Herman Cain, the Republican presidential hopeful, says he can turn around the country just as he did Godfather's Pizza 25 years ago.

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.

Cain, 65, the son of a domestic worker and a chauffeur, earned degrees in math and computer science and worked in computer systems and business analysis during 10 years in the Navy and at Coca-Cola. He moved to Pillsbury as a business analyst in 1977. He managed the move of Pillsbury into its new downtown Minneapolis headquarters in 1982. And, in 1983, Cain got a shot in field management at Pillsbury's restaurant division.

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."

Cain earned his confidence through accomplishment. He was top math scholar at Morehouse College in Atlanta and earned a master's degree in computer science from Purdue University while in the Navy, where he devised fire-control systems.

"I like to win," Cain said in that Star Tribune interview. "I like the highest score, not the lowest."

Cain's campaign headquarters did not respond to a request for an interview.

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.

'We are not dead'

"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. Cain's product development team registered market share gains against titanic Domino's and Pizza Hut with the "Hot Slice" individual servings as well as the Godfather's Jumbo Combo pizza, a five-pound monster of dough, cheese and toppings on the other end of the spectrum.

In 1988, Cain led the Godfather's management team in a buyout of the 600-store chain from Pillsbury.

Cain gained national attention in the early 1990s, when he publicly challenged President Bill Clinton on the effect of his health care reform proposals on business owners such as himself during a 10-minute televised exchange during a national town hall forum. Cain moved to Washington, D.C., in 1995 to head the National Restaurant Association.

He returned to his hometown of Atlanta several years ago as a talk-show host and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. He launched a presidential campaign in January. He leads campaign veteran Mitt Romney in some primary states.

Cain has been panned by some Republican consultants and academics for a catchy-but-simplistic "9-9-9" tax plan and has been criticized for having little depth in international affairs and an inexperienced, mistake-prone campaign staff.

"But with Herman Cain, you get what you see," said Taylor, who is less conservative than his former boss. "He doesn't have his finger in the air testing the political winds. I mean, who really is Mitt Romney? You don't have that question with Herman."

The Obama White House expects Romney to emerge the Republican nominee. Regardless, Cain, the former Navy mathematician and successful businessman, who is also a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, has a compelling personal story and a blunt-talk strategy that have taken him from nowhere to the top tier of the Republican race.

nstanthony@startribune.com 612-673-7144