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Media should focus on Cain’s turnaround of pizza chain

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Republican presidential front-runner Herman Cain is being accused of acts of sexual harassment while running the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. What, if anything, transpired between Cain and his former associates still remains as unclear as this scandal’s ultimate impact on Cain’s upstart, surprisingly successful and — for many — refreshing candidacy.

Too bad this media nor’easter overwhelmed 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, profligate, pathetic 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 12 geographic territories.

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. Godfather’s was dragged down by a tired menu, demoralized employees and slipshod execution.

“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 among its roughly 600 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 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, “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 the 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. 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. Once left for dead, Godfather’s thrives even today.

Rather than discuss any of this, however, the news media’s Rottweiler-like focus on Cain’s harassment allegations contrasts perfectly with the laziness it displayed when the very public Juanita Broaddrick credibly accused then-President Bill Clinton not of harassment but of rape while governor of Arkansas. Her plausible charges were trivialized and forgotten.

If Herman Cain was a Democrat, his biggest headache today might be how to survive the loud snores of the press.

Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.