Herman Cain at Pillsbury

Today’s big news story is the revelation that while he was with the National Restaurant Association, Herman Cain was accused of some sort of impropriety by two women. It is impossible to know what to make of this story. Apparently no formal claims were brought, Politico’s description of the events that gave rise to the complaints is too vague to evaluate, and the amounts reportedly paid to the women in connection with their departure from NRA were small enough to be consistent with just about any scenario.

Still, Politico’s story makes this article in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune timely: “Herman Cain’s career at Pillsbury is a tale of two turnarounds.” Cain made his reputation as a businessman at Pillsbury, to the Strib was pursuing a local angle on his candidacy. The article is both flattering–it almost seems that the paper forgot that its subject is a Republican–and highly relevant to today’s attack in Politico:

Business success has never guaranteed political success. But Cain demonstrated during a tour with Pillsbury Co. in the 1980s that he is a successful, charismatic leader. With flair and hard work, he turned around Pillsbury’s struggling Philadelphia Burger King region and revived a near-dead Godfather’s Pizza.

“My career spans 38 years and I’ve worked for 26 different managers,” said Frank Taylor, a recently retired Burger King financial executive whom Cain hired as his regional controller in 1983. “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.”

Cain also shared the wealth. When Burger King distributed $50,000 apiece to the regional vice presidents as reward for good performance in 1985, most of the regional bosses spent it on a trip to a posh resort for themselves and other managers and spouses. The enlisted troops got a dinner. Cain took everybody in his office, including administrative staff, on the same three-day reward cruise, Taylor recalled. …

The Philadelphia region of Burger King ranked near the bottom among Burger King’s 12 groups. Cain brought analytical strengths and energy. He fired and hired. He praised and exhorted the survivors. He turned the region into a top performer within two years.

“I worked with him fairly closely at Burger King,” recalled George Mileusnic, a former Pillsbury executive, now a Twin Cities consultant. “He was good strategically and good with people, including working long hours in Burger King stores to get that bottom-up experience. He had about 500 stores in that Philadelphia region and he did a great job.”

Impressed, Jeff Campbell, the head of Pillsbury’s restaurant operations, put Cain in charge of Godfather’s Pizza, a then-struggling chain that Pillsbury acquired when it bought an Omaha restaurant consolidator that also was a big franchisee of Burger Kings.

Godfather’s was started by an entrepreneur in the 1970s but slid after it was acquired by a big Burger King corporate franchisee and waylaid by a tired menu, demoralized employees and lousy results. Campbell gave the 40-year-old Cain a year to right Godfather’s, make a buck, or shut it down.

At the time, Campbell told Cain that there was a very slim chance Godfather’s could be “a home run for you and the company.”

“I said, ‘Sounds like my kind of odds,’” Cain recalled in an 1987 interview with the Star Tribune. “That’s how I got to Philadelphia.” …

Along with his analytical skills, Cain brought an entrepreneurial fervor to the hurried turnaround at Godfather’s in 1986-87. He listened, asked questions and acted, including closing stores, shifting people and even cooking and testing new products in the company’s kitchen.

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

An accomplished singer and pianist, Cain occasionally led the headquarters crew in after-hours song, and performed charitable gigs in Omaha, backed by a chorus of managers. He also demanded that senior managers know every employee working for them on a first-name basis and occasionally quizzed executives on that and other personnel issues.

“That was pretty unique,” Mileusnic said. “Those stories got around Pillsbury. Herman was very quantitative and analytical, but he demanded that everybody be engaged and every employee must be appreciated and respected.”

By 1987, Cain and longtime executive Ronald Gartlan, now the CEO of Godfather’s, stabilized the company and produced an operating profit.

I think that history tells a great deal more about Herman Cain’s character than unknown and untested allegations by two former NRA employees.

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