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Life After Success

For Tom Monaghan, building a company was only a part of the vision.
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Hanging on the wall outside Thomas S. Monaghan's old office at Domino's Pizza World Headquarters is a framed poster bearing the legend "The Stuff that Dreams Are Made of." Someone at Domino's commissioned the work after the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1984, the first season the boss owned the franchise. Monaghan himself can't remember where it came from, and it is unclear what space, if any, this piece will occupy in his new $2-million suite over at Domino's Farms, a $140-million office/conference complex now rising on 300 acres of pastureland in rural Ann Arbor, Mich. Whatever its origin or ultimate destination, though, the picture contains enough collage elements -- a boy's scrapbook, a well-oiled fielder's mitt, ticket stubs from the 1934 and '84 World Series, fading news clips of Mickey Cochrane and Ty Cobb, virgin trading cards of Al Kaline and Alan Trammel, a Domino's Pizza box, a miniature pizza-delivery vehicle -- to suggest a fair map of at least one corner of Monaghan's extremely fertile psyche. What is deceiving is the number of important symbols that aren't even in there.

Were the frame extended horizontally, for instance, in the Prairie-style motif of Frank Lloyd Wright, Monaghan's architectural avatar, the picture might include both Snowflake and a "lost" Usonian house prototype, two Wright dwellings now in Monaghan's personal possession; these buildings will soon be joined by a private residence in which Monaghan hopes to incorporate all of his "favorite features" from Wright's work. Parked somewhere in the foreground might be the pair of vintage Duesenberg touring cars that Monaghan bought last autumn, barely a week apart, for $1 million apiece, record sums for their respective categories; or the "Hot One," an Indianapolis 500 racing car driven by Al Unser Jr. and sponsored on the pro circuit by Domino's to the tune of some $3 million a year.

Expand the picture vertically, and there would be room for the Golden Beacon, Wright's great unbuilt skyscraper of the 1950s. Derived from the architect's blueprints for the community he called Broadacre City, the Golden Beacon will finally rise over Domino's Farms, an updated version of Wright's ideal. A pile of pizzas would be appropriate, too -- 10,000 of them, say, or one for each outlet in Monaghan's master plan for Domino's growth. After that, clean out the prop closet. Helicopters, management manuals, Nautilus machines, rosary beads: each would command its rightful place if the frame kept stretching to fit its subject. Then again, even a transcendentalist like Wright put limits on his wall space. Who would have space to hang such a thing?

Framed or unframed, fully rendered or frankly sketchy, the stuff of Tom Monaghan's dreams is beginning to go public in ways Domino's Pizza Inc., his $1.4-billion-a-year company, never has. "It really started when I bought the Tigers," says Monaghan, referring to his emergence as a public figure crowned by many as the Entrepreneurial Hero of the 1980s. "Even if baseball meant nothing to me -- and owning the Tigers is the highest material thing I've ever aspired to -- it would've made sense from a free-publicity point of view."

Recent history certainly bears him out on that score. Barely a dozen years ago, he was wearing borrowed clothes and living in a tract house. His company bore the scars of many brutal management battles, battles in which his lenders had laughed at him, creditors had stalked him, and his own franchisees had sued him. By the time he took over the Tigers late in 1983 (for a cool $53 million), however, Monaghan was being hailed as a managerial messiah. With a personal fortune estimated at $250 million, he held firm control over one of the fast-food industry's most spectacular growth companies. Second in total sales only to Pizza Hut Inc. among national chains, Domino's hadn't invented the common pizza, but it absolutely excelled at doing something that nobody else did: getting that pie to a customer's door, piping hot, in 30 minutes or less, or the pizza came free. In the beginning of 1984, the company boasted 900 units in place (300 company-owned, the rest owned by franchisees), with virtually no outstanding debt; it had plans for adding 400 new units to its ranks by the end of the year.

