How an Eccentric Right-Wing Pizza Billionaire's Attempt to Build Catholic Law School Ended in Disaster
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Tom Monaghan was born in 1937 on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father, a truck driver, died when he was just four years old, and his mother was unable to support him and his younger brother on the $27.50 a week she earned as a maid. The boys spent a couple years bouncing between foster homes before landing at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, a Catholic orphanage in Jackson, Michigan. It was a harsh existence. When they weren’t saying their rosaries, the boys spent hours on end ironing and scrubbing floors. Punishment was doled out with a strap, often wielded by the feared Sister Ladislaus.
To escape, Monaghan turned to fantasy. He mused about becoming a priest or a shortstop for the Detroit Tigers, and imagined trading in his threadbare clothes for elegant belongings. “I would dream of having things—not the good or the better, but the best,” Monaghan writes in his memoir, Pizza Tiger . “And I could visualize them so perfectly, it was like actually possessing them. I would picture my house or cabin and sometimes I would even build it in my imagination.” These mental building projects later gave way to a fascination with architecture. Monaghan spent his teenage years plowing through books on Frank Lloyd Wright. He hoped to one day follow in the great architect’s footsteps, but this dream turned out to be beyond his reach. Monaghan graduated at the bottom of his high school class and enrolled in a seminary, but he was kicked out because he “lacked vocation.” A few years later, he moved to Ann Arbor with the hopes of studying architecture at the University of Michigan, but his finances were shaky and his math skills lacking. Though he enrolled three times, he never completed a single semester.
Then, in the winter of 1960, Monaghan and his brother heard that a man in Ypsilanti had a pizzeria he was looking to sell on the cheap. The pair managed to scrape together $75 for the down payment, and before long they were slinging pizzas. A few months later, Monaghan traded a Volkswagen Beetle for his brother’s share of the business. If he couldn’t be an architect, he decided, he would throw himself into building a pizza empire.
For all his struggles in the classroom, Monaghan turned out to be a brilliant businessman. Early on, he dropped sub sandwiches from his menu and began focusing on delivery to college campuses, which was far more lucrative than sit-down service. He also invented a new insulated pizza box. Unlike its chipboard predecessors, it could be stacked without squishing the pizzas inside. This allowed him to deliver more pies per trip, and assured they were warm when they arrived. Monaghan eventually began spreading his model to other college towns, and by the mid-1980s, nearly three new Domino’s franchises were opening every day.
The key to Domino’s growth was a tightly controlled franchise system. When a new store opened, headquarters would send a truck stocked with everything from pizza ovens to forks and aprons. Store managers worked from a thick operations manual, known as “the Bible,” which dictated every aspect of operations, down to the smallest detail. Monaghan also kept a tight rein on his employees: store workers were barred from sitting down during their shifts, and executives were expected to uproot their lives and move across the country on Monaghan’s whim. At headquarters, female staffers had to wear skirts or dresses that fell below the knees—pants were strictly forbidden.
As Monaghan’s business grew, so did his appetite for spending. He bought a Gulfstream jet, a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, and a fleet of cars—among them the Packard that had ferried Franklin Roosevelt to his 1933 inauguration, and a handmade Bugatti Royale. (The latter cost him $8 million, the most ever paid for a classic car.) He also began buying up Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and assembled the world’s largest collection of Wright furniture. But his most famous purchase was the Detroit Tigers, which he bought in 1983. When the team won the World Series the following year, Monaghan had his private helicopter ferry hundreds of Domino’s pizzas to Tiger Stadium.