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Religious CEOs: Domino's Founder, Tom Monaghan


The pizza chain founder's first focus was making dough, then he decided to save some souls.

Domino's Pizza (DPZ) franchise founder Tom Monaghan is a man of passions, an all-or-nothing kind of guy. When he was building up the pizza franchise chain Domino's, he lived in a trailer and put in 100-hour workweeks. When he had money, he bought a fleet of high-end cars, an island, and the Detroit Tigers.

But when Monaghan, a Catholic, decided in midlife that he wasn't being Catholic enough, he turned his zeal away from earthly goods -- and sold them off, often at a loss -- to focus on one thing: "To get as many people into Heaven as possible," as he told the Wall Street Journal in 2006.

It could be called an obsession. Giving to extant Catholic charities wasn't going to do it -- he wanted big numbers. And the best way to do that, he told the Wall Street Journal, was to produce the teachers, priests, and administrators who could form pliable young Catholic minds.

The road has been anything but smooth. After establishing Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti in 1998, and then a Catholic law school, the Ave Maria School of Law, in Ann Arbor in 2000, Monaghan's plans hit a speed bump. The town of Ann Arbor decided that it wouldn't change its zoning laws to allow the school to expand to a full-size campus on Monaghan's property called, appropriately enough, Domino Farms (you knew pizzas grew on farms, right?). Not one to be put off a grand plan, Monaghan signed a deal in 2002 with developer Barron Collier Companies to partner in building an entire town -- a Catholic town -- in Florida. Barron Collier offered up the land, and Monaghan committed $100 million to the partnership deal and brought the university that would be a centerpiece of the new town. They officially broke ground in February 2006.

If Las Vegas architects renovated Rome, and Rome was located about 30 miles from Naples, Florida, Ave Maria is what it would look like.

Federal Fair Housing laws prohibit denying housing on the basis of religion, but with street names like Anthem Parkway, Ave Maria Boulevard, and Pope John Paul II Boulevard, it's not difficult to see the influence, even if developer Blake Glabe insists that Ave Maria isn't a Catholic Town, as he told NBC Today show's Meredith Vieira during an interview in 2007.

Pope John Paul II Boulevard leads directly to La Piazza, the town's center, which is dominated by the enormous 1,100-seat, 104-foot-tall cathedral called the "Oratory" -- designed by Monaghan himself, who, as a boy, dreamt of becoming an architect and once owned a significant collection of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The development plans call for 11,000 houses and there's an 18-hole golf course, a tennis center, a water park, and a slew of other community facilities. The real estate slump hit Ave Maria as it did many communities across the country during the recession. Photos on the town's website show a very tidy, and rather empty, little town reminiscent of the very first Twilight Zone episode where a town's entire population has simply disappeared.

Controversy has plagued Monaghan along the way: Several faculty and students were none too pleased that the schools were being moved lock, stock, and library down to Florida; there have been lawsuits; and there have been questions about the town's governance. Monaghan pledged in a speech that the town would be free from pornography and contraception, earning him the approbation of lawyers and liberals across the country, and the carefully trained eye of the ACLU.

It's not the first time that his Catholic beliefs put into practice have brought controversy. The National Organization for Women organized a boycott of Domino's in 1989 after Monaghan gave $50,000 to help defeat a Michigan referendum to decide whether state money would be reinstated for abortions. He lost.

Monaghan, who at the age of 6 was left by his mother at an orphanage run by Polish nuns, got his start in business in 1959 when he bought a small pizzeria in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with his brother, Jim. In 1998, he sold his 93% share of the company to Bain Capital for a reported $1 billion. (He had long ago bought out his brother with a Volkswagen). He sold the remaining 7% in 2004 when the company went public and is no longer involved with the pizza maker.

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