As founder and owner of this meals-on-wheels juggernaut, Monaghan wasn't exactly a local nobody; folks in central Michigan had witnessed enough drama surrounding Domino's to fill up a few books of the Old Testament. Then again, he was not a household word, either, not even in houses built by Frank Lloyd Wright. National visibility? Put it this way: when it came to hawking the Tom Monaghan Story, his public-relations people were more familiar with the transmitting ends of their telephones than they were with the receivers. Then, in a stunning coup, Monaghan managed to persuade longtime Tiger owner John Fetzer to part with the ball club of his childhood dreams. Consummated under poison-pill restrictions (no press, no leaks, no lawyers -- or no deal), the sale stood all of Detroit and most of the sporting world on its collective head. In one swift stroke, Monaghan leaped from the business page to the front page, with the sports page in hot pursuit. By year's end, he wore a World Series ring, and his company had 700, not 400, new stores pumping pizzas out the door as fast as their red-white-and-blue vans could carry them. The coincidence wasn't lost on the man in charge.

"I won't say we opened an extra 300 [outlets] that year because I bought the Tigers," he observes. "Let's just say we got into a situation where nobody in this market had to be acquainted with who Domino's -- or Tom Monaghan -- was."

Since ascending to the ranks of Steinbrenner, Autry, Doubleday, et al., Monaghan has been diligent in deepening that acquaintance. Although not a particularly polished public speaker, he has refined the basic Domino's/Tom Monaghan biography into a riveting half-hour morality play that practically walks off the podium flapping the cloak of the American Dream. Media types get the same basic garment, slightly cut to fit, but no matter who tells the story, it is something to hear. Beginning with the death of his father when Tom was four, and a troubled mother's decision to send her two sons to a Catholic orphanage, there are moments of Melodrama at every turn. Two Sisters of the order -- a benevolent nun who encouraged his interests (baseball, architecture, the Church), and a disciplinarian who beat obedience into him with a strap -- shaped his values. A stretch in a juvenile detention center cooled his hot temper. After that came a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps, a college career at the University of Michigan (cut short for lack of money), a brother who abandoned their struggling partnership for the security of the postal service, and a co-owner who paid $500 for half the business and took the rest of the company to the cleaners. In 1969, Monaghan lost control over Domino's growth: the local sheriff was bringing so many subpoenas from so many creditors to his door, Monaghan says, that he -- the sheriff -- "finally started making deliveries only on Fridays." In the late 1970s, Monaghan almost lost his trademark to Amstar Corp., makers of Domino sugar, in a costly, five-year court fight. With a loyal wife and four daughters standing solidly beside him, however, he soon broke through to success, fortune, the Tigers, the new headquarters, and, ultimately, the deep conviction that his journey served as "an example of everything that's right with the free enterprise system." In service of such a cause, and looking oddly boyish for his 48 years, he has posed in the company of tigers, Tigers, horses, helicopters, pizza dough, dominoes, Duesenbergs, and Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, to name just a few.

Cumulatively, the effect of all this exposure on Monaghan and Domino's is difficult to gauge. Split into three main divisions (distribution, franchisees, and the home offices of Domino's Pizza International Inc.), the company and its management grow ever more decentralized as the empire expands. Still, it wasn't so long ago that Monaghan tossed pizza dough in the backwaters of Ypsilanti, Mich. And he remains a powerful presence throughout the organization, right down to monthly call-in sessions with curious, and sometimes disgruntled, employees; and references to "The Golden Rule" in board-meeting minutes. Few doubt that his newfound celebrity helps sell pizzas. Yet for some old-timers, like Ann Arbor franchisee Becky Belknap, a 19-year company veteran, the material is wearing a bit thin.

"To be honest," Belknap says, "there are people here who're sick of hearing yet another version of the Tom Monaghan Rags-to-Riches Story. I mean, it's not that it didn't happen or anything. It's just that some parts seem to get embellished and the rest sounds pretty old. For a long time, you know, people read this 'orphanage' stuff and didn't think he even had a mother -- even though she lives right near here. I worry sometimes that Tom may have lost some perspective on the folks who stuck by him when times were tough."

