UH alumnus, Potbelly CEO hopes to expand brand globally
When Aylwin Lewis started his undergraduate career at UH in 1972, he thought he would become a college professor and write great American novels.
After returning to UH in the ’90s to pursue his MBA, Lewis changed course and entered the food service industry. Fast forward to the present and Lewis is now the president and CEO of Potbelly Sandwich Works, a Chicago-based sub shop that has grown significantly under his direction to a multi-million dollar company with several hundred stores across America.
Lewis is one of five successful Cougars that will be honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award at the 2015 Alumni Awards Gala May 2. at the Westin Houston. He juggles multiple hats as CEO and is also a board member at the Walt Disney Co. and Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
“It’s an amazing honor from an institution I hold in tremendous regard,” Lewis said. “The education I received at the University was really the foundation of my career.”
Lewis said his undergraduate career at UH was an “explosive” time in his life that taught him the skills he needed to be successful.
“It was literally just like walking through a tunnel and having another world open up, a world of possibilities,” he said. “It gave me a roadmap of skills on how to process information, how to be curious and how to take that curiosity and make something real out of it.”
Being CEO of a company that makes $350 to $400 million in sales annually is no walk in the park. Lewis works 70 hours a week and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day so that he can be the first person in his building. As the head of Potbelly, Lewis said he is never really off, but that doesn’t bother him one bit.
“It doesn’t seem like work, it’s just a part of my life,” Lewis said. “I have to devote time to family and to friends, I work out every day, my wife and I have date day every Saturday. I have a full and complete life, and I am grateful.”
Lewis is currently working toward making Potbelly a global brand with thousands of stores around the globe. He took the company public in October 2013 and said he is excited to turn Potbelly into everyone’s neighborhood sandwich shop.
“We’ve stayed true to our culture and to our principles,” Lewis said. “It is a longer term focus, the fundamentals of the business are very strong, and I feel very positive about our outlook.”
Lewis said his time at UH gave him the “appetite, the attitude and the skills” to get where he is today. His advice for current UH students is simple:
“Take your education seriously, enjoy the experience while you’re there, but recognize that your life journey is just starting.”