Herman Cain, Successful CEO
The GOP frontrunner prospered as Big Cheese of Godfather’s Pizza.


Deroy Murdock

Herman Cain has every right to feel uncomfortable.

According to news reports based on anonymous sources, the GOP presidential frontrunner is suspected of unspecified acts of sexual harassment while running the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. Cain’s first accuser considered coming forward, but now says she will stay in the shadows. Like a hit-and-run driver, she wounded Cain and now speeds off into the night.

What, if anything, transpired between Cain and his associates remains as unclear as this episode’s ultimate impact on Cain’s upstart, surprisingly successful, and — for many — refreshing candidacy.

Too bad this media Nor’easter overwhelmed two recent stories on a sunnier aspect of Cain’s past: his tenure as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. If these reports are accurate, Cain is a diligent, cerebral, tough-but-fair executive who turned a failing and flabby organization into a fit, effective enterprise. Imagine if this tested manager could do likewise with America’s paunchy and profligate federal government.

First, between 1983 and 1985, Cain revitalized Burger King’s 450-store Philadelphia region. He moved it from a laggard to a leader among the company’s twelve geographic territories.

“My career spans 38 years, and I’ve worked for 26 different managers,” said Frank Taylor, Cain’s former regional controller at Burger King. “Herman was far and away the best I’ve worked for in terms of getting a team together, sharing a vision, and accomplishing the goals. And nothing diverted him.”

Pillsbury brass then tapped Cain to resuscitate Godfather’s Pizza. They gave him one year. Godfather’s “had one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel,” Cain has said. According to Neal St. Anthony’s article in the October 30 Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Godfather’s was “waylaid by a tired menu, demoralized employees, and lousy results.”

“I’m Herman Cain and this ain’t no April Fool’s joke,” he told Godfather’s employees upon arrival on April 1, 1986. “We are not dead. Our objective is to prove to Pillsbury and everybody else that we will survive.”

Cain got very busy indeed. He worked long hours, gave frequent pep talks, canvassed employees individually for their ideas, and even cooked pizzas himself — both in Godfather’s test kitchen and its retail locations.

Cain energized his headquarters staff with after-work sing-alongs and expected top supervisors to communicate on a first-name basis with all of their subordinates. Cain tested them on this skill. He also pressed $50 bills into the palms of employees whose customer service or pizza-making prowess impressed him as he visited Godfather’s outlets.

“Herman was very quantitative and analytical,” former Pillsbury executive George Mileusnic recalled in the Star-Tribune, “but he demanded that everybody be engaged, and every employee must be appreciated and respected.”

“He’s very, very inspiring,” Godfather’s marketing director Charles Henderson told Brady Dennis in the October 23 Washington Post. “The guy can convince you to run through a wall.”

By 1987, Godfather’s was on a roll. It generated an operating profit, and gained market share against Domino’s and Pizza Hut. According to the Post, Cain closed failing stores and laid off their workers. However, average sales and profit margins grew at surviving restaurants. One year later, Cain arranged for his team to buy the chain from Pillsbury for an undisclosed sum and remained Godfather’s capo di tutti capi until 1995. Once left for dead, Godfather’s thrives even today. It remains in private hands, and its 220 franchisees operate some 620 restaurants.


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