Belknap echoes a theme that surfaced strongly in a Detroit Free Press feature on Monaghan last June. In it, writer Susan Ager quoted Monaghan's mother as feeling like "a nonentity," and portrayed one of his old chums staring wistfully upward at the Domino's chopper passing overhead, wondering why Tom hadn't answered his telegram. Monaghan's close friend George Griffith, a Domino's board member who is a retired General Motors Corp. executive, thought the piece was a cheap shot, a "terrible unfairness" involving family and friends who were "totally unprepared for that sort of thing." As for Monaghan himself, he found the "one negative story" about him unsettling, adding somewhat testily that he never said he was an orphan, "I said I grew up in an orphanage." But he also says, characteristically, "If [Ager] found out bad things about me, they deserved to be exposed. Humiliation is a good thing. It points out aspects of yourself that need correcting."

The larger issue, in any event, isn't how Monaghan rose out of obscurity to fame and fortune -- maybe Hollywood can do the definitive screen version -- but what he's been doing since he got there. Like his hero Wright, Monaghan has traveled a life path often messy and occasionally perilous. But as he himself would be the first to acknowledge, what matters is not simply the overcoming of obstacles, it is the opportunities created once those obstacles are left behind.

The famous architect would surely agree. In his own lifetime, Wright knew little peace and even less prosperity. His father disappeared from home early on. Wright abandoned his own first wife and their five children. With his genius in full flower, he endured financial difficulties, persecution on morals charges, episodes of physical violence, labor clashes, critical opprobrium, and natural disaster. Taliesin, his beloved Wisconsin homestead, burned to the ground on two separate occasions, once at the hands of a homicidal maniac who slaughtered seven people during the blaze. Dazed but undaunted, Wright always rebuilt. With his death at age 91, in 1959, he left behind him a new and quintessentially American form of architecture, one that clashed boldly with the steel-and-glass-box style of his European contemporaries.

Monaghan, who discovered Wright's designs in a public library at the tender age of 12 and who, as a young Marine stationed outside Tokyo, spent leave-time memorizing every detail of Wright's Imperial Hotel, fell permanently under the spel of this maverick artist's work. A single Wright house near Ann Arbor so fascinated him that he drove down the driveway several hundred times and "just parked my car and looked at it." As he combed the Midwest during the 1960s, seeking out ideas for his business from every pizza parlor that would let him into the kitchen, he detoured swiftly to whichever Wright building he could locate. Far from diminishing over time, moreover, his passion seems to have deepened. Asked recently to list the 10 books that have influenced him most, Monaghan stuck Wright's autobiography right up there with such business bibles as The One Minute Manager and In Search of Excellence.

Has the story of the architect's life, then, been a kind of blueprint for Monaghan's own?

"Oh, I don't know," he replies. "I've read so much about Wright over the years that I suppose I may have absorbed some of [his example] unconsciously. It's Wright's buildings, though, that have always spoken to me in ways I can't put into words well. His sense of space, the details, the proportions . . . the feeling I get when I stand inside his structures. His life? I find that stuff entertaining, you know, but it really doesn't have much meaning for me beyond that. It definitely isn't something I've tried to emulate."

Honoring that distinction, one still sees in Monaghan a certain Wrightian talent for taking internal design elements and expressing them eloquently in external form. Wright was an engineer by training, and it was often said of his buildings that all one needed to know about his "organic" approach to interior space could be readily seen in the exterior line. Similarly, Monaghan has used pieces of his own experience and imagination to build monuments to his value system. He does this with personal history, making himself a public model of every earthly reward that virtue and perseverence can bring a man. ("If there's something material I want," he avers, "I only want the best of whatever it is, or I don't want it at all.")

He has done it with Domino's, a company "risked for principles" on several occasions, and one in which his belief in customer service has attained the status of religion. He does it with a wholly separate enterprise, Thomas S. Monaghan Inc., a combination real estate group, lease-and-lend resource for franchisees, and personal service firm. In three short years, TSM has grown from 3 employees to 75, matching the expansion of Monaghan's dreams. "If Tom decides he needs a helicopter to commute to Tiger Stadium in," explains director of research and development Gerald Custer, "he finds out exactly what he wants and calls us. We locate the right machine, arrange the financing, get the pilot, check his qualifications, set up the maintenance schedule, and hand him the keys. Whatever Tom puts in motion, we execute."

