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  • Nate Morris

Papa John’s — American Innovation in Pizza and Culture

Innovation comes in many forms. It can mean building an international business with nothing but the proceeds of selling your own car. It can mean doing something simple — like making a pizza — but doing it better than anybody else. It can also mean reinventing a 30 year old, billion dollar business to make it stronger, more inclusive, and even more profitable.

Papa John’s International, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, has been on all of those journeys. From the days of its founder, who famously sold his Camaro to build a pizza kitchen in a broom closet, to today, with more than 5,000 locations around the world, and more than $1.6 billion in revenue, Papa John’s has innovated over and over again.

In the decade between 1984 and 1993, Papa John’s invented pizza dipping sauce, expanded to almost 500 stores nationwide, and became a publicly traded company. Then, throughout the 90s, Papa John’s exploded, expanding to more than 1,500 stores. By 2016, Papa John’s had become the fourth largest pizza chain in the United States.

Papa John’s is synonymous with my childhood in Kentucky. From birthday parties to holidays, Papa John’s was a fixture in my life. Its story is a story we have all rooted for as we watched Papa John’s grow over the years.

I was so proud to have Papa John’s as one of Rubicon’s very first customers. They took a chance on us when few others were willing to do so. We have watched them continue to grow, as business partners, and we have grown with them. They continue to grow, even now, during the challenging COVID-19 pandemic.

The story of Papa John’s is not without its challenges, however. In 2018, after a series of setbacks, Papa John’s started on a journey of reinvention, reinvigorating the brand and working to ensure the company’s values were aligned with those of its more than 16,500 employees. As part of this journey, Papa John’s welcomed Shaquille O’Neil (one of its largest franchisers) to its board of directors, created a position for Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (a critical step in ensuring increased visibility for the company’s Environmental Social Governance (ESG) values), and codified their core values as:

• Everyone Belongs

• Do the Right Thing

• People First

• Innovate to Win

• Have Fun

Rubicon recently invited Papa John’s VP of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I), Victoria Russell, to speak at one of our company all-hands meetings.

Victoria, a native Kentuckian, has worked at Papa John’s for 14 years, these past two as VP of DE&I. She was on Adweek’s list of Women Trailblazers in 2020, The Business Journal’s Rising Star Influencer List in 2019, Louisville Business’s First 40 Under 40 in 2019, a graduate of the University of Kentucky, and a founding member of Adweek’s Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council.

Victoria says that as the company began responding to the crises in 2018, they were looking at data on customer behavior. While some people in the company may have thought things would be fine, and that the crisis would blow over, the data she was seeing showed otherwise.

“Seeing the data, I started to see things where I thought I have a voice here,” she said. “Was it uncomfortable? Absolutely. But it comes back to doing the right thing.”

Victoria stepped up, took on the assignment as VP of DE&I, and began leading the charge to right the company’s cultural ship. One of her first acts was to go on a “listening tour” of the entire company, inviting employees and franchisees to share their experiences.

“Too often folks step into these challenging roles and think they know best,” she said. “But if bias tells us anything, it’s you need to listen.”

Papa John’s journey to inclusivity included inviting Shaq onto the board and appointing him as a brand ambassador, starting employee training in unconscious bias and other D&I issues, and a top-down look at how the company communicates and lives its core values.

As Papa John’s got focused on remaking the culture and getting to core values that are inclusive, it also became a more profitable company than ever before, with the largest market capitalization in the history of the company. This just proves that culture is now one of the leading factors of business success, and Papas John’s is an innovator both in pizza and in culture.

I could not be prouder of this Kentucky success story, and I and everyone at Rubicon are honored that Papa John’s has been one of our oldest partners for more than 10 years.

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