It takes one set of skills to admit things aren’t working behind the closed doors of a boardroom, but it takes an entirely different quality to admit failure on national television — and that is courage.
J. Patrick Doyle, president and chief executive of Domino’s Pizza Inc., and this year’s Norman Award winner from Nation’s Restaurant News, embodies that quality.
The annual Norman Award was created five years ago to recognize restaurant executives for their extraordinary leadership skills and ability to inspire and mentor future leaders, as epitomized by Norman Brinker, the industry icon who died in 2009. Each year’s recipient is nominated by former winners and an advisory committee.
“I am incredibly honored,” Doyle said. “I know what Norman did for this whole industry and the number of incredibly talented people who have become leaders in this industry as a result of his finding, grooming and training [them]. He has left a lasting gift to this industry.”
Doyle has led Domino’s Pizza, the pizza delivery chain of more than 11,000 locations worldwide, as chief executive since 2010. He had already worked at the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company for 17 years in a variety of positions covering marketing, international business development and U.S. corporate-store operations.
One of Doyle’s defining leadership moments, at least to outsiders, has been an oft-cited courageous marketing campaign Domino’s began as he stepped into the chief executive role. The brand had completely retooled its pizza recipe, and was now pitching it as more than new-and-improved; it was completely different from the previous version that had led to low customer satisfaction. As pitchman, Doyle put himself directly in front of consumers, admitting the brand’s product was not up to snuff. The self-deprecating national TV ads didn’t hold back — and could have been a disaster. But it worked. Domino’s has seen positive same-store sales growth for each of the past four years, and into 2014.
“I don’t remember a food company ever broadcasting negative consumer feedback as a way to convince [customers] to come back and try a reformulated product,” said Douglas Brooks, former chief executive and chairman at Brinker International Inc., and a previous Norman Award winner. “The risk of changing a decades-old flavor profile on any product of a very large and very successful company is very high. The result from his incredibly honest dialogue with his consumers has been remarkable.”
Many supporters of Doyle echo that his ability to face the music and boldly drive change is a core part of who he is.
“For me, among all his traits, this one stands out,” said Jon L. Luther, former chairman and chief executive of Dunkin’ Brands Inc. and the 2013 Norman Award winner. “He didn’t hide behind anything. When you see that, you see a culture of transparency.”
Humility also is spawned when leaders openly step up to admit mistakes and move businesses forward.
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“Like Norman, Patrick is an incredibly humble leader,” said Richard L. “Rick” Federico, chief executive and president of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc. and 2012 Norman Award winner. “It is always about his team and never about himself. How many of us could go on national television and directly say we are not very good but we are going to be better, and then do it.”
“Great leaders always wanted to work for Norman because he allowed you to truly craft the direction of the business versus simply doing what the CEO wanted,” Federico added. “Patrick has been masterful at empowering his Domino’s team, and the business results have followed. People truly want to work with Patrick.”
While Domino’s success in the public sphere is important, it’s Doyle himself who speaks most about developing people from the inside, providing opportunity and focusing on putting the right people in the right places.
“We make and deliver great pizzas,” Doyle said, “and that is wonderful and we are part of bringing people together, but what we also do here is more profound … Hopefully that is in the tradition of Norman.”
“What I am proudest of here is the opportunity we provide for people in our stores,” he said. “Over 90 percent of franchisees started as hourly workers in our stores. It’s a pretty unique thing that we do here, and ultimately what excites and motivates me.”
Doyle knows a thing or two about operating in a Domino’s Pizza store. Early in his tenure at Domino’s, he was a senior marketing executive, and was selected as a high-potential associate by then chief executive Dave Brandon, who now serves as chairman. Doyle was given the opportunity to run the international business of the global brand, opening locations in country after country, signing market deals and traveling the world.
In 2007, Brandon had a different role for him to undertake.
“I called him into my office and said, ‘I know things are going well, I know you enjoy it, and the last thing you probably want to do is to be managing Domino’s Pizza stores,” Brandon said, “but I need you to take over leadership of the corporate store units.”
The role, running at the time about 550 U.S. locations, would take him from a world of opening new global markets to managing a workforce comprised of general managers and pizza delivery drivers, as well as all that is required — operational complexity, long hours and hard work — to efficiently run a restaurant operation.
“Patrick looked at me and said, ‘If that’s what the company needs me to do.’” Brandon recalled. “And he did it. It’s leaving your ego at the door.”
Brandon, who left his chief executive post at Domino’s to become the athletic director at the University of Michigan, is Doyle’s biggest fan.
“Patrick possesses the qualities of all great leaders — he’s smart, he’s hard-working, he’s a great listener, and he knows how to choose talent and surround himself with highly capable people who share his vision,” he said.
The respect between Brandon and Doyle is mutual. Doyle has said Brandon has been one of his greatest mentors, along with his wife, Techy Rodriguez-Doyle, whom Doyle said helped him navigate through international waters with her “astute read of people,” knowledge of various languages and support.
As for advice for the next generation of leaders, Doyle again goes back to recognizing and supporting the success of others.
“I see a lot of people who can run good numbers and get results in the near term, but don’t build lasting success,” he said. “The right way is to find a way to surround yourself with terrific, motivated, excited people. People who succeed in this industry are ultimately the people who are great with people.”