The Toxic and Ironic End to Papa John’s Leadership

Sean Kernan
Tampa Johns Logo feeling a bit toxified. The author purchased from wolterke via Adobe Stock Photos

A mouth is also a shovel, an efficient tool, that digs a hole, that later becomes a grave.

It’s all so unfortunate.

Papa John Schnatter entered 2017 as an invincible force of good for his brand. He graced every commercial. His phrases were in every household. But a series of shocking errors would change everything.

CEOs of large corporations are chosen with great discernment. There’s a long courting process. Candidates interview with boards. They attend dinners and cocktail hours.

You would likely enjoy interviewing them. Contrary to popular depiction, most CEOs are quite likable. They’re often calm, driven, and charming, with unobtrusive confidence, and an unsurprising intelligence. A CEO is as much a PR figure as they are a financial custodian.

This is why problems emerge with founder CEOs, who build a brand from scratch. The ‘risen from dirt’ miracle often mandates a very different leader than investors later deserve.

Many founders are gritty, rough-around-the-edges, aggressive, and unrelenting. These attributes can certainly turn one pizza shop into many.

It’s not that Papa John’s founder, John Schnatter, is a crude and bumbling barbarian. He can be affable, articulate, and relatable — but there were holes in his game.

And with annual revenue of more than $1.5 billion, the company was due for an upgrade.

Three years prior, the glimmers of his undoing were surfacing.

The Rumblings of Trouble

As the figurehead for a pizza brand, adopting a stance of political neutrality seems like an obvious approach. They aren’t a gun brand or a women’s rights organization. There is no need to split the pie.

The first flash of trouble was in 2013 when John broke out of his shell, criticizing President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. When this created negative PR, he doubled down, engaging in acrimonious exchanges with reporters, who aimed to get clarification but only digressed into verbal volleyball.

John increasingly treated his job as a platform to unleash his political opinions.

The First Nail in the Coffin

In 2017, he criticized football players for kneeling during the national anthem, referring to the whole event as a “debacle”, further blaming declining company shares on player’s activism.

This spun out again as Schnatter failed to address the situation with any sort of tact or humility. His subtlety remained that of a brick through a window. The NFL removed Papa John’s as the official sponsor. Shares dropped 5% in value in one day.

John’s ultimate reckoning came shortly thereafter. The great irony is that it stemmed from an interaction with a PR team — who was brought in to ‘coach him on his manners’.

The problem and the final nail

The company was still being run like a private company. There wasn’t a brand-friendly decorum of respect on display. The CEO was stomping around like a king, insulated by his buddies in the top ranks. It wasn’t in the best interest of shareholders.

The PR firm, Laundry Service, was tasked with coaching him on racial sensitivity.

The phone call

By the very nature of such a call, one would think a CEO could take the hint and be open to listening. Instead, and quite regrettably, he went on a tirade and starting arguing back at their suggestions. The PR agency later revealed that he said the N-word on the call, defending its use, saying, “Colonel Sanders called blacks n*****s!” and never faced backlash.

As soon as this story broke, company shares plummeted 11%. The PR firm immediately severed ties. Revelations of sexual harassment and a “bro culture” later emerged.

The board of directors called for his resignation, with many speculating they’d been ‘waiting for a reason’. Public corporate drama is usually the tip of the iceberg of the real story.

John later resigned, in a Nixonesque style. He knew the locks to his office would change, regardless of whether he did or didn’t walk away.

His #2 took over. The board adopted a rare poison pill strategy, giving them access to discounted shares if John attempted to buy back a majority of the company.

Their message was clear: go away. John later leveled a huge lawsuit against the company, which remains ensnared in litigation to this day.

The Lesson Is One for All of Us

As with the Jared Fogle Subway disaster, we see the problematic nature of individual people as figureheads of a brand. We love associating a person with a company. After all, what is more tangible than a well dressed, smiling personality to embody the attributes you are selling?

Unfortunately, some figures mistake their off-script charisma as equitably palatable. They forget they are an avatar, whose actions and words affect the fiscal concerns of an ever-watchful army of investors.

Even those of us within marketing tend to regress to a very childlike vision of what marketing actually is. We see commercials through the prism of gets-sales or doesn’t, yummy or not yummy, good or bad, funny or not.

It is so much more.

Marketing is energy. It is in a beautiful smile, in the cold air we breathe, in the words we speak. It transcends every charitable and malevolent thought that ever skipped across our minds.

Shakespeare famously jested “all the world is a stage” and each man an actor.

Within it, one man forgot he was destined to sell pizza, not to do or say the many other things he so fancied.

Many a word will undo a man.

Comments / 0

Published by

Full-time writer.

Tampa, FL

More from Sean Kernan

Comments / 0