John Schnatter, the founder and face of Papa John’s pizza empire, will step down as CEO next month about two months after he publicly criticized the National Football League’s leadership over anti-police protests by its players.
Schnatter will be replaced as chief executive by Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie on Jan. 1, the company announced Thursday, according to the Chicago Tribune. Schnatter, who appears in the pizza chain’s commercials and on its pizza boxes, is the company’s biggest shareholder and will remain the chairman of the board.
Schnatter blamed the company’s sales slump on the outcry surrounding players kneeling during the national anthem.
“The controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country,” Schnatter said during a conference call on Nov. 1.
“This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago,” Schnatter said in prepared remarks. “Like many sponsors, we are in contact with the NFL and once the issue is resolved between the players and the owners, we are optimistic that the NFL’s best years are ahead. But good or bad, leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership.”
The company later apologized for Schnatter’s comments.
The problem was made worse after the white supremacist website Daily Stormer declared Papa John’s the official pizza of the alt-right. Papa Johns responded by saying that the didn’t want white supremacists to buy pizza from them.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Ritchie would not say if Schnatter’s NFL comments played a role in Schnatter stepping down, only saying that it’s “the right time to make this change.”
Shares of Papa John’s are down about 13 percent since the day before the NFL comments were made, the Chicago Tribune reported. That drop off reduced Schnatter’s stake in the company by nearly $84 million.
Schnatter owns nearly 9.5 million shares of Papa John’s International Inc. The total value of his shares is at more than $560 million on Thursday, according to FactSet.
The company hasn’t decided if Schnatter, 56, will still be its spokesman, according to Ritchie. He said that a decision will be made early next year.