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Can Starboard Value Bring Papa John's Back?

By Motley Fool Staff – Updated Apr 16, 2019 at 4:07PM

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After the activist hedge fund revealed it had taken a large stake, shares of the punished pizza chain rose by a double-digit percentage.

Starboard Value has a history of guiding restaurant companies out of the woods, but it will have its work cut out for it with Papa John's (PZZA 0.33%). The hedge fund's $200 million investment in the pizza chain, though, means it'll get the chance to try, and the market seems to look forward to that attempt.

In this segment from MarketFoolery, host Chris Hill and Motley Fool Asset Management's Bill Barker consider what Papa John's has already been doing to rebrand itself away from its controversial founder -- and largest shareholder -- John Schnatter, and what it needs to do next.

A full transcript follows the video.

Check out the latest Papa John's earnings call transcript. 

This video was recorded on Feb. 4, 2019.

Chris Hill: Papa John's in the news this morning. I suppose it makes sense, given that yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday, traditionally the biggest day for pizza companies in terms of sales. Shares of Papa John's up 10% to 12% this morning after getting a $200 million investment from Starboard Value. For those unfamiliar, these are the activist investors who took a stake in Darden Restaurants about five years ago. Not all that surprising when you look at their track record, when it comes to activist investing in the restaurant space, that the stock would be up like this.

Bill Barker: Yeah. It's been pummeled by all of the missteps that it's made in the last two years, and the chaos, in terms of management and ownership, that continues to be there. It would be very fascinating to know what Starboard thinks is the right path. There are so many different ones, including rebranding, what do you do with the owner-founder and his ongoing stake? I'd love to hear them talk about it.

Hill: I think they've done a pretty good job with the rebranding. They've clearly realized, "Well, we can't completely walk away from the branding. We can't do an AOL into Oath, we can't do a Tribune Media into Tronc." Not that those are great examples. But, the way that they've been advertising, dropping the John's and just focusing on the Papa part of it, and highlighting local franchisees in their commercials, I think they've done a good job with that.

To your point about John Schnatter, that's really the issue they're going to have to deal with. He's still the dominant shareholder. He's not going away. He gave a comment that, and I'm quoting here, he's "evaluating legal remedies." He claims he made a better proposal to the company than Starboard Value did. I really hope that he's got a good friend nearby who can pull him aside and say, "John, just take the money. You're the biggest shareholder and your shares are now worth 10% to 12% more than they were last Friday. It's in your financial interest to let these people come in and do what they're going to do."

Barker: That's not a strategy, to go in with an investment, is, "We will find that friend, pull him aside, and say, 'get out of here.'" So, they have something else that's part of their strategy. I don't know what it is. There are so many different directions you can go with this. It's still much smaller company than you would think, given your knowledge of the brand. Of course, it's been bleeding market cap grotesquely, as far as shareholders would be concerned, for a while now. It's only a $1.5 billion company, and that's after going up 10% today. There's a lot of room for it to grow, but it needs a plan that it does not have today.

Hill: It absolutely does. You go back to what Starboard did with Darden Restaurants, they had levers they could pull with that business that they don't really have available to them in this business. Papa John's is Papa John's. Darden Restaurants at the time had a number of brands under the umbrella, including Red Lobster, and that was one of the moves by Starboard, was to sell that off. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Bill Barker has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Bill Barker is an employee of Motley Fool Asset Management, a separate, sister company of The Motley Fool, LLC. The views of Bill Barker and Motley Fool Asset Management are not the views of The Motley Fool, LLC and should not be taken as such. Chris Hill has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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