Editor's note: This fact-check is a excerpt of a longer examination of Herman Cain's business accomplishments, including his work experience before and after Godfather's Pizza. Read the longer story here.
Pizza is Herman Cain's biggest selling point. He says his track record running Godfather’s Pizza, a chain that once billed itself as "the cure for the pizza emergency," shows he has the ability to run the country. The 620-store chain was on the brink of bankruptcy when he arrived in 1986, he says, and he "turned it around with common-sense business principles."
A PolitiFact examination of Godfather’s, based on interviews with industry analysts and company officials, shows Cain is largely correct. The chain wasn’t literally preparing paperwork for bankruptcy, but it was widely considered troubled. Cain changed that by uniting the franchisees, overhauling the chain's advertising, and getting his team focused on its core mission: pizza.
'They got what they paid for'
Cain was an executive with The Pillsbury Co. when the company bought Godfather's in 1985. The purchase was almost incidental, according to press reports from the time. Godfather’s was part of Diversifoods Inc., a conglomerate that included more than 300 Burger King franchises. Pillsbury wanted the Burger Kings, and the chain of more than 800 Godfather’s pizza restaurants came with it.
"The value of Diversifoods was its ownership of the Burger Kings, and the deal made sense without Godfather's," John McMillin, an industry analyst, told the Chicago Tribune shortly after the deal. "Pillsbury got Godfather's for nothing, and some said they got what they paid for."
The chain’s problems included franchisee lawsuits, an overly long menu and a dejected workforce. Even its TV ads seemed hapless, showing a car full of executives driving around, unable to find a Godfather's. ("Find one. It's worth it," the ad lamely concluded.) As Cain said later, the chain had "had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel."
Cain attacked problems on every front. He declared the company’s advertising account up for review, pitting ad agencies against each other in a bidding war. He trimmed the menu and enforced quality standards. He pushed more restaurants to offer delivery, and he closed low-performing franchises.
He emphasized communication, giving speeches at important moments to employees and franchisees. After his first 60 days at Godfather's, he gave a speech he called "get on the wagon," which he now uses in political speeches.
When he was a boy, Cain said, his grandfather, a potato farmer, would hitch up his mules for the weekly trip to town. Any grandchildren who wanted to go could ride along. Cain would finish the story in his grandfather’s thundering voice: "Them that’s going, get on the wagon! Them that ain’t, get out of the way!"
Charles Henderson, who runs coffee kiosks in Pennsylvania, was Cain’s director of marketing back then. He says Cain is "probably the most inspirational person I’ve ever met in my life."
"He can be mesmerizing. He’s very dynamic. I’m not slamming our current president, but Herman Cain will give a 20- or 30-minute speech extemporaneously, and certainly without teleprompters. He is without a doubt the most dynamic speaker I’ve ever heard," Henderson said.
Henderson said Cain succeeded because he immersed himself in all aspects of the business and wasn’t afraid to get his hands into the dough. Cain baked pies on a weekly basis after he arrived in Omaha. "He loved to make pizzas. We had a test store over on Pacific Street, which wasn’t too far from Godfather’s, and once a week, he’d round us all up and we’d go make pizzas," Henderson said.
Cain directed an overhaul of the Godfather's television ads that focused on Godfather's "hot slice," a customized pizza slice aimed at the lunch crowd and intended to compete with Pizza Hut's Personal Pan Pizza. The new ads showed a secretary at a desk about to have a "pizza emergency." Godfather's, of course, was the cure.
Later commercials tended toward attention-getting and even bizarre humor. The "Studney twins" – an old white guy and a young black guy in garish blue and green tuxedos – promoted Godfather's two-for-one specials. Another ad featured attorney-turned-actor Ben Stein of Ferris Bueller's Day Off as a burned-out hipster needing pizza.
Cain himself even appeared in a series that Advertising Age named one of the best campaigns of 1989. In one ad, Cain told viewers Godfather's has conducted exhaustive research to find out why customers preferred Godfather's pizza. He introduced his director of research, who unveiled the results by unfolding a piece of paper and reading two words: "More topping."
