Cain’s performance there caught the eye of top managers at Pillsbury, who tapped him in 1986 to take over their newly purchased Godfather’s Pizza subsidiary.
A quarter-century later, as Cain has clawed his way toward the top of the Republican presidential field, he cites his tenure as head of Godfather’s as the central example of his leadership ability. Just as he turned around that floundering business, he suggests, so too could he reverse the country’s sagging fortunes as its chief executive.
Cain’s approach at Godfather’s was one part business basics, one part theatrics and two parts enthusiasm and stamina. In nearly a decade at the helm of the company, he proved himself a charismatic leader and gifted orator. To some employees, he seemed more focused on broad strategy goals than the workaday details of the business, and yet former colleagues recall the frequent sight of him in a busy pizza parlor — jacket off, sleeves rolled up, making pies or cleaning tables.
Cain focused on boosting morale and pursued a strategy aimed at revitalizing the battered company, partly through laying off hundreds of workers. While he had early successes, he later struggled. And then he moved on.
At its peak in the early 1980s, Godfather’s had more than 900 locations and more than $300 million in annual sales. By the time Cain arrived, the growth had halted. Profit was declining. Morale had plummeted.
Cain has said on multiple occasions that the company he found “had one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel.” It’s unclear whether the situation was quite so dire. Cain told the Omaha World-Herald just after he started in 1986: “Godfather’s is not dead. We’re alive and well.”
Nobody disputes that the company faced serious problems.
“Right before Herman came aboard, it was completely demoralized. Culturally, it was devastated,” recalled Larry Uhl, a marketing manager who had arrived years earlier. “Everybody was a little suspicious of him at first,” he added, noting that several presidents had come and gone, and that Cain seemed at first like just another corporate suit. But Uhl said he differed from his predecessors. “He was committed, and he knew how to get other people committed. There was this sense of urgency he had.”
Dishing up spirit
From his first day, Cain gave regular and rousing speeches — peppered with adages that he has revived on the campaign trail — urging everyone at the company to think big and share in his vision of making Godfather’s the No. 1 pizza chain in the world. “If you truly do dream of being a part of that achievement, your creative energies will be unleashed and unstoppable,” he said in a speech to employees and franchisees the month after he arrived.