Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza, the fastest-growing pizza franchise in U.S. history, revolutionized the fast food industry with a simple premise: hot pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less. On the strength of that service, Domino’s grew from one store in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which opened in 1960, to an industry juggernaut that operates more than 7,000 stores on five continents.
After selling the company in 1998, Monaghan established the Ave Maria Foundation and began a new phase in his life as one of America’s biggest Catholic philanthropists. In fact, he has promised to give away his entire fortune, estimated at $1 billion, to Catholic causes. Ave Maria gave $7.2 million on assets of $260 million in 1999 and supports a variety of causes, including a full-service university in Ann Arbor, Ave Maria College, which boasts an enrollment of more than 170 students, an average class size of 15, and an average SAT score of 1114. The college also has a law school with distinguished professors such as former Solicitor General Robert Bork and a student body whose LSAT scores average in the 80th percentile. Monaghan has also founded four Catholic elementary schools, the Spiritus Sanctus Academies, a Catholic dating service, and a number of single-sex dormitories for Catholic students on state college campuses.
What marks all of these endeavors is Monaghan’s strict Catholicism. Students in the Spiritus Sanctus schools attend daily Mass and pray every day, and the entire curriculum is suffused with Catholic theology and devotions. This unusual approach has earned Monaghan critics, including the Rev. Thomas Reese, a prominent Jesuit priest and author who told the Detroit Free Press that he gets “nervous” when Monaghan’s schools “are . . . presented as somehow more Catholic than the existing Catholic schools, which have decades of experience and tradition.” Similarly, Monaghan’s anti-abortion politics earned Domino’s a years-long boycott from pro-abortion activists in the 1980s. But he remains, as this recent interview shows, undaunted by the criticism, and focused on, as he has said in numerous speeches, “populating Heaven” by his efforts.
PHILANTHROPY: What are you working on now?
MR. MONAGHAN: The possibility of a movie of the Pope’s life. We’ve got a draft of the script. Moviemaking is a new area for me.
PHILANTHROPY: Is it an Ave Maria Foundation project?
MR. MONAGHAN: Yes.
PHILANTHROPY: What sort of expertise have you brought to the movie?
MR. MONAGHAN: None, none. I don’t go to the movies or watch a whole lot of TV, myself. But I thought it’s a story that ought to be told, and it might be good for some people.
PHILANTHROPY: Have you made any mistakes in your giving?
MR. MONAGHAN: I’ve probably made a lot of them, but I would say no big ones. I would say that everything I’ve done has cost more than I thought it would. It’s a real challenge to create something that’s high quality and find a way to get it to pay for itself. You have to set up development programs, get a lot of volunteers involved. Our schools don’t have the support of the parishes.
PHILANTHROPY: What about the foundation? Does it have a termination date?
MR. MONAGHAN: At some point it may disappear.
PHILANTHROPY: Have you set a timeframe for that to happen?
MR. MONAGHAN: Whatever my lifetime is. Who knows?
PHILANTHROPY: Have you set up a plan to deal with the foundation after you’re gone?
MR. MONAGHAN: No, I just figure that I’m 64 now, so, God willing, I’ll be able to function for 20 more years. I take good care of myself, I’m in good shape, I get two physicals a year. I think the way I’m doing it is probably unique. Not that it’s better; it’s just the way it evolved. When I set the foundation up back in the 1980s, I was basically just giving money away, and I saw a lot of it wasted. Back then, someone came to me and wanted to start a grade school, and I gave him the money to get started with five nuns as the teaching staff. Well, it just floundered. The kids were given a good education, but the parents fought among themselves, and it was just an administrative mess. So eventually I took it over. I put a lot of enthusiasm into it, and I hired a principal and set up policies, and now we have a whole system of great schools. So that’s the way I go about giving—instead of giving money to other organizations, I give the money to things I’m running myself. Maybe I’ve just got this cocky idea that I can do it better. I do think I’m blessed with a tremendous amount of unique business experience and have, I hope, learned a few things from making thousands of mistakes. It’s a combination of my money, my experience, and my efforts to create something better than what’s out there.
PHILANTHROPY: You were in the Marine Corps as a young man. How has that affected you?
MR. MONAGHAN: Invaluable. One of the best experiences I ever had in my life; it really shaped what I am today—although I think I was the only Marine in my barracks going to Mass on Sunday. You learn a lot about leadership. Going through it you’re thinking, “How did I get into this? This is pure hell, and I hate it!” But now I recognize how important it was. There was pride in the uniform. At Domino’s we put more effort into designing uniforms and making people take care of them than any fast food service I know. We were probably the only national fast food chain that didn’t have a single beard in the whole organization at any level. There were major lawsuits over that, but we did it. We were going into people’s homes and handling their food, and that’s a very personal thing, handling food. In the office everyone wore a suit and tie. I think that’s important. This casual thing today, I believe it makes people at least 20 percent less effective.
PHILANTHROPY: Published accounts say you were the classic rambunctious boy. School wasn’t easy, your family life wasn’t easy, but you skipped college, went into the Marines, and then into business. You seem to have done all right. Should more people consider such a path?