And now, with money almost literally no object, he is doing it with Domino's Farms. "I want the farm to have the same kind of feeling Wright had at Taliesin," said Monaghan last May. "Not a cold, commercial-type building, but a campus-type facility, surrounded by agriculture, where families can come and enjoy themselves. I worked on a farm as a kid, you know, and I guess I've always wanted to [recapture] the best things from that experience."

Gee, that green's too bright. I hadn't seen it up there before. It wasn't supposed to look that bright."

Monaghan is staring through the windshield of his chauffeur-driven Cadillac at the roof of his new office building. Flanking the Caddy are dozens of pieces of heavy machinery, all standing in a sea of mud.Workmen scramble everywhere, humming like bees over phase one of Domino's Farms, the first hard evidence of Monaghan's pastoral dream come to life. His gaze remains riveted on the partially painted, copper-shipped roof.

"I'm sure the samples weren't that green," he mutters, craning his neck for a better view. "We may have to change that."

Clamped under a hard that, he enters the building and begins meandering from room to room. Although much of the finish work on the 218,000-square-foot facility remains to be done, Monaghan moves through it with the practiced eye of a man who sees the detail behind the detail.

"My office is on two levels," he says, striding briskly down a second-floor corridor. "Up here will be my work area. They're designing me this huge circular desk, with built-in TV monitors and control panels and all sorts of other gadgets. I decided a while ago that I wanted to open this area up to visitors. My actual working office will be back here, this smaller space behind the partition."

The time already grows short between this mid-November Tuesday and moving day, December 9, the 25th anniversary of the founding of Domino's Pizza. Monaghan seems curious but untroubled. He examines some of the bronze-beaded wood paneling going into the split-level suite he and project architect Gunnar Birkerts collaborated on after he "decided to get personally involved."

"Down below is the conference room, a sunken seating area, and of course a big fireplace," he continues. "The bathroom's all done in marble. I even had them find me one of those big cracked-porcelain urinals that you used to see in train stations. My expercise room is over there. Did I mention the Japanese masseur? Sparky [Tiger manager Sparky Anderson] met him when he was touring over there with the Cincinnati Reds. He's supposed to be the finest in the world."

Superlatives roll easily off his tongue. Physiotherapists, like lighting fixtures or Shire horses, are "the finest," "the biggest," "the best in the world." When completed, the main complex at Domino's Farms will swell to 750,000 square feet, enough to house the scattered pieces of Domino's distribution subsidiary, the merchandising and supply arm for company commissaries and most of its stores; the new warehouse, says Monaghan, will be "the most modern of its kind anywhere."

In fact, pizza won't be the only business operating out of Domino's Farms. The company plans to lease available space to a variety of tenants, at least one of which -- the University of Michigan's Sports Medicine department -- should help defray the cost of all those massages. Having the sports docs around also serves Monaghan's notion of integrating personal interests into his work environment: one of his closest friends is Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, who, three years ago, was given a Domino's franchise by Monaghan, who hoped that it would convince him not to take a rival coaching job. (A year later, when Tiger general manager Jim Campbell called Schembechler to ask about this crazy guy who said he wanted to buy a ball club that wasn't even on the market, Bo said, "Jim, if Tom Monaghan says he's got that kind of money, believe him.")

Monaghan is, moreover, obsessive about his own physical conditioning. Rising every morning at 5:45, Monaghan runs for 50 minutes, exercises for 40 more, and then heads for morning Mass at the office. In addition, he visits the UM weight room twice a week for some extracurricular iron pumping. Is this the regimen of a man who worships self-discipline?

"It's actually the opposite," he confesses. "I'm so undisciplined that if I didn't make these daily habits, I'd be a complete vegetable."

