By Carlo Versano
Shaquille O'Neal is joining the board of directors of Papa John's ($PZZA), investing in nine locations, and will act as a brand ambassador for the beleaguered pizza chain that's seeking to rebound after a year of controversy following comments made by its founder.
"It's one more step forward in the right direction," said Papa John's CEO Steve Ritchie.
Shaq and Ritchie told Cheddar Friday that they want to create a new culture at the company, which was tarnished when founder John Schnatter admitted he used a racial slur on a conference call. He resigned as chairman and engaged the company in a drawn-out legal battle before announcing a deal earlier this month that would remove him from the board.
Shaq is no stranger to the food-service business. "An entrepreneur at heart," as Ritchie called him, O'Neal already owns a Krispy Kreme franchise, reportedly owns 10 percent of all Five Guys franchises in existence, and founded the Big Chicken chain. He's also a renowned investor in other areas: he's a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, famously bought pre-IPO Google stock, and owns pre-IPO shares of Uber (though he said he can't talk about that until the company goes public).
But Shaq's interest in Papa John's is more about the employees, he said. The swirling controversy at the pizza chain made him feel for the 800 franchisees who invested their savings, did nothing wrong, and were suffering from the fallout. By joining the board, Shaq said he hopes it will send a signal that Papa John's is serious about diversifying its leadership.
"Everyone loves pizza and pizza loves everyone," he said.
"Pizza is fun ... and I'm in the fun business."
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