LOUISVILLE — Speaking to college students five years ago in Florida, Papa John's pizza magnate John Schnatter bragged he’d scored a nearly perfect 790 on his SAT in math but a dismal 200 on the verbal exam.
"I have a real problem with the English language," he said, laughing.
But now Schnatter’s inability to control his tongue is no laughing matter. It has cost him his reputation, his seat on the University of Louisville board of trustees, removal of his nickname from the university's football stadium and his role atop the world’s fifth-largest pizza chain, which he founded 34 years ago in a broom closet.
To some of his former employees — and to Louisville-based restaurant industry journalist Steve Coomes, who has interviewed Schnatter a dozen times — the fact that Schnatter destroyed himself with his mouth is not surprising.
"Teflon John has always said too much, criticizing people within his company, its franchisees and nearly always those who left Papa John’s to work elsewhere," Coomes wrote in a blog post last week titled, "A tale of a man who couldn’t tame his tongue."
Added a former Papa John's International board member who asked to go unnamed to protect his current business: "When you’re in retail and you have to deal with the public, sometimes you have to bite your tongue, and I don’t think he always did a good job biting his tongue."
In 2012 Schnatter complained that President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul might add 14 cents to the price of a pizza, for which Schnatter was mocked and vilified.
Last fall he set off an uproar by complaining that the NFL’s handling of protests by black players caused a slump in Papa John’s pizza sales. When white supremacists embraced the remarks, the company was forced to apologize and Schnatter had to step down as CEO.
And in what turned out to be the last straw, Forbes reported this week that Schnatter, 56, complained in a conference call with his marketing agency in May that Col. Harland Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken founder, had used a racial slur to describe black people without enduring the backlash that Schnatter encountered for his NFL comments.
In a radio interview Friday, Schnatter said the marketing company "pushed" him into using the offensive vocabulary during a role-playing session designed to help him learn how to avoid a public relations snafus.
"I was just talking the way the Colonel talked and, again, shame on me,” Schnatter said.
Schnatter’s fall was swift – and remarkable. As recently as 2013, he was rated one of the two most effective CEO spokesmen in the country by Ace Metrix, which measures the impact of advertising.
Friends and former employees say they never heard Schnatter use a racial slur, even in private.
"I have no sense whatsoever that Schnatter … is a racist," Coomes wrote in his post. "What I know for sure is he lacks an understanding of conversational propriety and nuance. With some regularity, he struggled to tap his mental brakes when an inappropriate thought arrived at his vocal chords."
Schnatter is so unfiltered — he once condemned "fat and happy franchisees" making bad pizzas — the company had to assign someone to restrain him during interviews, Coomes said.
Schnatter’s supporters, like global crisis manager Mike Sitrick, whom Papa John’s hired in 2013 to deal with the aftermath of Schnatter’s Obamacare remarks, say there is nothing wrong with an executive being outspoken.
Sitrick, whose Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Company no longer represents Papa John's, said Schatter’s comments on the health care law were taken out of context and that others share his view that the NFL mismanaged the player protests.
Meiners, a longtime friend of Schnatter, noted that thousands of people have benefited from his philanthropy or from jobs at Papa John’s.
"What he said on the conference call was deplorable, but it comes from his quirky personality," Meiners said. "He’s the guy who’ll make an obtuse comment to trigger conversation or as a stepping-stone to a larger point. In the case of this conference call, he dropped a grenade that blew up in his own pants."
Others are less charitable.
Gary Langstaff, who worked for Papa John’s as a marketing director in 2003, attributed Schnatter’s problems to his inflated sense of self-worth.
"When you have an ego the size of Louisville," Langstaff said, "you say things without considering the ramifications."
Ryan Easterly, who once worked at a restaurant where Schnatter was a regular, said he treated and tipped him generously. But one day, Easterly said, he walked by as Schnatter was eating lunch and heard him say, “I’m rich. I can do whatever I want.”
"Let that sink in," Easterly wrote on Facebook, responding to Coomes’ post. "He has unlimited wealth and knows no boundaries."
Not always a better boss
At Papa John's headquarters, Schnatter was a demanding boss who could be difficult to work for, former executives said.
The late Jack Trout, a marketing whiz who came up with the "Better Ingredients" slogan and was the first to suggest that Schnatter tout his pizza on TV, said in a 2012 interview that Schnatter made employees nervous and sometimes drove talent away.
In a 1998 article, The New York Times said Schnatter could be "counted on to pop into his restaurants without notice, checking on the cheese, the sauce, the shape and quality of the crust" — and to "blow his stack if any aspect falls short."
The story noted that five executives, including Papa John's president, had quit over 18 months, all complaining about his management style.
Schnatter said in 2012 that he had “mellowed” with age and experience.
Executives described him as demanding but fair.
Chief Development Officer Tim O'Hern said Schnatter cared about employees, "whether they be janitors, restaurant team members, truck drivers, administrative assistants or executives."
Steve Ritchie, who was senior president of North American and Latin American operations and president and CEO since December, said Schnatter had high expectations.
“If you compromise the fundamentals, he will call you, and it will be a tough conversation,” he said.
As the face of his company, Schnatter stepped up when things went wrong.
In 2013, he personally apologized to a customer in Florida who was the target of "hurtful and painful words" from fired employees who made racist slurs in voicemail messages. And the next year, when an employee was killed during a robbery attempt at a Tennessee store, Schnatter attended the funeral and paid for the service, according to a family member who said his personal “support was so much more meaningful than any monetary donation."
What Schnatter said in May
According to Forbes, the call was arranged between Papa John’s executives and a marketing agency called Laundry Service. It was to be a role-playing exercise for Schnatter to help prevent future public-relations problems.
In November, Schnatter's comments linking slow pizza sales to NFL player national anthem protests had set off a firestorm of criticism and caused shares of Papa John's to drop 13 percent from when he made them until he stepped down as CEO the next month.
Schnatter was asked how he would distance himself from racist groups online. He responded by downplaying the significance of his NFL statement.
“Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s,” Schnatter said, complaining that Sanders never faced a public backlash.
Schnatter also reflected on his early life in Indiana, where, he said, people used to drag African-Americans to death with trucks. He apparently intended for the remarks to convey his antipathy to racism, but multiple individuals on the call were offended and the marketing agency dropped Papa John's as a client, Forbes reported Wednesday.
Schnatter confirmed he had used the N-word and apologized after the Forbes report.
John H. Schnatter
• Born: Nov. 22, 1961
• Residence: Anchorage, Kentucky
• Title: Founder, former CEO and chairman, Papa John's International
• Siblings: Anne Schnatter Ackerson and Charles W. "Chuck" Schnatter, an attorney who formerly worked for Papa John's and served on its board
• Family: Wife, Annette; adult children Beau, Danielle and Kristine
John H. Schnatter Family Foundation
• Assets (2016) $8.8 million
• Grants (2015) $1.7 million
Recipients, 2012-16: Louisville Zoo, 21st Century Parks, University of Louisville, University of Kentucky, Purdue University