This year has already seen the departure of a fair few long-standing chief executives in the eating and drinking out sector, with the news that Clive Schlee will be stepping down from his role at Pret after 16 years sure to have caused a few surprised expressions yesterday. MCA’s deputy editor Georgi Gyton looks at the legacy he will leave, and what his departure may mean for Pret. Featuring additional commentary from MCA contributing editor Peter Martin.

While the news of Clive Schlee’s departure from Pret may have come as a surprise yesterday morning, arguably it cannot be totally unexpected that after 16 years at the helm of one of the largest food and drink operators in the UK, the time has come for him to try something new.

Joining Pret in 2003, Schlee has built up the now billion-pound business to a sizeable scale, with more than 550 shops in nine markets, including the US, with the business sold to JAB Holdings last year in a deal thought to be worth £1.5bn. He has championed its people and the environment and held in place a strong culture which his successor would do well to continue.

Pret is one of those businesses that is often referenced as an example of one that people admire, in terms of its success, culture and, I am sure, Schlee’s leadership style. In fact, he was named MCA’s Retailers’ Retailer of the Year last year – as voted for by his peers – with Pret also awarded Best Company that year.

But it’s not just the way that he has driven the company forward from an internal perspective that will be his legacy. Schlee sought to very much connect with Pret’s customers, through his blog and on Twitter – inviting customers to give feedback on everything from disposable cutlery, and plastic water bottles to the chain’s vegetarian range, which he was keen to build in the form of its Veggie Prets – one of the key reasons behind the acquisition of the c90-strong EAT estate.

“Putting ideas out to social media gives us confidence and allows conservative elements to feel better about the change,” he told MCA in April last year. And sure enough it would act on that feedback, including the customer in the evolution of its journey.

Although his tenure at the company has by no means been bump free – particularly the past year’s focus on allergen labelling, following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who ate a baguette containing sesame at the brand’s Heathrow Airport outlet – the timing feels right with the completion of the deal to acquire Pret going through today. A new chapter for the business.

As MCA contributing editor Peter Martin says: “Clive has left an amazing mark on the business. Pret is one of the great success stories coming out of the UK; it is a global brand now.” And, while it has been through a sticky time of late, it’s testament to the strength of the brand that it’s coming through it, he adds. It has also shown that the UK can produce big international brands and that prizes are there for the taking for those bold enough to go global.

“It will be interesting watching Pret going forward; but they coped with the loss of Julian Metcalfe, and they will cope with Clive going,” he adds. Pret are now part of a much bigger international group, following the sale from Bridgepoint last year, “and have moved well out of the entrepreneurial phase and into the big corporate world”, says Martin.

The influence of JAB, the addition of the EAT estate, and the goals of a new chief executive are likely to see some changes afoot, but it would seem unwise to steer too far from the established part, especially where company culture is concerned.

It’s not yet known whether Schlee has another project up his sleeve, but he still maintains his interest in Itsu, which co-founder of Pret Julian Metcalfe established in partnership with Schlee, and he will remain involved in Pret as a non-executive director.

Come September he will hand over the reins to Panu Christou, who has worked his way up from assistant manager in its Carnaby Street site 19 years ago, before being made managing director in 2014, and chief operating officer at the beginning of the year – so he is certainly no stranger to the workings of the company.

In Schlee’s own words: “Pret takes a long time over its succession planning and ideally if anyone in the senior team leaves there is a successor there waiting. No one is indispensable in Pret, particularly not me.”