MR. MONAGHAN: I’ve often said if I had sons I wouldn’t give them a penny unless they spent at least two years in the Marine Corps. I think that’s the greatest experience, and I hope the Corps hasn’t softened up too much. I look around at the CEOs and successful businessmen I know, and it’s amazing how many of them are former Marines. It builds a certain kind of confidence, and that’s what a successful businessman needs—confidence.
PHILANTHROPY: You support a number of different philanthropic efforts—schools, nonprofits, magazines, even films. Do you have a strategic plan for this array of projects?
MR. MONAGHAN: Well, the underlying goal is to serve the church and help her save souls. Another area would be the pro-life area—a campaign to stop abortions. Those would probably sum up what I want to do with my life. I think the best way to achieve the first goal is through education. That’s why we started the schools: not just the grade schools, but the college as well.
PHILANTHROPY: Many of your elementary schools have traditional multi-grade classrooms, along the lines of the one-room schoolhouse. Why?
MR. MONAGHAN: There are a number of reasons. The main one is that I think small schools work better—there are too many kids cooped up in classrooms now—and I think that putting more than one grade in one room is a better way to learn. I went to maybe 11 schools through high school, and I think the ones that taught me the most were the multi-grade schools.
PHILANTHROPY: You actually didn’t finish college, correct?
MR. MONAGHAN: That’s true; I’m still a freshman. But when I’m talking about education, I’m talking about religious education, about living the faith. There are not just three Rs, there are four. The fourth one is religion, and it’s really not the fourth one, it’s the first one. I think that is what’s missing in the Catholic Church today, a sense of the importance of religious education. Thirty-five or forty years ago, Catholics grew up, left home, and stopped going to church because they didn’t understand why they should.
PHILANTHROPY: Did you have a good religious education?
MR. MONAGHAN: I think so. The nuns were very devout women, very close to God. God was part of almost every conversation, every subject at school. It really made sense to me that people were created by God, for God, and that our lives should be conducted accordingly. So I think my answer is yes, I did get a good education, at least compared to what most kids get now.
PHILANTHROPY: Why aren’t Catholic schools as good as they used to be?
MR. MONAGHAN: Well, I’m not an expert on this. I want to set up schools that are not only better than what we have today but better than what we had when I was growing up. The press asks me, “Why are you starting schools when there are already all these Catholic schools out there that could use your money and your support?” Well, I don’t like to be critical, but I want to show a way of doing Catholic education that will make people say, “Wow, that really works.” We’ve seen that happen. People who send their kids to one of our schools say they didn’t know a school could be so good. We have enormous waiting lists. Our kids in the first grade probably know more about the Bible, God, their religion, than students in some Catholic high schools.
PHILANTHROPY: Is it important to you to be involved in the things you fund?
MR. MONAGHAN: It is. There’s only one thing I haven’t run, the radio stations [Catholic Family Radio, a group of religious talk radio stations that folded in May 2000], and those were a disaster. We lost money all over the place, and I eventually got rid of the person who was in charge and took it over so that I could shut it down. I learned a lesson: I need to help run the things I’m funding, because I think my experience in business gives me the ability to do it better.
PHILANTHROPY: How can you ensure the schools you fund stay true to your vision?
MR. MONAGHAN: In the colleges they’re setting up lay boards, and they’re trying to be very, very selective about replacing themselves. The main criteria are that board members have to be knowledgeable Catholics and have orthodox beliefs. As for right now, I’m the chairman and CEO of most of the schools.
PHILANTHROPY: Are you afraid the schools and your other projects won’t be able to continue when you’re no longer involved in them?
MR. MONAGHAN: Well, we’re trying to make sure the schools can exist independently, because after my money’s gone they’re going to have to find a way to sustain themselves. One of the things I’m trying to do is teach them development. Every school is setting up a development department.
PHILANTHROPY: But if you’re there helping run the schools, aren’t you concerned that they will become dependent not just on your money but on your personality?
MR. MONAGHAN: There are so many people out there who believe in the kind of education I do that I think someone will pick it up once I’m gone. And I’m not an academic: I don’t run schools in the sense of picking the books or anything. I can be the chairman, and I can see the overall picture and maybe provide a certain amount of business management experience to the schools, which isn’t often available in education.
PHILANTHROPY: Is that where your business experience comes in? Choosing between alternatives if people disagree?
MR. MONAGHAN: Yes, although mostly I manage by consensus. I have an overall mission and an overall goal, but I think I bring a lot of ideas to the table. I get ideas all the time; they just pop into my head. God gives me the idea, and it’s my obligation to write it down before I forget it and then see if I have the ability to make it happen. I love to take an idea in raw form and play around with it and find a way to make it work and the right people to carry it through. To me that’s fun—probably to a fault. Too many start-ups, too many crazy ideas.
PHILANTHROPY: Do you think about the effect your new institutions will have on older institutions?
MR. MONAGHAN: Oh yes, one of my goals is to have an impact on Catholic education generally.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you mean?
