In Food on Friday 21st Aug, 2020

The old-fashioned values that drive one of Australia’s biggest businesses

Aug 21, 2020
Dominos CEO Don Meij credits his proud mum Lesley with giving him the confidence to pursue his ambitions, no matter what they were.

“My dad Peter started out as a salesman and ended up becoming a businessman in different retail businesses, from newsagents to pharmacies. Ultimately when you’re in retail, you’re in the business of selling products and services and he was very passionate about that when I grew up. It wasn’t so much he was teaching me those things as much as I was living and observing them with him.

I remember I wanted my first pair of Billabong shorts, which was a new brand back when I was a kid, but they were $20, which to my family was an incredibly expensive luxury. There was no way my parents were going to buy them for me! Instead, I did a deal with my father that he’d pay me a cent for every piece of nut grass I pulled out of the back yard. I had large, black garbage bags full of nut grass so I could get my first Billabongs.

I also set up a business with a friend of mine called D&B Services and we’d go door-knocking local businesses where I grew up in Redcliffe in Brisbane. We’d say, ‘can we clean your windows for you and you can pay us what you think it’s worth?’, which could be nothing or it could be something, just one or two dollars.

And I got a weekend job at Coles when I was very young. My job was to close down the fruit and veg section on Saturday, because at the time, things closed on Sunday. We always had fruit and veg that would’ve expired by Monday so I asked if I could adjust the prices to sell it rather than throw it away. That gave me three years of understanding retail and customers and what drove people to make purchases.

But when I went to university, I studied to be a high school teacher, in art and the social sciences and economics, rather than studying business. One of my lecturers was Bill Robinson, the famous Australian artist, and he had a very big influence on me – he really pushed us to be our creative best.

While I was at uni, a friend from high school started managing a Silvio’s pizza delivery store. Silvio’s Dial-a-Pizza started back in 1978 in Brisbane and was the first pizza home delivery company in Australia. Domino’s Pizza came to Australia in 1983, then Silvio’s bought Domino’s in 1993 and the two brands merged to become Domino’s in 1995.

Anyway, my mate asked if I wanted to deliver pizzas for his Silvio’s store some nights. That’s when I fell in love with the pizza business – I loved driving my car, listening to the radio and delivering pizza!

Then, when I only had about six months to go before I finished my teaching degree, I did some practical teaching in the classroom and although I was doing well, it just didn’t inspire me – teaching is an honourable career, but I realised I personally needed more dynamic changes in life than I’d get from teaching – so I decided to start a new degree the next year.

But a store manager’s job came up at a Silvio’s store, so I thought, I’ll do that for a year, earn a bit more money, then start afresh on a new degree. But 33-and-a-half years later, I’m still at the same company!

Topping pizzas, here in 1996, is second nature to Don Meij, who’s done every job in the business, from delivery driver to ‘chief enthusiasm officer’.

Giving up a degree that’s almost finished to deliver pizza sounds risky but I’ve always had a big appetite for risk and although Domino’s is now a public company so certain risks are a no-go, I’m probably happier to take risk elsewhere than I’ve ever been.

That’s not something I learnt from my dad. He was actually quite conservative from a financial point of view at the home, whereas my mum, Lesley, was the one who told me ‘do whatever you want to do, we’ll support you in chasing your dreams’. So with her support, having watched the business mind my dad had, as well as the creative thinking I learnt at university, it definitely created this entrepreneurial path.

But the reality is I’ve never taken a big risk and not at some moment regretted it. Like opening Domino’s in Europe in 2006 – we were a bunch of Australians trying to sell an American-style product to Europeans, and it was a really hot summer so no one wanted hot pizza delivered. We just got absolutely hammered in the first three months. There were lots and lots of sleepless nights spent in Europe, in hotels with no air conditioning, trying to figure out the business and feeling physically and mentally drained.

These days, Europe is the biggest part of our business. But it’s in those moments when your back’s against the wall that you actually become your most creative. In my experience, when you take big risks you bring the best in an organisation and in individuals.

