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- September 25, 1989
- Vol. 32
- No. 13
After Building a Life to Match His Fantasies, An American Dreamer Sets a Surprising New Course
As Monaghan orchestrated Domino's rise—it is now the second-largest pizza chain in the nation, next to Pizza Hut—his hopes and dreams seemed largely acquisitive. These days, though, the only notations being scribbled between the crimson covers have to do with a dream house he is building near Ann Arbor, Mich. It is an older, more contemplative Monaghan who says, "A lot of the things I purchased were lifelong dreams, but maybe not very good ones. Material things don't mean that much to me anymore."
His mid-life change of heart may in some part be a response to public criticism—not the criticism of his pizza delivery system that has made news recently (see box), but disapproval of a more personal sort. "To some people it looks like I'm a squanderer and a show-off," he says. "That hurts me."
And so the Michigan-based pizza baron—whose personal worth has been estimated at $480 million—is rearranging his priorities. This summer he announced that he is turning over the daily operations of his company to a new president in order to devote more attention to charity and to the Catholic church. Earlier this month, he went even further, announcing that he is considering the possibility—though he does not find it a "pleasant idea"—of selling Domino's, a move that would allow him to pursue good works full time. "God has been good to me," Monaghan says. "I feel obliged to give something back."
Not that Monaghan always felt blessed. His childhood in southeastern Michigan was bleakly unpromising. On Christmas Eve, 1941, when Tom was 4, his truck-driver father died of a perforated ulcer. His mother, who Tom believes "couldn't stand" him, was studying to be a nurse and didn't feel she could handle two toddlers, so Tom and his brother, Jim, 2, were shunted off to foster homes and then to a Catholic orphanage. A brief reunion between mother and sons took place when Tom was 12, but it wasn't long before his mother banished the boys to foster homes once more. (Monaghan and his mother did reconcile before her death last year. "She did the best she could," he now says.)
Monaghan remembers his orphanage days with some fondness. There, inspired by a kindly nun, he began to dream of being a priest. But the foster homes were cheerless, and there was never enough money to make Tom feel secure. "I was always embarrassed by my poverty," he says. "I dreamed of better things."
He dreamed of becoming an architect, like his idol, Frank Lloyd Wright, or of playing shortstop for the Tigers. But the priesthood seemed more attainable, and at 15 Monaghan enrolled at a Grand Rapids seminary, only to be booted out soon afterward for pillow fighting and whispering in chapel. He was a poor student, and when he graduated from St. Thomas High in Ann Arbor, 44th in a class of 44, his yearbook picture bore this caption: "The harder I try to be good, the worse I get; but I may do something sensational yet."
After graduation he enlisted in the Marines. But there was haplessness even in that bold move. "I thought I was joining the Army," Monaghan admits. "I got the recruitment centers mixed up." He realized his mistake as he was signing up and decided to live with it. He's glad he did. "If I could survive the Marines," he says, "I knew I could handle anything." Today Monaghan, who has four daughters—Mary, 26, Susan, 24, Margaret, 20, and Barbara, 17—swears that if he had a son, "he wouldn't get a penny from me until he spent two years in the Marines."
After his discharge, Monaghan enrolled at the University of Michigan but was strapped for funds and had to drop out. Hoping to make enough money to return, he borrowed $900 with his brother, by then a postman, and bought a pizza shop called DomiNick's in nearby Ypsilanti. Jim soon got cold feet and traded his share of the business to his brother for a used Volkswagen. But Tom had unwittingly found his vocation.
In 1962 Monaghan opened his second pizza shop, in Mount Pleasant, Mich. He met his future wife, Marjorie, on his first delivery. "She was at the front desk of the dorm. She was real cute," he says. After their marriage the couple moved into a trailer in Ypsilanti, and Monaghan set to work implementing the formula that would lead to his fortune: guaranteed store-to-home service in 30 minutes or less. (Late arrivals mean a rebate or, in a few areas, a free pizza.) He stuck to a simple menu, offering two sizes of pizza and one cola drink. He also came up with a new name for his operation after the former proprietor claimed the DomiNick's name. To save money on signs, Monaghan simply dropped the "ick" and added an "o."
