Once a brand that people dangled nervously between verbal tweezers, fast-food company Greggs has capped 2019 with a stunning top spot in Management Today’s Britain’s Most Admired Companies list.
Unveiled on 3 December,  the totemic ranking – which placed McDonalds and Royal Dutch Shell as Top Three runners-up – honoured Greggs not just with the overall award, but with other, important gongs such as Use of Corporate Assets, Quality of Management and, significantly, Inspirational Leadership.
As Management Today explained, the award marks a staggering, 66-place jump for Greggs, which has pulled itself out of commercial difficulties to achieve annual sales in excess of £1 billion for the first time across its almost 2,000 branches.
The publication noted that the firm has been particularly successful with how it has chosen to reinvent itself, focusing on the food-to-go market, extending its opening hours and embracing shifts in consumers’ dietary preferences – to the extent that it caused something of a stir earlier this year with the launch of a sausage roll packed with Quorn.
Described on Greggs’ website as, “The most hotly debated sausage roll since, well… the sausage roll,”  the vegan product made serious waves online, which only intensified when Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan entered the fray and condemned the humble, pastry tube on Twitter as a sign of rampant political correctness. The hysteria escalated when Morgan arranged a skit on his show in which he squeamishly sampled the product, providing it with a generous slice of free advertising that was then widely shared online – with Greggs doing its best to stoke the buzz.
Indeed, in its summing up, Management Today credited the firm’s “savvy” social media strategy for providing “a masterclass in how to capture customers’ hearts, minds and money without the expense of traditional advertising campaigns”.
Interviewed in May, Greggs CEO Roger Whiteside hailed the vegan sausage roll for galvanising public interest in the firm. “More people are coming,” he said. “Awareness of the brand has never been higher and the vegan roll has helped with publicity and encouraging people to come and have a look at what we’re doing.” 
Which approaches contribute to the sort of inspirational leadership that has propelled the company out of the doldrums and into a place of respect and admiration?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “At its essence, this story highlights all the benefits that stem from forward-looking leadership. Greggs’ success indicates that companies that are keeping in touch with a younger demographic – recognising, in this case, the huge growth of plant-based diets – are going to be well placed to open up further opportunities as time goes on. Particularly when we consider veganism’s powerful influence on the takeaway market – for example, it recently emerged that Domino’s are launching a vegan pizza,  so this is clearly a transformative time for the fast-food industry as a whole.”
She notes: “People in that younger demographic are going to be buying products for the next 50 to 60 years – so it’s crucial for firms at this point in time to get right the various things that those consumers want, and then keep in touch with them. Trends and fashions change, and current estimates suggest that anything between 1% and 7% of the UK population are either vegan or following plant-based diets. That’s a huge market. And when we consider the reasons why people are making this choice, the factors we hear about again and again are climate change and animal welfare. So if an organisation sets out to serve consumers with those concerns, that makes a really positive statement about its values.”
Cooper adds: “In terms of talent attraction, we at the Institute know from our recent research on values how important such a statement can be, and that’s echoed in what we have heard from our research partner Glassdoor. So, while Greggs has undoubtedly made a series of very shrewd business decisions, they’re not in any way cynical, because they’re aligned with the demands of a values-driven consumer movement.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on future readiness
Image of Greggs sausage rolls and packaging courtesy of abimages, via Shutterstock