Panera Bread’s founder writes his own obituary every year. Now he’s a billionaire

Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich’s key to success may seem morbid on the surface, but it may just have helped him become a newly minted billionaire. 

The 70-year-old Shaich said that between Christmas and his birthday on Dec. 30, he likes to visualize himself at the end of his life with a “pre-mortem” in which he writes an obituary, fake news story, or journal entry about his most important accomplishments. 

Although it may seem counterintuitive to think about the end of one’s life while still living it, Shaich said, the exercise helps him plan out how he can get to that successful future.

“If I want to build a business, I’d better understand what is going to matter and make sure that I get it done now,” he told CNBC Make It. “Same thing applies to your own life.”

The process

To achieve the success he visualizes in his “pre-mortem,” Shaich works backward, and when he gets to the present, lays out concrete steps he can take in the coming year to get closer to his goals. This process helps him overcome the urge to procrastinate.

The strategy may have already proven itself through Shaich’s track record of achieving nearly anything he sets his mind to. In 1993, Shaich acquired St. Louis Bread Company, which at the time had 19 locations. Having already founded the bakery-cafe Au Bon Pain, Shaich moved quickly to make his new chain, renamed Panera, a nationwide name. After years of expansion and taking Panera public, Shaich sold the business to JAB Holding Co. for $7.2 billion in 2017. He put a big chunk of the proceeds into his hospitality and entertainment investment fund, Act 3 Holdings, to ultimately make his fortune. 

Shaich landed a spot on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index for the first time Wednesday with a net worth of $1.6 billion. The milestone comes in part from a well-placed investment in Mediterranean fast-casual chain Cava, whose stock has skyrocketed 330% in just over a year.

Still, Shaich said his “pre-mortem” strategy is not really about the money but more about important life achievements.

“Your pre-mortem is not about making a few dollars more,” Shaich said. “But it’s really about the deeper issues: What is it you are trying to create with your life? What are you going to respect? You should be rigid in your vision, yet flexible in execution.”

Potential regrets become inspiration

Shaich’s “pre-mortem” strategy builds off the work of psychologist Gary Klein, which the founder  mentions in his recent memoir Know What Matters: Lessons from a Lifetime of Transformations. After Shaich’s parents died, he was motivated by his dad’s end-of-life regrets to adapt Klein’s framework into his own inspirational practice. 

“I don’t want to worry about a heart attack on the way to the hospital, when it’s too late to,” he told CNBC.

A “pre-mortem” can be especially helpful for people still early in their careers who still have room to grow. The key to its effectiveness, though, depends on being honest and frank with yourself.

“You should have a conversation with yourself about what you are going to feel good about, and respect, in these primary areas of your life down the road,” Shaich said.

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