Herman Cain or Mitt Romney: Who is the best CEO for America?

Herman Cain is a marketer. Mitt Romney is a dealmaker. Both tout their business experience on the campaign trail, and each says his CEO style is better for the country.

Scott Eells/AP
Republican presidential candidates businessman Herman Cain speaks as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens during a Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Herman Cain and Mitt Romney both tout their business experience on the campaign stump. The economy is in terrible shape, they say, and it will take a president who understands the private sector to jump-start job creation and get the country moving forward again.

But what they don’t say is this: CEOs are not all alike. Their skills are different, their businesses are different, and they operate in unique microeconomic circumstances. Given that, which ex-corporate honcho GOP candidate might be better suited as commander in chief?

We’ll start with Mr. Cain, who used to be CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. By most accounts his tenure there was a success. On his campaign website Cain says that the firm was “teetering on the edge of bankruptcy” when he took over, and that in just 14 months he returned the firm to profitability and led his management team to a buyout of the company.

The thing about pizza is that it is pretty much a commodity business. Certainly there are differences in pie quality, but pizza joints are everywhere, and they compete ferociously on location and price. Marketing is everything – and it appears that Cain’s ability to simplify his message, and communicate it, proves his mettle as a very good marketer.

For instance, among Cain’s big moves at Godfather’s was development of the “Big Deal,” a pizza with cheaper ingredients, to compete with similar offerings from other chains, according to an interesting article on Cain’s Godfather’s years in the Omaha World-Herald.

Cain’s marketing skills are in full evidence in his campaign. His “9-9-9” tax plan is a simple, memorable concept, whatever its conceptual flaws. He mentions the phrase 9-9-9 whenever he gets a chance. It’s the Big Deal pizza of economic policies.

“My message is appealing because it’s simple and people can understand it,” said Cain Sunday during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mitt Romney, in contrast, ran Bain Capital, a private equity firm. That’s a dealmaking and operational business in which marketing is much less of a CEO concern.

Mr. Romney’s work was data-driven, as he sifted through numbers to turn around failing businesses, or get new ones off the ground. In the last GOP presidential debate, Romney promoted his role in starting now-familiar firms such as Sports Authority and Staples.

In part, this was to shield himself against charges that he’d laid off thousands of employees as part of his turnaround work. But it was also a means of contrasting the operational complexity of his CEO stint with that of Cain’s.

At one point in the debate, Cain challenged Romney to name all the 59 points in his (Romney’s) 160-page economic turnaround plan, and to say whether they were simple and transparent. Romney took the chance to jab back with his view of how the private sector works.

“Herman, I’ve had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems,” said Romney. "And I must admit the simple answers are always helpful, but sometimes inadequate.”

So what’s the bottom line here? Who would be the best CEO for America? The sunny marketer or the numbers-guy wonk?

Well, the executive branch is a vast, complex web of different activities, from the Pentagon to Social Security. In that sense it more closely resembles Bain than Godfather’s. Presidents must be able to handle many different problems arriving at once – an Oval Office day can seem like drinking from a fire hose.

Romney’s experience, in that sense, is more apropos. But running the executive branch isn’t all a president does. They also control the bully pulpit – and rally the nation at times of stress. Think George W. Bush with a bullhorn at the World Trade Center site after 9/11, or Barack Obama in the still-desperate economic times of the beginning of his term.

That’s something a marketer would be best at. Selling your policies to the nation and Congress is marketing, too. That’s what Mr. Obama is doing today as he pushes for lawmakers to consider his jobs bill.

So our conclusion is that the skill set of an ideal president might contain both a marketing and operational side. Maybe Cain and Romney could run as a ticket. Who’d be president, and who’d be the veep? That’s something Republican voters could determine in the upcoming primaries.

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