Lifting the lid on the pizza man

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The Independent Online
Generous? Certainly. This week, the founder of

Domino's Pizza sold up for $1bn to give the lot to

charity. Eccentric? Definitely. Tom Monaghan is

known for dusting his face with flour and for his

passion for Debbie Reynolds. Sinister? Read on ...

Domino's Farms, the headquarters of the worldwide pizza business outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, is worth the detour, as the Michelin Guide would say. The building is a sleek, low-slung brick affair in the pleasing style of Frank Lloyd Wright and there are added surprises, like the herd of buffalo roaming the grounds and a children's petting zoo. If you are a journalist, however, don't bother.

This reporter got the message when he called from the airport in Detroit. "I don't know why you're coming," barked a spokeswoman. "I suggest you turn around and go straight back to New York." Hmm, sorry, can't do that. Your owner and founder, Tom Monaghan, has just sold up for a reported $1bn and says he is going to give the lot to charity. We think that's something to write about.

Since the negotiation was evidently going badly - it may not have helped that the spokeswoman also happened to be Mr Monaghan's daughter, Maggie Monaghan - I refrained from elaborating. Nothing about Mr Monaghan's ultra- conservatism, his devotion to word-of-God Catholicism and his already public philanthropic forays in Central America. And certainly no mention of his opposition to abortion. Could I, please, pass by the farms and pick up any press package you might care to give me? "It'll be in the lobby."

And so it was. But so too was a menacing man in a dark suit who wouldn't be amiss guarding the Oval Office. "Maggie wants you to leave this property immediately," he growled. (I hadn't been in the place 30 seconds.) "She doesn't want you snooping around." Snooping around for what? Mr Monaghan, after all, was in Europe. Perhaps I was not meant to notice the dress- code for all women employees - skirts and dresses only, no trousers. Or could it just be the Tar Paper Shack that was worrying them? A deliberately humble structure somewhere on the grounds, it was originally designed as a playhouse for a grandson but recently has been favoured by Mr Monaghan for high-powered meetings and even for entertaining visiting Catholic cardinals.

In his younger years, when his pizza empire was barely born, Mr Monaghan dusted himself in flour before venturing out in public. He even went to church a ghostly shade of white. He once declared an unrequited passion for Debbie Reynolds. His fondest plan for Domino's Farms, that never quite came off, was to add a 32-storey, $180m tower filled with 330 hotel rooms. The whole structure was to be cantilevered at a slight angle and named The Leaning Tower of Pizza.

"He's a full-scale eccentric," says John Hilton, editor of the community newspaper, the Ann Arbor Observer. The question now, as Mr Monaghan, 61, prepares to disburse his fantastic fortune, is whether he is a harmless eccentric or a sinister one. "That depends on your political point of view," Mr Hilton admits.

The legend of Mr Monaghan really starts on Christmas Eve 1941, the day his father died. His mother placed both four-year-old Tom and his younger brother, Jim, into a Catholic orphanage, the St Joseph's Home for Boys. It was his upbringing among the nuns that shaped his later devotion to hard work and to his brand of purist Catholicism. "It was hard, incredibly strict, like a prison," he once said.

In 1960, the two brothers bought a failing pizza parlour, DomiNick's, in nearby Ypsilanti. Not imagining that the place would spawn an empire that now has 6,000 outlets worldwide, Jim traded his share to his brother, a year later, for an old VW beetle. The latest reports three years ago said he had joined the Michigan militia, a para-military group dedicated to fighting world domination by the United Nations.

A pizza man for almost three decades now, Tom Monaghan, married with four daughters, is a figure of baffling contrasts. Most recently, there has been the devout, almost monkish Monaghan, the anti-tycoon. Insofar as he has mixed at all with his corporate peers, it has been as founder of Legatus, an association of 450 Catholic chief executives from around the country, who occasionally travel together to places with some Catholic connection. A recent speaker at a Legatus meeting was Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the congressional committee looking into possible impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

But the early and mid-Eighties saw a quite different Monaghan. By then, Domino's was soaring, powered at first by the simple decision not just to serve pizzas but actually to deliver them to the customer's door and then by a pledge to deliver every pizza within 30 minutes. (In 1993, however, the company was forced to drop its vaunted 30-minute guarantee after a jury in St Louis awarded $78m in punitive damages to a woman who had been struck and injured by a speeding Domino's delivery driver. Even after so many years of the 30-minute promise, its withdrawal appeared to have little or no effect on sales.)

