When Pillsbury asked Herman Cain to take over as president of its Godfather’s Pizza chain in 1986, they knew the man could deliver. In 1982, Cain had resigned his post as vice president of corporate systems for the company and taken up a new position as manager of the Philadelphia branch of Burger King (also Pillsbury-owned), which until then had been its lowest-ranking region. Once Cain instituted a set of practical service-related reforms — such as making sure that shift managers were not being overworked — that quickly changed. By the time Cain finished and took up Godfather’s presidency three years later, Burger King’s Philadelphia region consistently placed first or second in performance.
As leader of Godfather’s, Cain brought this same set of strategies, and even some of the same managers, with him to the troubled pizza chain. One such person was Spencer Wiggins, a human-resources manager who started at Kraft Foods and whom Cain had specifically sought out to work for him at Burger King. In an interview with National Review Online, Wiggins recalled his first meeting with Cain and how taken he was by Cain’s charisma. “I walked into the [Burger King regional] office, Herman was there by himself, and he acted like he had known me for ten years. As soon as I walked in he said, ‘Spencer Wiggins, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you, man. Where’ve you been?’ So we sat down, we talked for about two hours, and next thing I knew, I was coming on board with Burger King Corporation.”
After Pillsbury acquired Godfather’s Pizza and put Cain in charge, he set about reforming the chain’s management priorities: Cain wanted to measure success not by the number of Godfather’s units operating, but rather by the average sales of each unit, which Cain saw as more important for long-term success. So he closed unprofitable restaurants, reducing the number of Godfather’s units from 725 at the time of his 1986 takeover to about 525 by 1995. And Cain’s emphasis on quality over quantity proved effective. Nation’s Restaurant News reported that while the system-wide sales of the 725 units totaled approximately $260 million in 1986, by 1995 the much smaller network of 525 Godfather’s restaurants was making $250 million annually.
In 1988, Pillsbury decided not to remain in the pizza business, so Cain and his senior management took over the chain in a $50 million leveraged buyout, and were excited to do so. While Godfather’s had suffered an $8 million net loss in the year prior to Cain’s appointment in 1986, it would boast a $4 million profit by the end of fiscal year 1988. As CEO, Cain maintained the reforms that had gotten Godfather’s cooking again.
Specialty slices of pizza, including dessert slices with fruit filling, were soon added to the menu and proved popular. The company also launched a successful ad campaign featuring the character Spooner Wiggins (named after Spencer Wiggins), a zany radio host who would promote the chain on his “show.” But perhaps the most important change Cain implemented was one from his time at Burger King — adding incentives for managers and limiting the number of hours they worked during the week.
“One of the things the restaurant industry had a bad reputation for was working managers 60, 70, 80 hours a week,” recalls Wiggins. “That created a lot of turnover. So one of the things that we put in place was to make sure that our managers didn’t work any more than 50 hours per week. It [took time] to get regional vice presidents, area directors, and district managers into the mindset. But once we did that, we were able to retain people a lot longer because we gave them a life outside the restaurant industry. They could [now] spend time with their families and do other things, and it made for someone who was more productive.”
Cain’s political premiere came next. In 1994, Cain garnered national attention when he told President Clinton in a televised town-hall meeting that the employee mandates in Clinton’s proposed health-care reform would ultimately hurt businesses and employment by encouraging businesses to lay off employees in order to cover new health costs. Cain was later given credit for helping to defeat the proposed reform. At the time, he was serving as the volunteer chairman and president of the board of the National Restaurant Association, while remaining president of Godfather’s — but once Cain attracted attention from Republican heavyweights such as Jack Kemp (for whom he would serve as an economic advisor during Kemp’s 1996 campaign with Bob Dole), he began to think more about politics.
At the end of 1996, Cain resigned as CEO and president of Godfather’s. While he chose to retain his chairmanship for several more years, he had now become the full-time president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, and had moved to Washington, D.C. Cain would leave behind an extremely successful business record at Godfather’s, but Wiggins believes that he’d already set his eye on new challenges. “Talking to Herman, I think what he was able to see was that there was something bigger out there. Herman was always the visionary, he’d get us pumped up and excited, and I think once he got out there and started speaking more in a political environment, he saw that there were things that he could do, that he could make a difference.” If his record at Godfather’s is any guide, Herman Cain certainly can.
— Nat Brown is a comments editor at National Review Online.