Thanks to a lifetime spent adding a little sauce to large-scale pizza brands, Gareth Davies is the perfect person to ensure Papa John’s franchisees in the UK and western Europe are seeing their businesses thrive
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Gareth Davies came to play such a pivotal role in helping Papa John’s franchisees thrive and the American pizza giant reach consumers across western Europe. After all, having worked in kitchens since he was a teenager and having spent decades helping rising brands firm up their franchising, Davies is one of Britain’s true pizza pros and the perfect man to help spread ‘Papa’ John Schnatter’s franchise even further.
Born in Leamington Spa, Davies spent much of his young life moving from place to place because of his father’s catering career, something he feels gave him a good grounding in the entrepreneurial mindset. “Obviously moving around and changing schools on a regular basis gives you the opportunity to learn to be flexible and adaptable in different circumstances,” he says. However, this doesn’t mean that Davies wasn’t raised with a consistent work ethic: from around the age of ten, he worked back of house in his parents’ restaurant, making him Britain’s youngest kitchen porter at the time. But while his father was a fantastic chef, Davies learnt as much from his failures as his successes: Davies senior struggled to systematise the business, ultimately leading to the company folding. And this is a lesson that Davies makes sure he imparts to franchisees to this day by helping them access robust systems.
Having whet his appetite for business at such a young age, it wasn’t surprising that Davies felt more at home in a kitchen than a classroom. “I confess I was never the most academic of individuals,” he says. “I was always attracted to action and so academia was never really the right environment for me.” Leaving school at 16, Davies signed up for a computing course at a local college in Stratford-upon-Avon and took a part-time job working at the local McDonald’s just to make ends meet. But while his keenness to study coding quickly ebbed away – in 1985 much of computing was still driven by impenetrable maths – before long he found he thrived in the process-driven world of food franchising. “What I found at McDonald’s was working with people was my great passion,” says Davies. “Additionally the structured environment was something I could really relate to: there’s a very clear definition of what a good job looks like and if you follow the rules you get a strong positive outcome.”
Developing a taste for this combo of people and processes, Davies was soon sold on the world of food service, meaning that when the time came to move on from McDonald’s he decided to join another brand that was very much on the rise. “There was a Pizza Hut opening up in the town and some of my pals and I decided that we would get a job there while we thought about what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives,” he says. But while Davies may have initially viewed working for the pizza brand as a stop-gap, it quickly became his vocation: he soon worked his way up from the kitchen team to area manager. “I remained employed by Pizza Hut for the next 20 years,” he says. “So I’m either the most indecisive person in the world or I found my calling by accident.”
But while pizza became Davies’ passion, he didn’t make his first foray into the world of franchising until 2000, when he was offered the chance to help Pizza Hut’s master franchisee expand his operation in the Emerald Isle. And this experience confirmed to him how important it is in business to blend careful organisation with ambition and vision. “Eddie Johnston who was the master franchisee for Northern Ireland at the time was very entrepreneurial,” he says. “We ended up creating a very good partnership where we combined my functional skills and his entrepreneurial spirit.” Over the following four years, their complimentary skill sets enabled Davies and Johnston to triple the size of the Irish network. And Davies feels this experience working on the other side of the fence has proven invaluable. “For me that was a very transformational step in my experience as a leader,” he says. “It really taught me the need for shared goals and ambition between franchisee and franchisor.”
And without a doubt this was insight that Pizza Hut sorely needed. With Davies’ eldest daughter set to begin high school, his family decided to move back to the UK and, after a stint helping to reinvigorate Pizza Hut’s Express food-court concept, he was brought in to help roll out the brand’s domestic franchising operation. “Quite honestly the business didn’t really know what to make of these franchisees,” he says. “We were used to making decisions in a very top-down fashion, whereas of course in franchising the absolute key is respect for the goals of the franchisee.” Working more closely with franchisees that had recently joined the network, Davies began tweaking Pizza Hut’s franchise model to more closely align the franchisor’s interests with theirs. “It was about being the bridge between what the franchisee and franchisor were hoping to achieve,” he says. “I needed to guide them in those areas where they had limited insight but also learn from the fresh energy, ideas and challenges they brought into the business.”
While this kickstarted significant growth in Pizza Hut’s franchise operations, the company had begun to receive some stiff competition from a new entrant into the market: Papa John’s. A recent migrant from the States, the brand had begun its life decades before, when a 15-year-old Schnatter landed a job at local pizza restaurant Rocky's Sub Pub. “While he started working as a pot washer, he worked his way across onto the pizza production line and found something he felt very passionate about,” says Davies. And this meant that in 1984, upon discovering that his father’s tavern, Mick’s Lounge, was on the brink of bankruptcy, Schnatter had the perfect plan to help the business up its game. “He thought ‘actually if I could sell some pizza from here, this would be a great opportunity to increase the turnover in the bar’,” Davies says. “So the bar’s broom closet was knocked down, an oven was installed and the first Papa John’s pizza outlet was created.”
Not only did the launch of Papa John’s help reverse the fortunes of Mick’s Lounge but Schnatter’s enthusiasm for fresh ingredients clearly tickled Kentuckians’ tastebuds. “John’s passion was to be able to deliver a pizza that he’d be proud to serve to his family and friends: that was his driving force,” says Davies. “And obviously that meant it snowballed pretty quickly.” However, in order to capitalise on the business’s momentum and rapidly expand, Schnatter knew he would need some outside help. Fortunately franchising provided the perfect way to bring people on board. “John’s a very ambitious person and, realising the potential of a pizza-delivery business, he was keen to keep growing,” Davies says. “Ultimately you either have deep pockets and a large amount of capital to grow or you bring in business partners and franchisees as a way of expanding.”
