NEW YORK — Papa John’s has a new face: NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.
The perennial All-Star and four-time NBA champion turned television commentator, pitchman and serial entrepreneur is joining the troubled pizza chain as what he calls a “triple threat”: its first African-American board member, a brand ambassador and part-owner of nine franchises.
O’Neal said he had been in discussion with company officials for several months. He told the chain’s CEO, Steve Ritchie that “the only way I would want to be involved is if you got some diversity in your leadership,” O’Neal told The Undefeated. “He said, ‘I’ll take you up on that.’ ”
Not long afterward, O’Neal got a call asking him to join the board of the nation’s third-largest pizza delivery chain. “I said, ‘How about a triple threat?’ ” O’Neal recalled. “Board member; I want to invest in stores to show you I’m serious; and, of course, I’ll be an ambassador to the brand.”
O’Neal’s involvement with the company, announced Friday, is a crucial step in Papa John’s efforts to rehabilitate its image after back-to-back racial controversies that crippled sales, depressed its stock price and eventually upended its leadership.
The turmoil was ignited by company founder John Schnatter, who was also the company’s chief executive, board chairman and the smiling pitchman known in television commercials as Papa John. In late 2017, Schnatter caused a stir when he blamed a slump in Papa John’s sales on what he saw as the mishandling of NFL player protests by the league.
His objection, while widely shared, was backed not just by people who felt uneasy about players protesting police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem. It also drew support from white nationalists and avowed racists, who named Papa John’s their official pizza.
Then, last summer, the company was rocked after it was reported that he had used the N-word on a conference call during a training session. Schnatter said he had used the word not as a slur but to illustrate a point. Nonetheless, he quickly disappeared from the chain’s television commercials and promotional materials as the company attempted to distance itself from its founder.
Before long, Schnatter was out as CEO and board chairman too, although he remains the company’s single largest shareholder.
“All of that stuff was uncalled-for and unacceptable. It can’t happen,” O’Neal said, adding that the fact “they have new leadership” made him comfortable with being involved with the chain. As a board member, O’Neal said, he hopes to help foster a more inclusive culture in the chain’s corporate offices, where there were also reports of sexual harassment and an otherwise toxic workplace culture.
O’Neal plans to appear in television commercials and make public appearances as part of his reported three-year, $8.25 million deal as an ambassador. He also said he intends to be a regular presence at the nine Atlanta franchises where he is now a part-owner.
“I want to be the one to help cultivate a new culture where everyone knows they are loved and respected,” O’Neal said. “I am not to say I am the savior, but this is a great opportunity.”
O’Neal has been involved in a broad range of outside businesses since the early days of his NBA career. He said he always admired former NBA stars who have gone on to business success, including Junior Bridgeman, the former Milwaukee Bucks swingman, who owns hundreds of franchise restaurants, and former Detroit Pistons guard Dave Bing, who led a steel company and automotive supplier.
O’Neal said Magic Johnson, whose business interests range from movie theaters and restaurants to owning a slice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, encouraged him early on to think about leveraging his basketball career to launch a business career.
O’Neal said he started by buying a book that laid out the basics of business ownership. Since then, he has bought and sold Five Guys franchises, Krispy Kreme stores and Auntie Anne’s locations, among other businesses. He also owns restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as a piece of the Sacramento Kings.
“I try to draw on lessons from my basketball career in how I approach business,” he said. “I do not micromanage. If I was a leader of a team, I did not try to tell the point guard or power forward how they do their job. In business, just try to set a tone. The customer is always right. Have fun, and make sure the product is good.”
O’Neal earned an estimated $292 million during a 19-year NBA career in which he was heralded as one of the most dominant players in league history. Still, he said, he is equally proud of what he is doing as a businessman.
“I have six children,” he said. “And it is cute that their dad was the Shaq. But it is even cuter if their dad can own Krispy Kreme stores, or car dealerships, or other businesses. I want them to see me as something more than just a great basketball player.”