Servicing college campuses and military bases at first, Domino's rapidly spawned new shops. The company now has 5,110 stores in 50 states and 18 countries, and last year they delivered enough pizzas to gross $2.3 billion. To this day Monaghan professes bewilderment at his success. "I owe it to stupidity—that is the only answer I can give," he says. "I didn't know anything about business, and I didn't know anything about pizza. The best teacher is just doing."
As Monaghan's wealth grew, so did his appetite for toys. He began a collection of antique cars that now numbers 240, and at Domino's Farms, the company's Ann Arbor headquarters, he built museums—to house his autos and art objects—a fitness center and a petting zoo. Yet these indulgences did not sap his character. His experiences in the orphanage and later the Marines bred into him a religious adherence to discipline, and he has always worked long hours. His current office is a $2.5 million, two-story suite paneled in mahogany, but Monaghan prefers to spend his time in an adjoining windowless cubbyhole. "I like womblike spaces," he says.
Each workday begins with 20 minutes of contemplation. He attends mass daily, jogs for an hour six times a week and hits the weight machines often. As if in atonement for his conspicuous consumption in other areas, he permits himself only 10 desserts a year—on family birthdays and certain holidays—even though his weight is not a problem.
Monaghan believes his employees should follow his hard-working, clean-living example, and he has initiated programs that are meant to encourage this: At Domino's headquarters, 40 percent of staffers have joined the company health club, and the office elevators have been slowed down to encourage workers to use the stairs. Monaghan's ban on smoking and a strict corporate dress code (no pants for women, no sports coats or facial hair for men) have led some to dub his enthusiastic but regimented employees "Dominoids." Indeed, unquestioning adherence to the boss's regulations, and even to his moral code, seems essential to survival at Domino's. Senior Vice President Robert Cotman, whom Monaghan had listed in his will as his chosen successor, found that out in 1985: After Monaghan discovered he was having an extramarital affair with a divorced staffer, Cotman was fired.
Monaghan's dominance is less apparent at home. Wife Margie, 49, who works as Domino's payroll supervisor, is an unapologetic dissident. A Lutheran, she has resisted Tom's pleas to convert to Catholicism. And she disagrees with his outspoken pro-life convictions—convictions that led this past January to an ongoing National Organization for Women boycott of Domino's. "The boycott has made the pro-life people buy even more from us," Monaghan says. "And even if it were hurting sales, it wouldn't change my mind. I can't stand by and watch innocent people murdered." Says Margie: "If men had babies, there would be no laws against abortion."
The Monaghans have differed over the years in their attitudes toward success as well. "Margie would probably be happier if I only had half a dozen stores, or if I were a schoolteacher." Monaghan says. She admits she would be content to stay forever in the modest Ann Arbor ranch house the couple bought in 1973. But she understands Tom's desire to build the dream house that he intends to be his last self-indulgence. Says Monaghan: "I've pared it down from 80,000 square feet to 12,000. It's the last material thing I want, but even now I feel guilty about it."
Evidence of his new focus is everywhere. He is thinking of selling his car collection. His Frank Lloyd Wright shopping sprees, he says, are a thing of the past. It is charitable activities—for the church; for Legatus, the organization he started for Catholic executives; or for Domino's Foundation, which donates to various causes—that lately consume his attention.
"I've always felt the most important thing for me is getting to heaven," he says. "When I die, I don't think St. Peter is going to ask me how many pizzas I sold."
Yet even now, as he turns away from worldly concerns, there are signs that Tom Monaghan will always be the little boy yearning for more, committing good works with a boosterish zeal. He spent time this past summer overseeing construction of a Catholic chapel in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and he hopes it is just the beginning of his work in the Third World. "We have 5,000 pizza outlets," Monaghan says. "My goal now is 5,000 chapels."
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