Just a pizza guy?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I was as guilty of it as anyone. Before Herman Cain’s rise as a player in the 2012 GOP primary, the easiest shorthand was to describe him simply as the “ex-Godfather’s Pizza CEO.” This, of course, was overly simplistic.

The truth is that Cain’s experience is much more vast than simply running Godfathers. He has a Master’s degree in computer science, was a mathematician for the Department of Navy, served as chairman of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and has been a popular talk show host.

And after Cain’s success at Godfather’s (he lead the company back to profitability when it was on the verge of bankruptcy), Cain became the first restaurateur to serve as the full-time president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. That is where he famously and publicly took on then-President Bill Clinton over “HillaryCare” — and that is where he honed his skills of persuasion — which he believes could make him an effective president.

To fully appreciate Cain’s experience, it’s important to realize just how big this organization is. The restaurant industry currently employs almost 13 million people in 960,000 locations. Of those, the NRA represents 380,000 businesses.

The organization has also become somewhat of a political powerhouse, due, in large part, to Cain’s efforts in the 1990s.

But as head of the group, Cain couldn’t act unilaterally. To enact changes, he had to persuade a board of directors, as well as gain the support of industry leaders. (As head of the NRA, Cain couldn’t just tell association members like McDonalds what to do — he had to get them to buy in.) “How big is the job? It’s probably as busy as being the mayor of the city of New York,” says Joe Fassler, a former NRA Chairman of the board of directors, and the man who recruited Cain for the job.

One of Cain’s first challenges as NRA President and CEO (he had previously served as chairman of the board, but a new title was created to empower Cain to run the day-to-day operations) was to convince board members to take the technological leap and upgrade their manually maintained membership files to a searchable electronic database. This was vital. “You don’t always have to be on the cutting edge of technology, but you have to be on the blade,” Cain told me.

Although some board members were hesitant to support these changes (which would require spending significant amounts of money), Cain recognized the importance of persistence and persuasion and refused to give up. “The board looked at me like I was Superman without the cape,” Cain said, describing what it was like to tell them they would need to spend millions of dollars to improve their effectiveness. “Some Association executives just tell the board what they want to hear,” he explained, “but I wasn’t afraid to tell them what they needed to hear.”

Ultimately, Cain was able to persuade the board to make the changes, and ultimately, to transform the organization. “Herman is a terrific problem solver,” says Fastler. “He’s very honest.  He knows what he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t try to hide it. But he knows how to get the information that he doesn’t know.”

Solving problems and persuading people are obviously important qualities for any president to possess. Presidents aren’t dictators — they must persuade others to support them if they are to solve anything. When contemplating what General Eisenhower’s presidency might be like, Harry Truman said: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

“I had to use persuasion to do it,” Cain said of his accomplishments at the National Restaurant Association.

When asked if that experience might translate to his possible next big job, Cain noted that if he were elected: “I know I’ve got to persuade Congress and the people of the United States.”

Matt K. Lewis