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Panera VP Blaine Hurst Speaks to Business Students

Panera food It may have been the cinnamon crunch bagels. Or the bonus points. But whatever attracted the crowds of students to hear Blaine Hurst, they did not leave disappointed.

Hurst, the executive vice president and chief transformation & growth officer at Panera and the husband of a Grove City grad, delivered a fascinating and lively lecture about the restaurant’s recent tech innovations. In the past several years, the traditional Panera has transformed into Panera 2.0, replete with kiosks for customized ordering, rapid pickup options and mobile orders.

Blaine Hurst

As the self-described entrepreneur in residence at Panera, Hurst has worked daily to “challenge the way we’ve always done things.” From his start with with fast casual restaurant chain, the VP has stressed the mentality of “innovate or die.” For most companies, innovation has simply translated to developments in mobile apps, responsive design and strategic use of big data. However, to Hurst, disruptive innovation requires a holistic view and transformation of the customer experience.

In his talk, Hurst delineated six lessons on innovation that have been instrumental to Panera’s success. These lessons included the importance of an unbound, focused team, the recognition that there is more than one way to innovate and the idea that innovation is a journey.

Panera has certainly seen the positive results of Hurst’s work. In May, the company was named the #1 brand of the year by Fast Casual. In 2015, it was also recognized by Fast Company as one of the world’s top 50 most innovative companies. It maintains the leading loyalty program in its industry. But these accolades have not come without difficulties. When Hurst’s team first rolled out Panera 2.0, the websites crashed. And this was at a time when he was striving to get the Board to increase funding. But he fixed the situation by owning the problem. “Stand up with courage when you’ve made mistakes,” he encouraged.

students talking

Hurst’s final point was to warn young innovators to expect the unbelievers. Your “commitment can’t waver,” he said. As a leader, “if you lose your head, all others [on your team] will run backwards.” And in an original one-liner, Hurst summed up the difficulty of innovation: “The only person who likes change is a wet baby.” But progress, as Hurst knows and Panera can attest, will never come without change.

To read about more interesting lectures like this one, check out the posts under the Neat Speakers category. 

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