As of Jan. 1, 2018, the pizza chain will be run by new CEO Steve Ritchie, who has been serving as chief operating officer, the company announced late this week. Schnatter will remain chairman of the board, and it appears he will also remain the face of the company.
“We have no plans to remove John from our communications,” a Papa John’s spokesman told Adweek today. “This was the right time for Steve to step in the CEO role, who has been with Papa John’s for 21 years and started as an hourly employee. We want to focus on what we do best—our people and our pizza.”
Schnatter previously stepped down from the role in 2005, only to return three years later. He has consistently appeared in the chain’s advertisements and on almost all of its branding materials, from pizza boxes to in-store signage.
However, his iconic role with the company hasn’t always been a positive. On a Nov. 1 call, he said “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders” by not resolving the high-profile “take a knee” movement embraced by some players in protest of violence and injustice against black Americans. Papa John’s is an NFL sponsor.
Schnatter’s comments sparked backlash and accusations of racism online, leading him to subsequently clarify publicly that “we condemn racism in all forms and any and all hate groups that support it.”
It’s unclear how much, if at all, the issue led to Schnatter stepping aside as CEO. Given that Schnatter will remain as a spokesman, however, it’s unlikely that any of his critics will be placated by the move.
Is the CEO spokesman era ending?
The dual role of CEO and advertising spokesperson was a relatively common sight in the 1980s and ’90s, thanks largely to the success of chicken pitchman Frank Perdue. Put in front of the camera by agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves in the early ’70s, the avuncular Perdue proved to be a natural salesman and is credited with pioneering the idea of branding for a product like chicken.