Top Domino: To be the Best, You've Gotta Beat The Best
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Top Domino: To be the Best, You've Gotta Beat The Best

Top Domino: To be the Best, You've Gotta Beat The Best

When Domino's veteran Michael "Mike" Orcutt made the switch from corporate executive to franchisee he was, he admits, a "little nervous" about how the managers of the nine Atlanta pizza stores he purchased in 1990 would welcome their new boss. Orcutt gathered the group in a small hotel meeting room and gave them their first assignment: name his new company.

"I said, 'You are the ones who are going to have to make it work. So let's come up with something that we can be proud of and have fun with,'" recalls Orcutt, a self-described quick decision-maker. The managers brainstormed some 200 monikers before selecting Cowabunga, Inc.

Orcutt, who previously led U.S. store operations for the country's second-largest pizza chain, tacked on "Team" to the front of the name and never looked back. With 101 stores, Orcutt operates the largest singly-owned Domino's franchise in the U.S.

His passion for business starts with people. "We want the word 'team' in everything we say," he says. "Not because we talk about team, but because to us, Team Cowabunga is about everyone having the commitment to do well."

The Team Cowabunga mantra, "To be the best, you've gotta beat the best," is paying off. The company has 1,700 employees and locations in three states (Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina) and reached a milestone with the opening of its 100th store in late 2014.

With 40 years invested in the brand, Orcutt has a unique vantage point about what it takes to succeed in the Domino's system. He was just 16 when he started delivering pizza in Ann Arbor, where Domino's is based. A year later, he was named store manager, the beginning of a meteoric rise up the corporate ladder, which included a stint as Southeast regional vice president in Atlanta, where he would later return. Orcutt served as vice president of field marketing and on the corporate leadership team as executive vice president of U.S. operations. By 1989, with three children and a heavy travel schedule, he was primed for a change.

"Corporate life is great fun and glamorous on someone else's dime, but I really wanted to be in an equity position," says Orcutt, now 58. "I wanted to be a business owner and have an ownership stake in what I do. That was always my ambition."

These days, Orcutt is hard at work growing his team and organization, which is based in Alpharetta, Ga. Cowabunga is in the midst of a chain-wide initiative to reimage Domino's with a more guest-friendly design, open kitchen, and new technology. He also has plans to add 10 to 20 stores annually. Although he never set a goal for a specific number of stores, Orcutt says that when he realized how close he was to reaching the century mark, he "got this surge of energy to make it happen."

Orcutt also continues to build internally with a corporate culture and core values focused on customer service, based on the Fish! Philosophy of Seattle's famous Pike Place Fish Market. "We have a laser focus as a company," he says. "Our laser focus now is to be the best in class in the people funnel--and in the way we handle people."

Name: Michael "Mike" Orcutt
Title: CEO
Company: Cowabunga, Inc.
No. of units: 101 Domino's Pizza
Age: 58
Family: Single, 3 children: Stacy, 29, Michael 27, Cami, 25
Years in franchising: 40 years with Domino's Pizza; franchisee since 1990
Years in current position: 24


First job:
Domino's Pizza driver at 16.

Formative influences/events:
Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's, was a tremendous influence. I was young and worked for him for 18 years. The biggest thing he taught me was the strength and tenacity to keep trying, don't give up, and to think big. The most important thing he taught was to have character and core values in what you do.

Key accomplishments:
I don't look back; I always look forward. I learn from my experiences, but I don't keep a list of accomplishments. My biggest accomplishment is my kids and where they are today.

Smartest mistake:
When I was executive vice president of Domino's, I had every store install time-lock safes for the security and safety of our people. It was a really expensive decision--millions of dollars and requirements for the franchisees--but it took away store robberies and other things like that.

Decision I wish I could do over:
Spend more time with my family. And spend more time with the people who work for me on my team to get to know them better.

How do you spend a typical day?
Get up, have coffee, and work out. I review the real-time numbers from the previous day and pick one big priority of the day. I stick with that priority until it is done.

Favorite fun activities:
I love boating. My kids are all over the country--Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York City--and I love to go see them. Most of my social time is around the folks I work with, either in the company or in my franchise network.

Cardio, 45 minutes a day, and weight training four days a week.

Favorite tech toys:
I'm stuck on my phone--my iPhone is everything.

What are you reading?
The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People by Gary Chapman and Paul White, and Good Leaders Ask Great Questions by John Maxwell.

Do you have a favorite quote?
Bo Schembechler's quote, "Every day you either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same." I also love Calvin Coolidge's quote that begins with "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence..." It is fantastic. We have a Calvin Coolidge award we give based on that quote.

Best advice you ever got:
My dad's advice to be responsible and take ownership. Our theme for this year is, "Because that is the way I want it to be, I own it." Anything that is in your control, act now. It gives you some sort of empowerment. We have our strong core values that also came from my dad: Respect, Responsibility, Trust, Fairness, and Contribution. He was a swim coach and a teacher.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I always get up with ambitious visions about how the day could be. I like to get things done. I like to keep moving. I like projects and I love people.