The walking tour stops at the executive dining room. "All the dishes will be from the collection Wright designed for the Imperial Hotel," Monaghan continues, ducking under some scaffolding. "Next door are five vice-presidents' offices. Two of them are temporarily unoccupied."

How come? he is asked.

"I caught one of my executives shacking up with a staff member," he says, without elaboration, "so I had to let him go."

He moves to the far corner of his upper office and steps out on the balcony. Ahead of him is a vast clearing sloping gently upward to the west.

"Most of what you see out there will be turned into a man-made lake. A bridge will eventually go over the water and connect this building to the conference center. And that, of course, will be the Golden Beacon."

Ah yes, the Golden Beacon. Designed in 1956 for the Chicago lakefront (and adapted from earlier plans dating back to the '20s), the slender, futuristic-looking office building soared higher than anything else Wright ever conceived. Like many of his projects, however, it stalled on the drawing board for lack of funding; later it was adapted for the concept of Broadacre City, Wright's utopian vision of a community where man, nature, and industry could thrive as one.

In much the same spirit, if not precisely the same form, the Beacon will now rise over Monaghan's corporate utopia. Shrunk to 30 stories, its spire is to tower over a vast panorama of fruit trees, gardens, stables, horse-drawn carriages, and jogging trails. A cooperative vegetable farm will provide pick-your-own produce for employees paying a nominal membership fee; on an adjoining site will be the reconstructed Usonian house that Monaghan bought at auction in New York last year. A full-scale Wright museum is also a possibility. Other Wright designs have been built since the architect's death, but nothing on this scale, nothing so ambitious, so unusual. The fact that the Beacon itself is neither space-efficient nor cost-effective in terms of strict company needs bothers Monaghan not a whit. He wanted it for his own offices, and is happy now that it will serve as both symbol of Domino's Farms and an eye-catching conference center for visiting executives.

"I think it's the most graceful of all his designs, almost more a piece of sculpture than a building," he declares. "If Domino's were a public company, I probably couldn't justify it. But we're not, so I don't have to."

True, but there still have been heard some discouraging words. "Tom's always been impressed by 'the best' this and 'the most' that," says one Domino's franchisee," and now he's getting the most expensive office complex in the state, maybe the whole country. It's hard to believe my costs won't rise to subsidize all that."

Over in this corner, meanwhile, are those who take exception to Monaghan's appropriation of the Golden Beacon, period. Before plans were scrapped to build the Beacon in downtown Ann Arbor, some wags dubbed it the "Tower of Pizza." Others in professional circles have questioned the project's historical integrity. "What Tom Monaghan is getting . . . is a shop piece," one critic has written. "At best [his architects] will have exchanged design for scholarship, and the result will be a building on a different site, with different spaces, different details, and a different sense of the whole than Frank Lloyd Wright intended; and they will build it for a client with whom Wright never exchanged a word."

The "they" being referred to are the architects who have survived Wright to oversee the later disposition of his designs. Dean among these former apprentices is Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation chairman William Wesley Peters, a charter member of the so-called Taliesin Fellows. Project architect on the Golden Beacon plans, Peters explains there is a "very rigid policy" about using Wright's designs directly, and that all modifications "must fulfill the original intent of the architect." Of Monaghan's own intentions, he says this:

"Even though he never met him, Tom Monaghan obviously has a great interest, a reverence, really, for Mr. Wright's work. It may be less intellectual than instinctive, but that's the best situation to have, because [Wright] didn't necessarily create his designs for people of great wealth or intellectual accomplishment. His architecture spoke directly to the people, and obviously it spoke to Tom Monaghan a long time ago.

"My only concern," Peters adds, "is that Tom doesn't go off on some inappropriate tangent. If there were any blurring of the line" -- between Wright's aesthetics and Domino's commercialism -- "of course I'd be concerned. But I know of no action that indicates that. He has a great dream, and we hope he sticks to it. Done right, it could be a great thing for the world."