MR. MONAGHAN: Parents from our schools talk to other parents and tell them what our kids are doing—that they pray every day and behave themselves, that no one’s complaining about the teachers or the principal. In the course of conversation they compare the two schools, and we’ve got these positives and the other schools have got negatives—then the word starts to get around. So they either pull their kids out of the other school or they go to their school and say, “Why can’t you do what Spiritus Sanctus is doing?” I’m talking about the grade schools. As for the colleges, I was on the board of six schools, five of them Catholic, and I watched a school like Franciscan University of Steubenville come out of nowhere and became what [John] Cardinal O’Connor [of New York] called the premier Catholic university in the country. And I think that’s making alumni from other schools look at their alma mater and say, “Why can’t we have that?”
PHILANTHROPY: You once owned the Detroit Tigers baseball team, so allow us a baseball metaphor: We’ve talked to some people in Catholic circles who worry about all the money going into your start-ups and compare your efforts to the New York Yankees: They say you’re spending a lot of money to make one great team but are hurting the league because the rich team pulls the best players from other teams. In other words, when you tempt away a major scholar from another institution like Harvard, Princeton, or Notre Dame, it weakens the Catholic presence at those schools. What would you say to that?
MR. MONAGHAN: I should worry about taking talent from Harvard or Notre Dame?
PHILANTHROPY: Some critics think you should.
MR. MONAGHAN: We’ve got Charlie Rice and Gerry Bradley from Notre Dame teaching out at the Ave Maria Law School while they’re on sabbatical.
PHILANTHROPY: But what about the student at Notre Dame who now doesn’t have Charlie Rice?
MR. MONAGHAN: He should have gone to Ave Maria. I mean, Notre Dame is probably the best Catholic law school in the United States, but it’s weak in Catholic identity. Ave Maria is not.
PHILANTHROPY: You’re one of the largest Catholic donors in America. A lot of Catholic institutions, Catholic intellectuals, bishops, and organizations would love to befriend you and flatter you. Can you remain humble in the face of that?
MR. MONAGHAN: Well, my biggest critics are members of the clergy. Most of the people you referred to have probably already approached me and been turned down. They would dislike me a lot less if I didn’t have money to spend.
PHILANTHROPY: But you do stress humility. A few years ago you published a pamphlet with some of your writing that also contained C. S. Lewis’s chapter on humility from Mere Christianity and the church’s litany of humility.
MR. MONAGHAN: That would be The Great Sin; it’s on pride. And as I said there, I’ve always been a very ambitious guy. I’ve always had big dreams, always set lofty goals, wanted the best of everything, all the toys. And I always thought I could keep it under control. I could have nice things, and it wouldn’t be a problem. Then I read this chapter on pride, and it just about knocked me over. I thought about my life—about how as a kid in the orphanage, playing sports, I always wanted to excel and I’d sacrifice my body. And then out in the world I wanted to be successful. I worked hard, long hours, lived right at the poverty level—it was years before we took our first vacation—living in trailers and mobile homes, no furniture, raggedy clothes. All the while I had these visions of a beautiful home, beautiful cars, all these things I was working for. It occurred to me: Why am I doing this? It seemed to be an admirable thing to work hard and play hard and sacrifice to be successful. But why? So I could show that I had more than other people? Then I realized that even though I don’t commit what most people would think of as mortal sins, I am the greatest of all sinners, because of my pride. So I set about to give away this money. I sold the cars, the boats, the baseball team; I was building a huge house in Ann Arbor, and I had them just stop. The house’s foundation is still sitting there; it’s going to be the clubhouse for the golf course at the college.
PHILANTHROPY: Do you ever miss the baseball team?
MR. MONAGHAN: Sometimes at spring training [laughs]. But overall, no. I put the company up for sale in 1989, and I had planned to keep the Tigers because it was a small thing, total budget of $39 million. But it took too much time to run.
PHILANTHROPY: You have a reputation for being opinionated.
MR. MONAGHAN: Well, I’m decisive, and if I believe in something I follow through on it. Sometimes people think I carry it too far, but if I believe in something, even if I’m the only one in the room who believes in it, I’ll do it. Usually when you just know you’re right and you follow through on it, people fall in line behind you. You get an idea, you can see it, and I’m in a situation where if I get an idea I don’t have to run through a bunch of focus groups, I can just do it. And all of a sudden people say, “Oh, I see what you mean.”
PHILANTHROPY: Tell us a bit about Legatus, a fraternal group of Catholic business executives you founded in 1987.
MR. MONAGHAN: It aims to bring together the most talented business leaders in the Catholic church for prayer, discussion, and study. I believe the ability of business leaders to serve the church is underestimated by most people. To be a successful CEO and to stay there, you have to have a lot of things going for you, and you really can’t have any weaknesses. It’s very competitive, and if you can keep the faith while doing it that’s really something. When you get people like that together, you really have a synergy going. When they get into Legatus and meet other members and hear some of the best speakers in the church, they get fired up. All of a sudden they’re reading more about their faith; they’re giving more to Catholic causes. The faith becomes a bigger part of their lives. It helps their marriages; it helps them with their kids; it helps them run their businesses better.