Pano Christou was 16 years old when he when he started working the shop floor at McDonald’s.
It’s there that he “fell in love with hospitality,” he tells Fortune. But at the time, he had no idea his love affair with the industry would propel him from taking Happy Meal orders to leading one of Britain’s biggest sandwich chains, Pret A Manger.
Like most teenagers, Christou just wanted to earn money “to buy things”.
“My parents didn’t have lots of lots of money. But what they did have was a phenomenal work ethic,” he recalls. His half-Greek, half-Italian father was a mini-cab driver and his Greek-Cypriot mother was a nurse.
“I knew the more I worked, the more money I could make,” he says.
Christou wasn’t wrong. By the age of 18, he had dropped out of school and was on track to have an impressive career in management at McDonald’s. He then scaled Pret’s ranks at an impressive pace to the coveted CEO role, where last year he took home a $490,000 salary plus a $4.5 million share bonus.
Christou now oversees Pret A Manger’s 550-plus stores across Britain, Hong Kong, Dubai, and the United States, after two decades and 10 promotions at the company.
“Obviously today, people move from job to job a lot more swiftly than maybe 10 to 20 years ago,” he says.
“I’m in a very different situation now—but I don’t forget that £2.75 ($3.40) an hour was the starting point of my career.”
Christou’s résumé recently went viral on social media because, as one user wrote on X, it’s “so, so rare to see” someone climb the corporate ladder from the very bottom to the very top.
“I feel thankful for the opportunities I had along the way,” Christou tells Fortune—but don’t call him lucky.
“I think there’s luck along the way but overall, if you work hard and you are very intentional, you can achieve things,” he says. “I am a big believer in you make your own luck.“
Say yes—even if you’re not ready
On the surface, you could say that Christou’s entryway to management was down to being in the right place at the right time.
“Somebody was meant to go on a course to become a shift supervisor. For some reason, they were fired,” the 45-year-old London native says—so he took up the empty spot.
Much to his manager’s surprise, he passed the test to become a supervisor at McDonalds and within a week, he says, he was “rushed” into managing others much more experienced than himself.
“I was 16 and all of a sudden I was managing the person that was training me two or three months ago, who was close to 30,” he says.
In Christou’s eyes, his big break all came down to saying yes to any opportunity that came his way—even if he didn’t feel ready for it yet.
“Whenever new, bigger opportunities have been given to me I’ve always taken them—I’ve never said no—even if it really puts me out there,” he says. “I may have not been ready for a while, but I would always like to take it on and give it my best chance and it has worked out well.”
In the long term, it’s a tactic that has paid off. But it wasn’t plain sailing in the early years of his management career.
“I definitely felt there was a strong element of cynicism, of ‘who’s this young kid that’s trying to manage me?’” he says. “That was really tough.”
And that was just the people-management side of the demanding role.
“Having the opportunity to oversee a business at such a tender age was quite daunting,” he adds.
Move often, or be prepared to leave
When a McDonald’s coworker left the company to join Pret, Christou was intrigued.
“I’d never heard of it,” he says—but he adds that he was drawn by the chain’s “colorful fridges” and smiley staff.
“I just thought: this looks like a fun environment to work in—so I joined them at 22,” he says. “The rest is history.”
Christou is now at the top of the fast food chain’s ladder, having been with the firm for more than 20 years.
However, career paths like Christou’s—where a worker gradually becomes more senior via decades of promotions with the same employer—are becoming a rarity.
But while Millennials and Gen Zers are much more inclined than previous generations to job hop in search of better pay and more seniority, Christou argues it’s not staying loyal to one company that will see your career hit the breaks—it’s staying in a job you’re bored of.
“If things didn’t continue to move, I probably would have gone and done something different,” he says, adding that he stuck out the general manager role at Pret for four years—he usually moves up the ladder every year or two—because the stores he was put in charge of kept getting bigger.
Knowing whether it’s time to move on or stay put at your current company comes down to two questions, according to Christou: Does the brand or product still excite you? And is the business booming?
“Generally if you’re part of a growing business, there will be more opportunities,” he says. “And I wouldn’t work for something that I wasn’t passionate about.”
Dream big—but not too big
Despite having a clear hunger for success from a young age, Christou says he never envisioned becoming Pret’s CEO until “a few months before” he was offered the role in 2019.
“A few months after I became an assistant manager, I said, ‘I want to be a general manager,’ and then when I became store manager, after a couple of years, I thought, ‘I want to become an area manager,’ and so forth,” he says.
Ultimately, looking forward with his feet firmly on the ground, instead of dreaming too big with his head in the clouds, is what he feels has set him up for success.
“I’ve watched people that have been so fixated on the next role that they really take their eye off the current job they’re doing,” Christou says. “My philosophy has always been if you do a great job, people will notice you.”
By focusing on excelling in his current job and being the best within his cohort—without “shortcutting” his peers or “stabbing them in the back”—the promotions swiftly followed.
“I was generally the youngest person or the shortest in a role within my peer group when I got promoted, most of the time throughout my career,” he tells Fortune. “If you work hard and put your head down, things can happen.”