John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza (NASDAQ:PZZA), is stepping down as CEO of the Louisville-based chain, the company said on Thursday.
Schnatter, 56, will continue to serve as chairman of the board. Papa John’s COO Steve Ritchie will succeed Schnatter as CEO in January.
"I am humbled to take on this role," said Ritchie. "By focusing on our team members, we will deliver the world class experiences our customers deserve.”
A prominent NFL sponsor, Papa John’s drew scrutiny last month after Schnatter publicly blamed the league’s handling of player national anthem protests for subpar third-quarter sales. The company later condemned white supremacy after the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication, praised Papa John’s as “the official pizza of the alt-right” due to Schnatter’s comments.
Papa John’s shares are down more than 32% since December 2016 and dropped considerably after Schnatter criticized the NFL. The company lowered its full-year sales guidance after reporting worse-than-expected comp sales in 3Q.
Ritchie told FOX Business last month that Schnatter’s comments were “mischaracterized and misconstrued,” adding that Papa John’s had not intended to take a side in the debate over NFL protests. Company executives say they had clear data that proved Papa John’s NFL sponsorship was having a negative impact on its interactions with consumers.
Ritchie declined to comment on whether the NFL spat played a role in Schnatter’s departure as CEO, but told the Wall Street Journal that public relations controversies involving the company “have been quite a distraction.”
“I want to put the focus back on our people and pizza,” he said.
Schnatter founded Papa John’s in 1984 and has a personal net worth estimated at $800 million, according to Forbes. Papa John’s has more than 3,000 store locations in the U.S.