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McClatchy-Tribune  07/27/2014 2:08 PM ET
Papa Murphy's more than raising dough [The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash. :: ]

July 27--The future of Papa Murphy's, the take-and-bake pizza chain, rides on CEO Ken Calwell's leadership, and it's difficult to think he won't succeed when you witness him deliver his plan to win the 21st-century pizza wars.

The 52-year-old former competitive triathlete locks his eyes on you and wrestles your questions to the ground. A Midwesterner, he exudes the region's charm ("y'all need a value strategy") and adeptly unpacks anecdotes. Then he bounds from his conference-room chair to command a big-screen presentation. Speaking in rapid-fire fashion, wiry arms waving, he proceeds to reveal what's really going on in the $45 billion pizza market and why Papa Murphy's, headquartered in unassuming Vancouver, is on a path toward pizza-world conquest.

A datahead, he's as quick with industry statistics as he is with anecdotes.

"Fifteen to 20 percent of Americans say they're pan pizza lovers," says Calwell, who, in 2011, took the helm of Papa Murphy's International, with more than 1,400 stores in the U.S., Canada and the United Arab Emirates, all but about 5 percent operated by franchisees. "We didn't have a pan pizza before I got here."

He also knows which pizza chain is putting what on your pizzas, and how much. He snaps off another stat: Papa Murphy's' "base pepperoni pizza has about 30 percent more cheese" than those of the company's primary competitors: Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza (Calwell previously held management positions at both of those chains), Papa John's Pizza and Little Caesars.

Of course, Calwell doesn't know all of this stuff just to dazzle fellow dataheads. What he knows is part of what he's working on: to vault Papa Murphy's, a popular brand well-entrenched in the Pacific Northwest, onto the national scene.

Problem is, naysayers stand in his way.

Some franchisees have sued the company in Clark County Superior Court, alleging it misrepresented sales volumes, made false representations to them and charged excess advertising fees, among other things. The company went public in May, making its costs and profits public for the first time. And while Wall Street analysts remain bullish on the company, skeptics say Papa Murphy's is weaker than it admits.

Calwell takes all of it seriously. But he says his is a growth company focused on the long term: stores in new markets, higher-performing stores, more sales, market-share expansion and, eventually, profitability.

"Sometimes you've got to be patient with these things," he says.

Although those long-term outcomes depend on Calwell's leadership, he's got a platoon of lawyers fighting the franchisee suit and public relations people ready to joust over the company's image. And he expects many missions accomplished from the company's 170 employees. The work force at Papa Murphy's is up 29 percent from 132 in 2011, when Calwell assumed control.

And it's not as though consumers aren't happy with the company's pies, fine-tuned in a test kitchen tucked inside the company's headquarters near Westfield Vancouver mall.

This year, Market Force Information crowned Papa Murphy's No. 1 in the pizza category, including food quality, healthy food and friendly service. Zagat bestowed laurels in 2012, 2011 and 2010, naming the company No. 1 among pizza chains. The list of glowing No. 1 rankings goes on.

Here's something else Calwell likely doesn't have to worry about: the commitment of his corporate lieutenants to both his and the company's success. Jayson Tipp, the company's senior vice president of marketing, strategy and technology, says he had other professional opportunities but chose Papa Murphy's because of Calwell. Sitting across from Calwell during a three-hour interview with The Columbian, Tipp choked back tears.

"He's the best boss ... totally ... real human being, here for the right reasons, and I sign up every day ... to win, and the leadership team does, too."

After composing himself, Tipp, whose corporate management experience includes stints at Redbox and Starbucks

 

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