Signing franchisees up in earnest, Papa John’s growth skyrocketed: by 1998 it had nearly 2,000 stores across the US, meaning Schnatter decided the time was right to take his pizza to the world. And after expanding into Mexico and Puerto Rico, one location really stood out as a candidate. “Clearly the UK and the US have many links and similarities,” Davies says. “The decision was made to buy an existing business so they purchased Perfect Pizza.” At that time, the thriving pizza brand had around 200 stores across Britain, meaning that once Papa John’s had converted the stores to its brand, it would have a sizeable network to build upon. However, this plan stalled when resistance from Perfect Pizza's franchisees put the kibosh on the rebrand and its sizeable network began to atrophy: suddenly finding itself running two separate networks concurrently, Papa John’s decided to sell off the brand’s stores, allowing it to refocus on its own rapidly growing network. “There were maybe 90 Papa John’s stores at that point,” says Davies. “That was really the start point for our current success and growth.”
By this time, Davies had begun to feel like his progress within the Pizza Hut brand had plateaued. “There was a period of stagnation and I was keen to move on,” he says. “Fortunately, there was a great opportunity to further my impact in a small business with Perfect Pizza.” Joining the brand as operations director, Davies became responsible for turning round its remaining network of 112 franchised pizza-delivery stores. But while he helped up Perfect Pizza’s system sales to £18m during his tenure there, after a year and a half working in the business, he began to feel that he was caught in the crossfire between its two main groups of stakeholders. “It became quite clear there was a gap between the ambitions and objectives of the franchisees and those of the franchisor that I certainly didn’t have the capacity in my role to close,” he says. “I wasn’t comfortable working in a business where the two fundamental partners in the business had such divergent goals.”
As luck would have it though, a new opportunity presented itself. While developing Pizza Hut’s food-court offering, Davies had worked alongside Jack Swaysland, who had gone on to become the ops director of Papa John’s. Given Davies’s past relationship with Swaysland and his work turning round its former acquisition, joining the brand was a no brainer. “So nine years ago I made the move across to Papa John’s,” he says.
Entering the culture that Schnatter had built, Davies found he felt a real affinity for the Papa John’s approach, partly because of its focus on uniting the interests of its franchisees with its own. “How we do business is as important as the business we do,” he says. “We have an acronym that outlines our core values: FASPAC, which is focus, accountability, superiority, PAPA – or ‘people are priority always’ – attitude and constant improvement.” And this focus on individuals’ interests and increasing their agency is threaded throughout the business. “In our cultural and behavioural training programme Go Left, there are four or five individual modules that all talk about leadership and behavioural training,” Davies says. “That helps people understand that how they go about doing business has an impact on the performance of the people they employ and their customers.”
But this isn’t the only secret sauce that sets Schnatter’s business apart: Papa John’s commitment to serving pizza he is proud of survives to this day. “We run a huge number of clean-label initiatives to remove nasty things from that pizza and make sure that everything in it is going to be wholesome and natural,” Davies says. In fact, Papa John’s is so serious about jettisoning junk from its menus that its US business has appointed perhaps the restaurant industry’s first chief ingredients officer. Not only did this see it strip artificial colours and flavours, preservatives and sweeteners from its pizzas but it has also launched a quality guarantee for its ingredients that promises to replace any pizza consumers don’t love. “And to date, three years into making that promise, we’re still in the low 100s of pizzas that we’ve redeemed as replacements,” says Davies. “So that’s a promise we’ve kept.”
After a stint first as franchise-business manager, Davies quickly found himself being asked to get hands on with the network as its operations director. “The business was growing and the team was looking for people with enough experience,” he says. “There were about 120 to 125 stores and I was in a position to help those franchisees again with some structure.” And as the business has grown, Davies has continued to step up, first becoming VP of the UK and Ireland before adding regional VP for western Europe to his remit. This has meant that along with adding between 35 and 45 stores a year in Britain, he is now responsible for guiding Papa John’s growth on the continent. “We’re getting increasing numbers of enquiries from France, the Netherlands and Spain to say ‘we like what Papa John’s is doing’,” he says. “When the right partners came along, we worked with them to help establish the right opportunities and the right way forward.”
Evidently Papa John’s has some significant growth ahead of it. “We will end this year on just short of 390 stores in the UK and our ambition is to continue to grow at an even faster rate for the foreseeable future,” he says. “There are lots of consumers out there that like pizza and lots of opportunities out there for us to service them better.” But it’s not solely about the numbers for Davies: just as important is seeing the purveyors of Papa John’s pizzas themselves get the best out of the partnership. “My great pleasure is seeing people achieve their aims and, as the years have gone on, seeing people around me grow and be successful,” he says. “Being part of that growth is part of the joy I take from this job.”
And with Schnatter at the helm, Davies knows Papa John’s will continue to put itself in the shoes of those running its restaurants. “When John comes into a restaurant, the first thing he’ll do – after washing his hands – is make his way to the make line, talk to the guys, slap the dough and get involved in making pizza because fundamentally that’s who he is: Papa John the pizza maker,” he says. “Working for a business that is led by its founder, that has a sense of purpose and a shared commitment to success for its investors and franchisees is very valuable to me.”