Riding in his Cadillac over the rough terrain of that dream, Monaghan sees embellishments, not tangents. He speaks animatedly of putting up a Wright chapel, a Wright boathouse, even a Wright gas station. Stopping by one of the farm stables, Monaghan spots a group of schoolchildren gathered by a goat pen and pauses to enjoy their fun, bulshing when the teacher comes over to pay him a compliment. Back outside, he points at a perfectly nice-looking white fence and mutters that he is "studying fences to find out which one's the best."

"They put this one up without consulting me," he says with a grimace. "Now they know not to do that sort of thing without asking me first. One thing I do not delegate is design. At least important design -- and fences are important. They frame the whole place."

What frame to hang around this image of a man whose every dream is being realized? Should it expand, like a rich kid's toy collection, or is the focus itself deepening, shedding light on new detail?

"There's a lot about Tom I don't think any of us will ever know," says Helen McNulty, assistant to the president and a key member of Domino's inner management circle for nearly eight years. "He's a man of many moods, and those moods can change quickly. When I joined the company the big issue was the Amstar suit, and it was almost a wartime situation around here -- everyone pulling together against a common enemy. Tom took the threat personally, but I never saw him down about it. Angry, yes, but he doesn't put his hand through walls the way he used to, either. Tom's matured a lot, become more sophisticated."

Eugene Power, a retired Xerox Corp. director and a member of Domino's board of directors, agrees that Monaghan and Domino's have both grown up.

"He uses his advisers to broaden his perspective in a way that's almost parental," says Power. "Tom had a fairly limited education, you know, and no father in his life -- or much of a mother, for that matter. Now that he's successful, he's learning how to deal with people better. Not just delegate responsibility, which he's always done, but develop himself more as a person."

Being thrust into the public eye through his purchase of the Tigers has been one catalyst for that change. Monaghan is a competitive, emotional, intensely private man, yet he has joined one of pro sports' most visible fraternities. Despite taking pains to minimize his management role (former owner Fetzer has stayed on as chairman of the board of directors, while Campbell continues to maintain his authority over all operational decisions), he tends to wear his owner's heart where he always wore his fan's: securely on his sleeve. In '84, that was easy. Detroit won 35 of its first 40 ball games and never looked back. Last season, however, fate proved less charitable. Shortly after the All-Star break, the Tigers hit a tailspin and dropped swiftly from pennant contention. As owner, he also approved the difficult decision to shut down a section of the bleachers where fans had been chanting cruel obscenities in audible unison. By doing so, Monaghan sacrificed both gate receipts and a potential Tiger Stadium attendance record.

"I used to worry that first year he'd think they were all like that," jokes Campbell. "No rainouts, no injuries, not one day out of first place. . . . 'Tom,' I kept telling him, 'there's a whole other world to owning a team.' Well, he found out."

In fact, Monaghan spent much of the summer climbing the walls of his newly refurbished owner's box. Even the best teams lose 60 or 70 games a season, but since "loss" has never been a functional part of his working vocabulary, Monaghan lacked the tools to rationalize defeat.

"I tried to talk myself into accepting it," he allows, "because otherwise I was ruined for the whole next day. But after a while I found the whole social scene [at Tiger Stadium] distracting, and I stopped watching away games on TV. It was too painful."

Another owner (several come to mind) might have stepped in and taken his frustrations out on the nearest available batboy. Monaghan did not. Like his fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright, his ownership of the Tigers is a hobby, not a business.

"I know more about Domino's than I ever will about running a baseball team," he avers. "In fact, there aren't too many people -- if any -- who operate a company this size and understand it as well as I do. It's an emotional involvement, not just an intellectual one. That's why I could never be involved the same way with another company. My life is plenty exciting right now, but you know, nothing will ever compare to the years when I was in the back of my own store, making pizza, beating the rush, building something I believed in."

And what is one to make, then, of this dream life in the material world?

"Well," he sighs, "improving my spiritual life is still my first priority. We Catholics believe that the only way to get to Heaven is to die in a state of sanctified grace, without any unforgiven mortal sins against us. And I believe that, too. Because if Hell exists, I don't want to go there."

Last updated: Feb 1, 1986




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