Shaq on his Papa John's deal: 'I realized there was a problem there'

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Shaquille O’Neal is clearly a key part of the Papa John’s turnaround plan.

After the embattled pizza chain finally settled its two-year-long dispute with its own founder and former CEO John Schnatter in March when Schnatter agreed to exit the board, it named Shaq a boardmember that same month. The basketball legend will also be closely involved in new marketing, and took a stake in nine Papa John’s franchises.

Now Shaq tells Yahoo Finance the whole deal came from his identifying a problem with the company, and that he was inspired to become a franchisee by a fellow (far less-known) former NBA player: Junior Bridgeman.

“The Papa John’s situation, I realized that there was a problem there: they didn’t have any diversity on the board,” Shaq says. “And I always wanted to become a franchisee—not for money purposes. One day I was reading an article, and it was talking about the best retired athlete businessmen. And I thought my name was going to be at the top... When I saw my name wasn’t at the top, it got me to thinking.”

O’Neal recalls that he was fourth on the list he saw, below Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Junior Bridgeman, who made his fortune from owning 195 Wendy’s franchises.

“I was like, ‘I want to get into the franchise business.’ I used to be in the franchise business, I had 155 Five Guys, I sold those,” Shaq says. “And Papa John’s in college was big for me, because it was what I ordered. So when I met with [former Papa John’s CEO] Steve Ritchie and [Starboard Capital CEO] Jeff Smith, I said ‘I would like to be involved, if I can be on the board and if I can purchase a couple franchises.’”

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 24: Steve Ritchie and Shaquille O'Neal attend Shaq's Papa John's Pizza Grand Opening on August 24, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.(Prince Williams/Wireimage)

There’s a lot to unpack there.

For starters, Shaq sounds like he managed to get his way with Jeff Smith, a notoriously difficult activist investor whom many believe is the one now pulling the strings at Papa John’s (PZZA).

In addition, it’s interesting to hear Shaq say outright that his goal is to be seen as the No. 1 retired athlete businessman. It’s a lofty goal, considering how much Michael Jordan has done (he reportedly became the first athlete billionaire back in 2009) and the extensive business deals made by stars like Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Alex Rodriguez, and LeBron James.

But Shaq is also unique among endorsers. While he has appeared in scores of television ads in the past for companies like Krispy Kreme, The General Car Insurance, Ring home doorbell, Icy Hot, Gold Bond, and Carnival Cruises, he takes it a few steps further by hosting a summit every year for representatives from all the companies he works with. He started the ritual in 2012, and it’s aimed at making sure he’s doing the most he can to help each brand he represents.

Becoming a boardmember of Papa John’s is another measure that takes the old athlete-brand partnership model into a new era.

His advice for other athletes in business? “Don’t always try to go for the quick money scheme,” he says. “Every time I made an investment based on thinking I was going to double or triple or quadruple my money, I lost every time. Every time I just took my time, did my due diligence, did my research, thought about it... My first major investment was Google. The guy said, ‘Hey. In the future—not now, but in the future—phones, search engines, finding information.’ I thought, ‘That’s going to work.’ I could see it.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

Shaq is set to be the new face of Papa John’s

Papa John’s vs Papa John Schnatter: A timeline

How Papa John’s lost the NFL pizza war

Shaq does one unique thing that sets him apart from other athlete endorsers

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