Checking in with Ypsi’s least favorite son, Tom Monaghan

avemariamonaghanThe new issue of Businessweek has an interesting piece comparing and contrasting Michigan’s aging pizza barons, Tom Monaghan and Mike Ilitch. And, as it’s been a while since we’ve discussed Monaghan, who started Domino’s here in Ypsilanti in 1960, I thought that I’d share a bit.

Tom Monaghan was once a billionaire. He owned 244 classic automobiles, including a rare Bugatti Royale. He built a $30 million resort on a Lake Huron island. He hopped helicopters from the headquarters of the company he founded, Domino’s Pizza, to watch the Major League Baseball team he owned, the Detroit Tigers…

The Tigers, the resort, and the cars are gone. The man who invented 30-minute pizza delivery sold Domino’s and eats less pizza these days because he’s gluten-free. He spent most of his fortune creating a foundation, a university, a law school, a mutual fund, and a radio station that embrace his Roman Catholic beliefs. At 77 years old, he rises each day at 1:50 a.m. After prayer, reading, exercise, and Mass, he goes to work in his cubbyhole of an office in the building that houses his old company, surrounded by milky glass statuettes of the Virgin Mary. Monaghan says his ultimate goal is “to get into Heaven and take as many people as I can with me.”

…In 1998 he sold his company to Bain Capital for more than $1 billion. His legal pads were crammed with ideas for building a conservative Catholic university that would churn out theologians, priests, nuns, and school principals. “There’s so much you can do at a university that can change the whole world,” he says. “I didn’t want a diploma factory, I wanted a saint factory.”

He put $300 million into the construction of Ave Maria University and a new town, also to be called Ave Maria, on a stretch of tomato fields inland from Florida’s Gulf Coast. The media lit up when Monaghan suggested condom sales would be prohibited in the town. Construction costs soared. Accreditation took longer than expected. Monaghan tangled with professors and others he’d hired at Ave Maria. He twice fired Catholic priest Joseph Fessio. “Tom is intelligent, very energetic, but nobody will contradict him,” says Fessio, who was fired the second time when he told a board member that the school’s finances were in disarray. “Just because you can afford a 747 doesn’t mean you should try to fly it.”

Enrollment at Ave Maria today is 900, with an expected incoming class of 400. The budget, once $10 million in the red, is balanced, says university President Jim Towey, formerly President George W. Bush’s head of faith-based matters. Monaghan loves pointing out that 20 percent of Ave Maria’s graduates are married to each other and that the most popular campus organization is a pro-life club.

Monaghan’s investment in the town, however, “has been a bloodbath,” he says. The town has grown slowly, partly because of the recession, forcing Monaghan to pay $5 million a year for roads and other upkeep. Although he’s far from broke, he’d like a steadier source of revenue to plow into his philanthropy. Monaghan’s trying to build a chain of hamburger delivery joints modeled on early Domino’s. So far he has one, called Gyrene Burger, in the college town of Knoxville, Tenn. “If it gets to 100 units, that could make me $3 million to $4 million a year,” he says.

Domino’s went public in 2004. Monaghan says he admires how the company has evolved, but he doesn’t own any shares. With a wife of 51 years (whom he met while delivering a pizza), four daughters, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, he says he has everything he needs. He drives a two-year-old Ford Taurus. “I’ve got better things to spend my money on,” he says…

OK… Upon further reflection, I think I may have overstated things a bit when I called Monaghan Ypsi’s least favorite son. While it’s true that he’s roundly disliked for his attempts to criminalize homosexuality, and his views on birth control, among other things, there are likely worse people who have lived in Ypsilanti since its founding, like the serial killer John Norman Collins and Henry Ford’s right hand man Harry Bennett, who almost assuredly is responsible for having killed people on behalf of the company. Monaghan, sadly, is just the most recent in a long line of mother fuckers to call Ypsi home.

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14 Comments

  1. Posted July 10, 2014 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    FWIW: I actually visited, blogged about, and took some pictures of Ave Maria, FL back in 2008 while visiting my in-laws in Naples. Here’s a link:

    http://stevendkrause.com/2008/12/27/ave-maria-florida-a-brief-photo-tour/

    I’m sure it’s a lot more built up than it was then, but this should give you a sense.

