• Who's Who: Sean DeGregorio

Want to know how to cultivate a good CEO?

Try this recipe:

Plant one college student hungry for tuition money in a part-time job making pizzas, shine the bright light of mentorship upon him, fertilize with guidance, and then step back and watch him grow.

Sean DeGregorio

Fourteen years ago Brian and Ken Rooke built such a garden around Sean DeGregorio, who was then 21. The brothers, who own Panago, a 152-store pizza chain based in Vancouver, British Columbia, have since watched the young man grow into their pizza company's CEO.

When DeGregorio started, the company's name was Panagopoulos. Back then, he worked part-time for the company and full time on a degree in business administration. The Rooke brothers soon realized DeGregorio had potential beyond the position of pizza maker.

"We saw an eagerness to learn, an eagerness to work," said Brian Rooke, co-owner of Panago. "We saw potential. He was someone that adapted very well to our company. He fit in to our corporate culture very well."

Now 35, DeGregorio has climbed from the make line to the CEO's seat at one of western Canada's largest pizza chains. According to him, such a rise to the top wasn't planned, rather a series of events served to widen his path toward eventual leadership of the gourmet pizza chain.

"I certainly didn't join the company to be CEO, it was just a way to kick start a career," DeGregorio said. "I'm sure they didn't hire me thinking that I would end up being their CEO."

DeGregorio adapted easily to the pizza company's culture during that first job at a store in his hometown of Kamloops, British Columbia. By night, he worked and learned all could about what was then a 30-store company, and by day he attended Cariboo College.

When he was just two classes shy of completing his degree, DeGregorio took a Greyhound bus to Abbotsford for an interview at the chain's main office. Three weeks later he was promoted to a job in the company's operations department, making $20,000 a year.

He never returned to college.

"It was just never in the cards," DeGregorio said. "I was working too hard. I probably averaged a promotion a year for the first six or seven years just climbing my way through the operations department. So, it became less of a focus to go back and finish those two courses to get a diploma when I was more concerned with working on my career."

After his promotion to the CEO's seat in February 2001, the 33-year-old DeGregorio took the reins of a company with stores in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. According to friends, his rapid rise to the top of the company is much more impressive than how he got there.

Esther De Wolde, whom DeGregorio met when she was Panago's financial director, is now CEO of Panago's sister company, Phantom Screens. She said DeGregorio's ascent to the head office was a reward for hard work.

"He played his cards right but not intentionally," De Wolde said. "It wasn't that he came in saying, 'I want to be CEO one day.' He just knew that if he kept his nose to the grindstone and did an honest, good day's work, it would pay off and it certainly has in every position he's done."

"We saw potential. He was someone that adapted very well to our company. He fit in to our corporate culture very well."

Brian Rooke
Co-owner, Panago

DeGregorio's ability to adopt the owners' vision for the business, as well as adapt to the company's culture, De Wolde added, went a long way to earn their trust. "Running a company or being part of a company is one thing, but being able to figure out how to adapt to the culture of the owners and the management around you, that's a gift, and not everyone has it."

Rooke saw that gift in DeGregorio, and he and fellow co-owner and brother, Ken, sought to unwrap it for Panago's use.

"We obviously would not have put him in that position if it was someone we thought we'd have to be looking over our shoulders at -- or over his shoulders all the time," Brian Rooke said.

But according to DeGregorio, the very fact that the Rookes were involved in his career is why he has succeeded. Under their tutelage, he said, "I learned more ... in the time that I've been here than anything I learned in college. Without that mentorship of the owners I wouldn't have developed. That was the real key."

Work hard, take it easy

Key among DeGregorio's real-world course work was learning how to change with the times. In October 2000, he helped lead the company through its name change from Panagopoulos to Panago (He said the company knew it would be easier to pronounce). He also helped transform Panago's product line to include gourmet pizzas and healthier foods such as salads and vegetarian pizzas.

The result is a strong and growing chain generating CAN $95 million (U.S. $62 million) in annual sales.

Such large changes to a company, DeGregorio said, can only be successful if a corporation's leaders fully explain to employees why that evolution is necessary. Open communication, he concluded, builds trust between officials and the rank and file.

"That's when franchisees are more apt to follow you," DeGregorio said. "Something we're really focused on is making sure that we're credible leaders and we really coach our franchisees. Because, at the end of the day, that's the best way to ensure that they really follow the systems."

Family guy

While DeGregorio enjoys his work, he apparently enjoys leaving it behind, and devotes his off hours to Tracy, his wife of seven years, and their two children, Quinn, 5, and Kyra, 3.

De Wolde called him an 8-to-5 guy who used to quip that people who can't get a day's work done in regular hours have a problem.

"He goes home and he does not take it home with him at all," De Wolde added.

DeGregorio loves sports and squeezes in a game of golf or softball now and then, but only as much as his children's activities allow.

"I used to be a lot more active in sports, but now my number-one sporting activity is chasing after the kids," DeGregorio said.

As for the future, DeGregorio hopes to finish out his career with Panago -- someday. Among his plans for the company is to lead it on an eastward march into Ontario, Canada's most populous province and a major pizza battleground.

Sean DeGregorio

Age: 35
Company: Panago
Position: CEO
HQ: Vancouver, British Columbia
College: Cariboo College;M
Degree: none
Hometown: Kamploops, British Columbia

Wife: Tracy
Children: Quinn (5) and Kyra (3)

"We feel very strongly that we're going to be successful at that," DeGregorio said. "I want to achieve that, climb that mountain and really put Panago on the map, at least in Canada. And who knows? If things go well in the next five years in eastern Canada, you might even see us in the United States."

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