“At the time, in the early 1980s, Burger King was growing so fast,” Cain says. “I wanted to be part of that growth. So I moved out of the information-technology side to the restaurant business. I had to work my way up the corporate ladder again.” He is not kidding. Instead of landing in a cushy corporate office, Cain was put through Burger King’s management-trainee program, washing dishes and cleaning toilets with part-time teenage workers.
Cain viewed the greasy training as graduate school for restaurant management, so he asked many questions about why certain functions were performed, and about how various employees performed their tasks. Low-level workers, as he knew from his childhood odd jobs, often had better insights into workplace efficiency than corporate brass.
Soon after completing his new training, Cain became Burger King’s regional vice president for the Philadelphia region, directing hundreds of franchises. Within a couple years, thanks to his newly instituted employee-morale and customer-service programs, Cain’s Burger Kings saw whopping new profits. The region became a shining light for the company.
“Because I was successful, in two separate areas of Pillsbury, the executives asked me to become president of Godfather’s Pizza in 1986,” Cain says. The promotion was, in part, a reward for his record at Burger King. But it was also necessary: Godfather’s was nearing collapse and needed somebody to shake things up — fast.
Cain quickly moved his family — his wife, Gloria, and their two children — to Nebraska. His time in Burger King’s management program served him well as he took the reins. “We were looking bankruptcy right between the eyes,” he says. “That toughens you up. The path to success was not obvious when I showed up there. We utilized one of my guiding principles, which is to go to the people closest to the problem and ask them for their advice, then put together a strategy. I did not walk in with the answers; I walked in with the questions.”
“When you run a restaurant, you touch every aspect of the labor market, from the hourly-wage worker to the supervisor to the executive,” Cain observes. “Inside of the four walls of a restaurant is an entire corporation. You have to be able to deal with all types of a business: sales, operations, inventory, hiring and firing people, and customer service. It is a laboratory to learn how to deal with all aspects of a business.”
Cain poured all of the business knowledge that he had accumulated into a new plan. He turned off the lights in unprofitable shops, cutting the number of Godfather’s restaurants from 900 to 600. Cain’s maneuvers turned the company around: After years of drowning in red ink, the company began to earn profits. He focused the company on customer service and put new items on the menu, such as the “Hot Slice,” a pizza that could be served within minutes during the lunch hour to busy professionals.
By 1988, Godfather’s Pizza was humming and Cain, ever the entrepreneur, wanted to take control of the company. With a group of fellow executives, he approached Pillsbury with a $50 million leveraged buyout offer. The company accepted. Cain found himself in charge, and in principal ownership, of a major American fast-food corporation with 500-plus units and over $250 million in annual sales.
Cain is confident that he can surge as voters learn more about his business record. Already, fellow 2012 contenders are getting a tad nervous about this possibility, which months ago seemed like a tea-party pipe dream. On the trail last week, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum took a shot at Cain’s electability. “He has never won an election,” Santorum said. “And it’s not that he hasn’t tried.”
In 2004, Cain lost a GOP Senate primary in Georgia to then-congressman Johnny Isakson. He placed second among a crowded field vying to replace retiring senator Zell Miller. It was a tough loss for the hard-charging businessman, a personal and political setback. He thought that he had a real shot: He had catchy ads and a solid ground game, plus the support of old friends such as Steve Forbes. But he got into the race late and stumbled to compete with Isakson’s fundraising. By the end of the campaign, he had funneled over $700,000 from his personal coffers into the effort.