  2. Lynne
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    This is purely anecdotal but I heard that he used to call his stores up five minutes before close to order pizzas so that his staff wouldn’t try to leave early. I mean I can understand why the owner of a pizza place wouldn’t want people leaving early but I couldn’t believe what a dickish method he chose to do it. I am glad he doesn’t involve himself with Ypsilanti anymore.

  3. idea man
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I’m envisioning a great romantic comedy centered around Tom Monaghan, John Norman Collins and the ghost of Harry Bennett. If only the state of Michigan was still giving money away to people with movie ideas.

  4. Eel
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Given how things have gone for him in Florida, maybe we could lure Ave Maria back to Michigan. It might be pricey to move all of the buildings, but we’ve got space for them on Water Street.

  5. Sarah Kingsman
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ve heard from a friend that all women who worked at Domino’s when TM was the CEO had to wear dresses. No women could wear pants.

  6. Meta
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.” -Deuteronomy 22:5

  7. karen
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    one day soon mark will be ypsilanti’s least favorite son. this town chews people up. it will get him too.

  8. Posted July 10, 2014 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    My favorite TM story: a friend of mine was walking with her dog in the area where Tom lived (Barton Hills, I think). The dog got loose and ran off. She chased him but lost sight of him. She was kind of running in circles on what turned out to be Tom’s property. Suddenly, two big guys came out of nowhere, one of whom was carrying the dog under his arm. He turned to her and said,
    “Mr. Monaghan wants to know: how much for the dog?”
    My friend freaked out, crying, saying he wasn’t for sale. The man conferred with Tom (I think via walkie talkie thing but I don’t remember) and then relinquished the dog. No other words were spoken to her.
    That story haunts me.

  9. Posted July 13, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Fun fact: TM also started to build a gigantic Wright-looking mansion in Ann Arbor, then abandoned the project halfway through and donated the land to an order of nuns. (I only know of it and have visited because my sister is a Sister in the order.) Roof rotting and a fireplace the size of my bedroom, just filling up with leaves out in the fields. It’s very surreal.

    I certainly don’t agree with the guy on a lot of levels, and just reading about the Ave Maria project gives me the heebie jeebies, but I guess as far as rich mofos go, he’s one of the rich mofos who gives away his money to people less fortunate than himself… which is something.

  10. Bob
    Posted July 13, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t support anything the guy believes and have never liked his crappy pizza, but I find this profile interesting. At least he seems to live what he preaches. Mike Illitch is getting the bankrupt city of Detroit to spring for another stadium for his fat empire.

  11. lorie
    Posted July 13, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    He could have done some real good instead of funneling all his money to ‘charities’ that spend it under his control and pursuing his religious and political agenda. Its a huge tax dodge. Its not like he built that ‘city’ or “university’ to house the homeless or feed the poor.

  12. ytown
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    You guys will bitch about anything. Here is a hard working, successful guy from Ypsi. What do you do…complain about him. He lives modestly(not always the case), gives his money to charity, provides jobs and firmly believes in his faith. What drives you crazy is his religious beliefs. Good for him, his beliefs are his and yours are yours. Isn’t that how America is supposed to be?

  13. Lynne
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “Isn’t that how America is supposed to be?”

    What? Do you think that being an American should make a person above any criticism about how they treat other people? He does not treat his fellow human beings well in my opinion. He holds beliefs that I find abhorrent. It is not American to be free from criticism. It is American to be allowed to practice your beliefs without someone preventing you from doing so even when they disagree with your belief system.

    That, btw, is not a courtesy he bestows on others. He actively uses his money to lobby for laws which restrict people from behaving in a way inconsistent with his beliefs. Yet, no one is stopping him from believing anything he wants and no one is stopping him from using his money to lobby the government or build his crazy town or whatever else he does. I just think he is a jerk and yes, having the freedom to both think that and say it *IS* how America is supposed to be.

  14. ytown
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Lynne,
    I’m sure you would never lobby for laws consistent with your beliefs. Thank you for telling me how America *IS* supposed to be. I feel so much more enlightened by your intellect. BTW, I’m pretty sure I find your beliefs abhorrent. Have a nice day!

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] in Ypsilanti no longer have to live among the likes of Harry Bennet and Tom Monaghan. And, in spite of all the shit we’re dealing with, we no longer have to contend with local […]

  2. […] about a dozen years ago, folks were fighting in the streets for gay rights against the likes of Tom Monaghan. I know the fight’s not over by a long shot, as the state keeps trying to roll back human […]

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