Dreaming of success in corporate America (he wanted to be president of "something ... somewhere," he writes) he left to work as an executive, first for Coca-Cola and then Pillsbury, eventually moving to its Burger King subsidiary in 1982.
Impressed by his performance, Pillsbury chose Cain in 1986 to revive the foundering Godfather's Pizza chain, based in Omaha, Neb.
"As a boss, he was demanding but fair. And he worked harder than anyone else," says longtime friend Spencer Wiggins, whom Cain first recruited as director of human resources for Burger King and then cajoled into joining him at Godfather's.
"But Herman, it's in Omaha, man!" Wiggins protested.
Cain's response: "Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone if you want to make a difference."
Former employees says Cain blew into Godfather's like the hurricane depicted in his campaign song, shutting about 200 underperforming stores and eliminating hundreds of jobs. At Burger King, he had launched the "beamer" program, encouraging employees to smile at customers. At Godfathers, he started SIN — Solve It Now, a rapid response program to deal with customers complaints.
"He was genuine, warm, demanding and funny; he was the best leader I ever met in my life," says Paul Baird, his regional manager in Seattle. "And he sounded like a preacher! Everyone was like, who IS this guy?"
At Godfather's, Cain regaled employees with motivational speeches, often ending with the same folksy anecdotes he tells in the campaign.
When he was a boy, his grandfather hooked mules to a wagon to bring a load of potatoes to town. Grandkids were scampering all over the place, until they heard the old man roar.
"Them that's going, get on the wagon! Them that ain't, get out of the way!"
The chant was to become a campaign mantra.
In 1988 when Pillsbury decided to sell Godfather's, Cain put together a group that bought the chain in a leveraged buyout. He remained its chief until 1996 when he moved to Washington to become CEO of the National Restaurant Association, a lobbying organization.
It was during his three years with the NRA that two employees reportedly received financial settlements after accusing Cain of sexual harassment.
Cain boasts that Godfather's "had one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel" when he took over, comparing it to the state of the U.S. economy today. In reality, though his stewardship made it profitable, it was never truly competitive with the larger pizza chains.
His years in Omaha were important in other ways. They won Cain recognition as a leader, a visionary, a man on the move. He became a member of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas city in 1992, and would later serve one year as chairman.
He also served on other corporate boards, including Aquila, Inc., Nabisco, Reader's Digest and Whirlpool. Ambitious and driven, a brilliant orator, he was one of the most popular speakers on the local business circuit.
"When Herman Cain was speaking at lunch, you knew people would leave in a great mood, not just because he was funny, which he was," says Loretta Carroll, a local news anchor who often hosted such events. "There was always the feeling that he empowered people a bit. They came away thinking that one person can do things and make a difference in the world."
In 1994 Cain was catapulted into the national spotlight in a memorable exchange with President Bill Clinton during a televised town hall meeting in Kansas City. Speaking via satellite, Cain politely but firmly pressed the president on his proposed health care overhaul.
"If I'm forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I'm forced to eliminate?" Cain asked, referring to the employer mandate. When Clinton began to explain, Cain persisted. "Quite honestly, your calculation is inaccurate."
Says Carroll: "The Clinton people were not very happy."
But others were enthralled. Jack Kemp, a former congressman, flew to Omaha to meet Cain and later asked him to join the Economic Growth and Tax Reform Commission, a congressional study group.
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