What's your passion in business?
The people. The network. The satisfaction. There is pressure and stress in taking responsibility, but there is also great joy in getting things right. I spend a tremendous amount of my time trying to figure out how we can shape the business model so my folks are making more money--so as we improve they are sharing in the win. We are in the execution business, and it takes a lot of moving parts to get the product to someone and make it a great experience. There is not a computer that can deliver a pizza to the door and smile. In this business, if you don't love people you are probably doing the wrong thing.

How do you balance life and work?
My life and work have become one and the same. My work is my life. I balance, but the list is never going to be done. Once you learn that, you can have your desk stacked full as long as you are moving forward. Then everything you look at in the stack is opportunity.

Last vacation:
Palm Beach with the kids.

Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
Today, probably Nick Saban, Alabama's head coach. He reminds me of my dad. He is tough, sharp, and consistent.


Business philosophy:
We use the Pike Place Fish Market philosophy for our customers: play, make their day, be there, and choose your attitude. The Cowabunga Team mantra is, "To be the best, you've gotta beat the best!" We are always looking to be our best and beat our best.

Management method or style:
I am results-oriented. I allow for freedom of decisions and process. And I spend a lot of time strategically for my business.

How do others describe you?
Competitive, confident, passionate, and I would hope someone would say that I was generous.

One thing I'm looking to do better:
I'm always looking to be a better boss. That is my job and role to be a leader.

How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
I cut them wide-open loose. I give them an outline or a budget and a process. I don't give them a lot of instruction to start, but I spend time on what the outcome should be.

How close are you to operations?
I'm not as close in the store-to-customer connection as I used to be, just because of the growth in number of stores and people. But I am as close to the business as I can be without making every pizza. I keep my schedule clear so I can maintain a bigger picture.

What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
I expect sound decisions. When a franchisor doesn't make sound decisions you are left holding the bag. I expect good, solid decisions and a commitment to the brand. I expect them to help me be profitable so I can grow their brand.

What I need from vendors:
To be contemporary and innovative so we can constantly improve and speed up our operations. And I need them to be absolutely price-competitive. If I bring them sales advantages or assets that help them, I expect them to help me.

How is social media affecting your business?
Social media has become such a broad term. We have grown from zero pizzas ordered online to more than half our orders online. From a banner advertising and social media standpoint, it is a faster way to network and seems to have cut out a lot of our print business, which is helpful economically. The jury is still out where social media is from an advertising standpoint. Our Domino's leadership is committed to doing the best job, so it is off my plate to worry about.

How do you hire and fire?
I look at the people funnel like a timeline: advertising to recruit, onboarding, initial training, and a focus on a career path. That is a process we are working on right now. What is extraordinary retention? What is desired? What is expected? Those are things we are focusing on right now. I don't have a plan to fire, but if you bugger things up consistently you are probably going to be gone.

Bottom Line

Annual revenue:

2014 goals:
My focus is always on profits and sales, happy customers, our operational scores, and what we call the "Miracle of Team." If we have a fantastic team, we will have great operations, which will generate happy customers. Happy customers generate sales increases, which generates profitability. We are in the middle of reimaging all of our stores. We hope to have 90 percent of that done by the end of 2015.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
By sales, profitability, number of units, and people. If I get more people, I will get more sales. We went from 91 stores to 101 in 2014, with two or three more lined up in January.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
My vision is to have consistent growth of 10 to 20 stores a year from our base of 101 stores now and continue to build brand equity. To really be seen as great operators, I would like to see us at a 9 or 10 in our brand equity scores.

How is the economy in your region affecting you, your employees, your customers?
We have seen tremendous sales growth, but because of food and insurance costs our profitability is about the same. We haven't raised prices for 3 years, so I maintain that we may not discount as much.

Have you used private equity, local banks, national banks, other? Why/why not?
I work with BB&T Bank. I have a personal relationship with my lending person. I don't have a lot of debt for the number of assets we have. What I do is lay out a plan with them way ahead of time of what I'm doing, where I'm going, and where I'm spending money. My rule of thumb is that if you borrow, it has to be for something that is new to the system. If I were starting today, that would be a rule I would have started with. Now the process for growth is more important to me than the number of stores.

What are you doing to take care of your employees?
The non-profit Domino's Pizza Partners Foundation was established to assist team members in time of special need or tragedy. Since its inception, the foundation has helped thousands of Domino's Pizza team members and their families with financial, emotional, intermediary, and advisory assistance.

How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
Our management team earns bonuses based on our five goals. In December, we were looking for a record week in sales. I put a $100,000 bounty out for the management team to split if we hit the record week, so they could think about and understand how important it is to me that we constantly get better. I try to keep it fun and treat my employees like customers. We also have awards banquets every year and give out literally hundreds of plaques and trophies to recognize people. We really believe in recognition. Every week I write cards for anybody who is up in sales by 5 percent or more. That is a big stack every week now. I could raise the sales increase amount to limit that work, but they all mean something to me, so that is a really important piece.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
None. I am sticking with this. I really love the brand. I really love the leadership team we have in there now, and I love their decision- making process. I used to help run the whole thing, so I know this is the best we have ever had. I'm really proud to be part of the brand.

Published: October 8th, 2015

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