"Enjoy your Godfather's pizza, and take life one bite at a time," Cain concluded.
'Steady the course'
Jeff Campbell is the retired Pillsbury executive who selected Cain to run Godfather’s. Reached by PolitiFact at his home in San Diego, he said there was no doubt in his mind that Cain turned Godfather's around.
"He was the best thing that happened to Godfather’s in a long time," Campbell said.
Cain has said that the chain returned to profitability within 14 months of his arrival. That number wasn’t possible for PolitiFact to independently confirm because the chain did not report its profits as a stand-alone unit, but industry analysts do not dispute that Cain stabilized the company.
Technomic, a research and consulting firm focused on the restaurant industry, has research data on Godfather’s going back to the 1970s. At PolitiFact’s request, vice president Darren Tristano examined the revenues and franchise numbers for Godfather’s during the time Cain headed it from 1986 to 1995.
It's not possible to determine profitability from those numbers, but they do show Godfather's place in the market, particularly in comparison with its competitors.
"It’s really hard from that period to find a strong positive or a strong negative. It’s more like ‘steady the course,’ " Tristano said.
Still, "steady the course" isn’t bad for a company that was troubled to start out with and in an industry that’s punishingly competitive, analysts said.
Godfather’s position was particularly perilous. It wasn’t as big as chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s, and it also had to compete with locally owned mom-and-pops in just about every market.
"They had to be very innovative to compete with the big three and with the little guys. They couldn’t rest on their laurels," said John Correll, a Michigan-based pizza industry consultant. "For a number of years, Herman Cain and his management team were able to pull that off."
Pizza Hut, the industry leader at the time, was a particularly difficult foe. After Godfather's launched its "pizza emergency" campaign in 1986, Pizza Hut matched it with ads imitating the emergency broadcast system. In the event of a real pizza emergency, "you should go directly to Pizza Hut and order their famous pan pizza," the ad said. Pizza Hut executives said the similarity was coincidence.
Cain said the alleged thievery wouldn’t matter in the end, and he wouldn’t pursue legal action. "It's not a big deal to us," Cain told AdWeek, which documented the feud.
Godfather’s never grew fast enough to outpace giants like Pizza Hut and Domino’s, but today it still claims about 620 franchises across the country.
John Chisholm was a Godfather's franchisee who owned 90 restaurants in five states when Cain arrived to run the company.
"His leadership and his ability to deal with people were just outstanding. I have nothing but the highest praise for Herman Cain," Chisholm said.
Cain's primary accomplishment was motivating the people who worked for Godfather's, Chisolm said. The turn-around happened "mostly through motivation and talking to people and getting people to work as a team."
Chisholm recalled Cain's first speech to the entire company as one of the "most charismatic" he ever heard.
Cain included a copy of the speech in his 1999 book, Speak as a Leader.
"Sixty days ago I came to Godfather's with a curiosity about what I would find. I had already accepted my newly bestowed responsibilities even before I stepped foot on Nebraska soil and before I met or knew anyone or anything about Godfather's. … Sixty days ago, I came to Godfather's anxious to tackle a situation considered by some of our external constituencies to be irreversible. I came without a golden parachute because I never entertained the idea that the situation was irreversible. I came committed to prove the skeptics wrong because I have a personal, fundamental belief in the power of human determination. I came to Godfather's believing in you even before I met you. I challenge you to commit and believe in yourself and Godfather's pizza as a system."
Two years after Cain was named chief executive officer, Pillsbury decided to get out of the pizza business and sell Godfather’s. Cain and his management team decided to buy the chain in a leveraged buyout for an undisclosed sum. Cain left the position in 1996 when he went to work for the National Restaurant Association.
Cain now says of his time at the pizza chain, "When I became president and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, it was supposed to go bankrupt . . . We turned it around with common sense business principles."
A thorough review of business records and interviews with executives who worked with Cain show that the chain was widely considered troubled when he arrived. It's a slight exaggeration to say it was supposed to go bankrupt. But from all accounts, Cain's performance as CEO is widely considered a success. So we rate this statement Mostly True.