At 61, when many men struggle to break free of their lounge chairs, Vic Cassano Jr., is the picture of health: a lean, olive-skinned, 6', 3", broad-shouldered regular at the gym. Yet his parents never believed he'd live past 7, when polio paralyzed him up to his chin, leaving him dependent on oxygen and unable to swallow.
While keeping a bedside vigil, his mother was eating peanut butter and crackers and noticed her son watching her. Taking pity on him, she offered him a bit, knowing he might not be able to swallow it.
"A nurse came in and said to my mom, 'He'll choke on that!'" Cassano said. The chairman of 34-unit Cassano's Pizza King added, "But I swallowed it somehow. And I was out of the hospital a week later. Nobody could ever really explain why."
Cassano said beating the disease in such dramatic fashion left him asking, "Why God? Why me? If you got me through this, what's my real purpose in life?" And while he's found no solid answers, he believes that near-death experience toughened him to face the future challenges that nearly killed the pizza company founded by his father.
For the last 20 years, Cassano's has endured a bad buyout, a debt-laden buy-back and a seven-figure embezzlement scandal that nearly dethroned the Pizza King.
But through it all, Cassano said, God, family and many forgiving and generous suppliers have been there to sustain one of the nation's oldest pizza chains.
"I've learned the good Lord will give you challenges, but he won't give you more than you can handle," he said.
The pizza king of Dayton
When Vic Cassano Sr., founded his company in Dayton, Ohio, in 1953, few locals had heard of pizza pie. Thinking it was dessert, customers would come and order a slice of cherry or apple, only to be told, "No, it's pizza pie, not a piece of pie." The confusion was short lived as word spread about this new-fangled sensation from New York, and Cassano's thin crust pizza became a hit.
By 1985, Vic Sr., was in his 70s, his company was 48 stores strong and he wanted to sell it. Vic Jr., wished his father would have sold it to him, but "he probably realized that for him to dis-involve himself from the company, he knew he couldn't be a little involved. It was his baby."
Greyhound Food Management was eager to get into pizza, so the multibillion dollar company scooped up Cassano's in 1986 with the goal of rapid expansion. Vic Jr. was made president and appointed to oversee operations.
Almost immediately the company mashed the growth accelerator and new stores began opening. In less than two years, Cassano's had added 33 units.
But Greyhound's original promises to refurbish older Cassano's stores and inject fresh capital into marketing never happened. It also changed classic menu items and started developing delivery-only units that didn't align with customer perception of the concept.
Very quickly, the bottom line turned red, and then-Greyhound chairman John Teats ordered every new Cassano's unit closed.
"He said, 'You will close all 33 on this day,'" Cassano recalled. "They did it in one fell swoop."
Told to sell the chain, Vic Jr. worked a deal to buy it in 1989 along with Greyhound executive vice president Randy Leasher. But the pair later learned they paid too much, and their debt load forced them into bankruptcy six years later.
Much to its suppliers' surprise, however,
The walk from this parking lot to inside this building was 10 miles every day. But I'd tell myself, 'Here I go again. I'm back at it again today.
— Vic Cassano, Jr., Chairman, President
Cassano's Pizza King
Cassano's Pizza paid everyone back. Dewey Weeda, vice president of Presto Foods, Cassano's distributor, said he never doubted Vic would make good on his debts.
"He'd built a very strong relationship with us and we trusted him implicitly," he said. "He came to us honest and up front and said this is what we're going to do. We put a plan in place, and he followed it to a T."
Still, the worst of the pizza chain's financial setbacks lay ahead. In 2000, Cassano learned Leasher had written a $90,000 company check to himself. After Leasher was forced out, Cassano discovered Leasher had bilked the company for more than $700,000 since 1994. Leasher was prosecuted and sentenced to prison for three years.
"It was hard because I'd been betrayed; I trusted him with my life, and he knew that," Cassano said. "The anger in me was the hardest thing to suppress."
Cassano was advised to close the pizza company's doors, but he wouldn't entertain the thought. Not only did he have a family to care for, he had 600 employees depending on him. The family watched him pour himself fully into rescuing the struggling business.
"He began micromanaging everything, getting his hands around every aspect so he could understand exactly where everything stood," said son Chip Cassano, who oversees the company's dough production plant. "He needed to know where every dollar was being spent. It was something he had to do to save the company."
Vic recalls those as the hardest days of his career.
"The walk from that parking lot to inside this building was 10 miles every day," he said. "But I'd tell myself, 'Here I go again. I'm back at it again today.'"
Preparing for the handoff
Between Cassano's 34 stores and its dough operation, the company is very profitable again. Vic's two sons want to "kick up the franchising end of it again," but their father wants to improve the company some before that happens. He wants to retire at 65 and sell the 51 percent of the company owned by him and wife, Sharon, to his sons, and he wants to be certain the company is on the firmest possible footing. (Chip, son Chris and daughter Laura own equal shares of the other 49 percent of the company.) His current focus is preparing the family for the handoff.
"I don't make a decision in this business without the three of us talking about it," Cassano said, referring to himself and his sons. He said his father never revealed the details of his business to anyone. "But we discuss everything together, and I'm making sure they understand every piece of this business."
That communication is a two-way street, he added, citing several occasions when his sons disagreed with him and overruled his decisions.
"Dad always wants our input, so we're never afraid to speak our minds," said Chris Cassano, who oversees store operations and the chain's call center. "That's the difference between our relationship with him and his relationship with his dad. We're really fortunate."