In 1983, Mr Monaghan exploded into the headlines by buying the Detroit Tigers' baseball team. He would ostentatiously zoom from Ann Arbor to the stadium by helicopter. His spending reached Trump-like dimensions. In 1986, he paid the Metropolitan Museum of Art $500,000 for an entire Frank Lloyd Wright bedroom. That year, he also bought a classic 1934 Duesenberg for $1m and a vintage Bugatti for $8.1m. He spent still more in order to triple the size of his Ann Arbor home and also to buy an island resort at the northern end of Lake Huron.

By 1989, however, Mr Monaghan had had some kind of epiphany, prompted, he said later, by his reading of Mere Christianity, by CS Lewis, and, in particular, by chapter eight, which ponders the perils of pride. He partially surrendered control of Domino's, declaring his desire to spend more time on charitable endeavours. "It seemed like every bad thing I ever did in my life came through my mind, right from the time I was a little kid," he explained in a 1994 interview. "I realised how bad a person I really am."

It would only be three years before Mr Monaghan was back at Domino's which, in his absence, had begun abruptly to slide backwards. Whether through his new-found conscience or because of pressure from the banks, he off-loaded all the luxuries. The cars went, as did the baseball team - sold to Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesar's Pizza, an arch-rival to Domino's. The resort, originally bought for $28m, went under the hammer for a mere $3m. In recent years, Domino's has been flourishing again.

It was during his three-year leave that Monaghan's interest in conservative and Catholic causes began to attract attention, not all friendly. He invited controversy in 1988 by phoning in a $50,000 pledge to a live TV telethon to help battle state-funding of abortions. The gesture enraged pro-choice organisations including the powerful National Organisation for Women, NOW, which subsequently launched a nationwide boycott of Domino's. There were rumours that a dollar from every sale was being channelled into the coffers of anti-abortion groups.

The boycott left a cloud over Domino's that has never completely lifted. There are many in the city who still will not darken a Domino's door. Anne Monheit, who sells jewellery in the town's market, remembers buying Monaghan's pizzas from his first shop in Ypsilanti when she was a student. She wouldn't go near them now. "The guy's just nuts," she exclaims. "He's very, very right wing and a fanatic. I don't approve of him so I just don't patronise his stores."

Beverly Fish, president of the local NOW chapter, laughs as she recalls how, in 1990, she booked the petting farm for a fete sponsored by NOW, as numerous other local groups had done before. But when Monaghan discovered that part of the money from the day would go to pro-choice organisations, "he just about had a fit", she said. Permission to use the farm was instantly revoked. NOW took Monaghan to court over the incident but lost three years later.

Under a deal announced a week ago with a Boston investment firm, Bain Capital, Monaghan will relinquish his entire 90 per cent stake in Domino's, as well as all management control, though he will remain on the board. His priority now will be running his charitable trust, the Domino's Foundation. "I plan to die broke," he told the Detroit Free Press. To divine how he will spend his money, exactly, consider what he has done so far. Or what we know about what he has done.

There has been the new Catholic Cathedral near Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, built under his supervision with money Monaghan helped to raise. He even selected the architect. More recently, he has overseen the construction of an educational mission in the hill town of San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

Closer to home, Mr Monaghan has embarked on a school-building campaign. In two years, he has opened two private and Catholic elementary schools in the Ann Arbor area, one, the Spiritus Sanctus Academy, on the grounds of Domino's farms. With $2m of Monaghan's money, it was built to resemble a mid-Western farm. There are also two nursery schools. All are run for Monaghan by nuns from an order called Sisters of Mary, Mother of Eucharist, also accommodated on the farms. One company official noted, and not in jest, that Monaghan might like to build Catholic schools "all over the country".

For years, Monaghan has given lavishly to the Catholic Church, for which he has been honoured with a Papal Knighthood and audiences with the Pope. (Indeed, his decision at last to sell came to him during a visit to Rome last May.) Currently, he is also a contributor and finance chairman for a conservative candidate for Michigan Attorney General, John Smietanka, who is openly anti-abortion.

Monaghan is also moving into an area neglected by the Church itself, AM radio. Of the 1,000 religious radio stations in the country, only 10 are Catholic. Last month, however, saw the launch of San Diego-based Catholic Radio Network. With Monaghan as a lead investor, it opened stations in 10 US cities just last month. Wary of the traditionalist view of Catholicism espoused by the Word of God movement, many in the church are unhappy about the Network. "They are not welcome," commented Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, saying he feared "bishop-bashing" by lay critics on the airwaves.

All this was before last week, however, when pizza, not God, was still Monaghan's first priority. Now, he doesn't just have millions to spend on spreading his brand of dogmatic Catholicism across America, but hundreds of millions. "We don't know how he will spend it," concedes Anne Monheit, folding up her table as the Ann Arbor market wound up one day this week. "But it won't be on anything good."