unison at a concert.

One of the differentiating factors that has helped it stand out is its signature coffee blend developed through its partnership with California blender Gavina Gourmet Coffee. Ironically, Gavina is also the supplier for McDonald's , one of Panera's top coffee customer competitors in the restaurant category. So, you could say that Gavina has helped put two restaurant chains on the map with regard to attracting coffee traffic.

Source: Samantha Celera, Flickr.

Like Chipotle, Panera has prided itself on reaching out to more health-conscious consumers. This means utilizing better quality products that are more nutritious and dishing out right-sized portions for its meals. It also means that Panera Bread is able to command higher prices for its food because consumers come in with the expectation that they are getting a more nutritious meal. Higher prices translate into beefy margins for Panera and its shareholders.

But for Panera to be successful, it has to go beyond just being able to raise its prices -- it has needed to constantly freshen up its menu to accommodate society's changing palate. Starbucks was the progenitor of introducing organic and natural foods onto its pastry shelves; however, Panera is doing an excellent job of giving the coffee giant a run for its money. Panera Bread has integrated a new array of pasta dishes onto its already expansive menu, which has served to really drive new traffic into its stores.

A step above their peers
For Shaich and Moreton, it's about much more than just delivering great food to consumers. It's about rewarding shareholders, treating its employees right, and making sure to give back to the communities in which Panera Bread operates.

Although Panera Bread doesn't currently offer a dividend to shareholders, it has been actively repurchasing its own shares when the opportunity arises. In 2009, the company initiated a three-year $600 million share repurchase agreement and approved a new three-year $600 million repurchase program last year. Share buybacks don't put money directly into shareholders' wallets, but they do make a company appear cheaper by lowering the number of outstanding shares and thus, the P/E ratio. I'd also be doing both CEOs a disservice if I didn't mention that the share price has advanced 348% over the trailing 10-year period.

Employees aren't forgotten in the process, either. Employees are able to participate in a stock purchase program, which, had they taken advantage, would likely have them smiling ear-to-ear right about now. Other perks include employee discounts on all food and beverages, as well as health, dental, and vision insurance coverage.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Panera and its co-CEOs has to do with the amount of community involvement they promote. Known as "Operation Dough-Nation," Panera has multiple avenues for funneling food and money back into the community. Its community breadbox program occasionally matches customer donations and ensures donated money winds up back in the community. Its day-end dough-nation ensures that all unsold bread and bakery products at the end of the day are donated to local hunger relief agencies. The retail amount of food donated totaled $100 million in 2010 alone! Panera also sponsors SCRIP fundraising, which allows qualified non-profit organizations to purchase $10 gift cards at a 9% discount that they then resell at face value.

Two thumbs up
Through Mr. Shaich's ongoing service as company co-CEO and Bill Moreton's dedication since taking the helm in 2010 as co-CEO, Panera has blossomed. By focusing on nutritious foods while also utilizing traffic-grabbing products like its signature coffee blend, Panera has been able to transform itself in a way that few restaurants can say they have. With a renewed focus on share buybacks, a steady stream of happy employees, and a community "dough-nation" program that is matched by few companies, I can easily say that these are two incredible co-CEOs worthy of two thumbs up.

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Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of, and recommends, Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald's, Panera Bread, and Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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