At the same time, I’m very conscious of not trying to push people to be workaholics. I mean, I’ll probably get taken out in a box still working hard, because I enjoy it – sometimes I can’t separate my work life and my personal life. That’s why I’m careful that I don’t overwork people and push them too hard because it’s got to be sustainable for them over the long term. And we must’ve achieved that because some of our leadership team have been here 15, 20, even 30 years.

One of the other things I’m conscious of is that people are basically good. Of course, humans being humans, I disappoint myself and I’m sure I disappoint others, but we all want to do good and can do good, and so people do good. As a business, we have very good values and a strong purpose and we’ve lived them hour-to-hour during COVID-19. When we’re going through decision-making processes or talking about strategy, we run it through the Domino’s purpose and values and if it doesn’t fit those, we ask, why are we doing it?

I mean, we’re not trying to put people on Mars and we’re not trying to cure cancer, but Domino’s can add a lot of really joyful things to life. In a disconnected world where everyone’s interacting through social media, people still long for connectivity with other people.

And pizza’s extraordinary in that it brings people together. It’s a treat. It’s effortless in that you place an order and it arrives in 10 to 20 minutes. Sometimes the only time you might see your kids during the week is when there’s a pizza on the table. You have it with friends when the State of Origin’s on, or with work colleagues after a hard day’s work, or for a celebration. It’s the perfect sharing meal that everyone enjoys.

When I first got a pizza with my grandfather, who’s no longer with us, he said to me, ‘why are you so happy with this company because no one’s going to eat that! Who’s going to eat pizza?’. Because he’s a Dutchman and the Dutch typically didn’t eat pizza. But my dad is now in his late 70s and he’s now a big consumer of pizza.

Pizza Isn’t just something that makes people happy, though. It’s something people choose because it’s a very affordable meal. Between 4-5pm every day we have a lot of pensioners come into our stores for our $5 Value Range pizzas. Right now at Domino’s, we’re very conscious that people are underemployed and people’s superannuation funds are suffering so money’s tight for some. Our focus is on how we can keep ensuring our product is the best value for money we can offer.

But that’s not the only way we think about what we can do to be part of our community, you just don’t hear much about Domino’s registered charity Give for Good because we don’t do it for publicity. In every crisis, whether it’s bushfires or floods, people get hungry, so we let our stores turn into giving kitchens and franchisees and managers are empowered to give away as much food as they possibly can to feed as many people as they can that are in need.

We don’t think of the cost, because ultimately, we’re part of society and society needs us. We have food in our business, so if we can, we should feed people and feed them as long and as hard as we can to support our society.

It’s easy to forget because they all look the same that most Domino’s stores are small, local businesses owned by people like you and me, who are part of their community. What warms my heart and feels the most rewarding is when a franchisee in a remote town where there’s been some kind of natural disaster says ‘the only thing that’s open right now is me, and the best thing is that I’m not selling, I’m giving’ because the franchisee knows they don’t have to worry about the money, we’ll refund it all, they just need to give.

I know I’ve been successful, but in my own heart, I still feel the need to stay close to who our consumer is and to walk in the shoes of our first-time team members whose parents are trusting us to look after them. It’s actually very easy not to get carried away with yourself as the CEO of a public company, because there’s lots of reality checks – the media is very good at pointing out when you’ve made a mistake!

I try to keep my own four children, who’re 16, 17, 18 and 19, grounded too. They’ve grown up in a wealthier family than I did, but I keep reminding them that they need to create their own wealth. They have part-time jobs, do things around the house. Because if someone gives you something, you never appreciate it as much as if you earned it. After all, what does an 18-year-old with a Ferrari have to look forward to in life?

My dad’s a tough man but he’s very proud of me, both of my parents are. He’s my biggest fan, he’s got a paper scrapbook and keeps all of the clippings when I’m in the paper. And I’m happy that I’ve made them proud.

I’ve been at this company for almost 34 years and I hope I get to do this job for at least 50 years, but if life chooses otherwise, I am so appreciative of the time I’ve had doing something I love and watching so many team members and managers grow, develop and succeed along the way.”

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