Tom Monaghan: the tycoon who sold his assets to serve the Church

Tom Monaghan: the tycoon who sold his assets to serve the Church

Patrick Ward

During a recent visit to Ireland, US billionaire Tom Monaghan was interviewed for a feature article in 'The Irish Catholic'. Mr Monaghan, the founder and former chairman of Domino's Pizzas, and a devout Catholic, sold his business to help fund Catholic and pro-life causes.

Tom Monaghan hit the headlines in December 1998 when he sold his company, the international pizza giant Domino's, and raised over a billion dollars from the sale. His motivation: to give his money away to Catholic and pro-life charities. "I feel it's God's money and I want to use it for the highest possible purpose - to help as many people as possible get to Heaven."

Monaghan has targeted four key areas: Catholic education, at primary, secondary and tertiary levels; Catholic media, including Catholic radio stations; pro-life politics; and Legatus, an association of Catholic business leaders.

Tom Monaghan is a mild man in his early sixties, slight in stature, and wearing an ear-piece. Most noticeable is his reserve. Perhaps this is not surprising, given his much-publicised generosity. He is very diffident, never talking himself up. You wonder if it is shyness, caution or humility. He listens carefully to your questions and answers slowly.

Sin of pride

All is revealed when he tells you about his Catholic faith. "I read C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity about 10 years ago. There was a chapter about pride, the great sin, which hit me between the eyes. I realised that I had a lot of pride."

His pride was understandable, given his fairytale, poor boy-made- good, rise to success. On his father's side there was the Irish connection, his grandfather coming from Tipperary and his paternal grandmother from Cork. Young Monaghan was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but his childhood was not a stable one. His father died when he was four and much of his youth after that was spent with foster families and working on farms. There were also six years in a Catholic orphanage run by Polish nuns. "They were strict but kind to us and I got a good grounding in the faith," he says.

The young Monaghan thought about the priesthood and spent some time in a seminary but eventually discovered that his vocation lay elsewhere. He spent a few years with the US Marines before returning to Michigan. It was to fund his education while at College that he borrowed $500 and established a pizza shop. Profits were a long time in coming, but success came when he decided to focus on pizza delivery.

The business grew and the head of Domino's Pizza became rich and famous. There was always the question of faith throughout. "I always believed it was true, although for a time when I was in the marines I had doubts. Then I read a book on Catholic apologetics and it made sense to me; there was a God."

He and his company became generous contributors to Catholic and pro-life charities. So much so that they aroused the wrath of America's pro-abortion lobby who ran a campaign against Domino's.

Monaghan denies that the campaign did big damage. "The boycott probably harmed us in some university towns. One person who held a Domino's franchise claimed his business shut down because of it. But overall it helped us. Pro-life people supported us. And for the 80 per cent of people who couldn't care less it got the name Domino's out there. We were all over the national media."

The attitude is typical of Monaghan who has never made any apologies for his Catholic beliefs and still played to win. While chairman at Domino's he set down strict rules for the company's $170 million advertising budget. TV shows which, in his view, were "anti-family or anti-morality," did not get supported.

One factor behind his decision to sell his business was the fact that there was not enough money in profits alone to fund the kind of Catholic projects Monaghan had in mind.

Since selling Domino's he has had more time to focus on the Legatus project. This is an association of Catholic Chief Executive Officers, which he was inspired to set up in 1987 after meeting with Pope John Paul II. Members of Legatus are invited to monthly meetings (along with their spouses) where they learn about their faith and about the insights of the Catholic Church on a range of social issues, including business ethics. Each meeting starts with prayer and opportunities for confession.

Apostolate

Organisers argue the need for a peer apostolate for pressurised business leaders. Members will not be solicited for charities or to support worthy projects; it is assumed they already do this and the idea is to give business leaders a forum where they can relax and strengthen their faith and family life.

Monaghan himself is convinced of the need for it: "Legatus is about getting the most talented, proven business leaders in the Catholic Church and helping them to be better Catholics and get them more interested in their faith. If that happens they'll tend to do the things that will help the Church."

Monaghan is conscious of the challenges facing the Church. "It looks to me from the outside like Ireland may go the way the US has done, but orthodox Catholicism is coming back in the US and the liberal type is dying out."

"In 10 years time we hope to have 5,000 members in America and 5,000 members in the rest of the world."

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