Jim Grote, Donatos Founder, Featured in TechColumbus Leadership Series

I was a guest blogger for the World Business Forum 2010, a platform for the ideas and trends that are shaping the future of business; Influencers, experts, change agents, doers – up on the stage and by your side. The annual meeting for those who do business, create opportunities and drive change in the world.  I want to continue to write about great leaders in my own community, Columbus Ohio.  I attended a TechColumbus 2010 Leadership Series meeting sponsored by Vorys featuring Jim Grote, Founder of Donatos Pizza and Founder of the J.E. Grote Company

Jim talked about how he founded Donatos back in 1963 with only $1,300 dollars in his pocket and a simple philosophy: “To make the best pizza and to treat others the way I would like to be treated.” Today this philosophy is still the driving force behind everything Donatos does- both in their restaurants and the communities they serve.  Their four cultural cornerstones of Live, Love, Laugh, and Learn are still the thread that weaves through the very fabric of what Donatos stands for.

Here is my take on what I heard tonight from a man I have known for a few years and respect very highly.  This was not the standard canned speech – rather it was a discussion from the heart by a very genuine man who is highly committed to improving our community.  It was a rare opportunity to hear him talk about his personal experiences of success.  Here is a summary of his main points and a few thoughts about how his story is aligned with the components of greatness we read in books like Good to Great.

1.  Establishing a mission and purpose.  From his teenage work experience, he developed a strong commitment to the principles that would become the foundation of his business success over the next several decades.  Those are:

Donatos Mission: “To Promote Goodwill Through Product & Service, Principles and People”

Donatos Purpose: “To be a Principle-Based Profitable Company”


  • To bring Integrity into the workplace
  • Treat others as you would like to be treated
  • “Do the right thing”
  • Be Honest, Truthful, Trustworthy & Fair
  • Be Profitable

2.  Designing your reality.  Determine where you want to go and what success will look and feel like. He shared vivid details of his vision for his first store from its specific physical appearance to the smiles he saw on the faces of his customers.  He also talked about creating a place to work where he would want young people in the community to learn about work as he did from his early mentors.  He was and is committed to creating a  business that serves the customers by delivering a consistently high-quality product; employees by creating a positive, respectful principle-based work environment; and owners by paying them a salary for their work.

When asked how he creates a consistent culture as the business grows he talked about visiting 26 stores this summer and talking to associates for about 2 hours in each store about the founding philosophy.  What struck me was his discussion of goodwill.  He talked about how everyone has an element of “good” – doing the right thing, and “will”, the determination to do the right thing and build sales and profits.  Some people are more focused on the “good side” but are not strong-willed enough and some people are strong-willed but operate with weaker values.  For him, goodwill is bringing your goodness into the workplace with passion and action.  It is having the courage and tenacity to do what is right.  He instills these values in his associates through discussion and modeling these behaviors in his daily interactions.

3.  Putting in the pixels of the vision through: persistence, work, investing profits, equipment, the “right” people, and innovation.  Jim gave examples of how he opened then closed stores because they were not delivering a consistent experience.  He worked to create consistent processes and with his son Tom, the COO for many years, put measures in place to ensure consistent processes, quality and integrity.  Another element that seemed consistently present was his willingness to innovate.  His curious mind led him to solutions to business problems that not only made his business more efficient but he also turned into new businesses like the pepperoni slicer that now slices pepperoni for frozen pizza companies and many other food companies around the world. His success was built on doing the right thing every day when it was easy and when it was hard.  It meant long hours and sacrifices.  It meant being “good” and lots of “will” to move the business forward while believing in his vision.

Also attending the discussion this evening was his son, Tom, who is running a business with his father creating an alternative fuel called Butylfuel.   It was a delight to listen to Tom talk about his experience of working with his dad early in the business when it was only seven stores and help it grow and now to work with him on a new and exciting venture.  His daughter Jane is now the Board Chair for Donatos and has been the driver of keeping the company culture alive before, during, and after the 4 years when McDonald’s owned Donatos.

4.  My Reflections.  Much of my work is focused on developing Level 5 Leaders who demonstrate tenacity and humility.  The qualities I heard tonight and have seen consistently from Jim in every interaction were:  commitment to doing the right thing in every situation, passion for what he does, visualizing his future, willingness to make the tough decisions, willingness to work hard, giving credit for success to others, curiosity, willingness to innovate, making wise financial decisions, being willing to admit when something did not work as anticipated and course correct, and overall positive attitude.

The business elements that struck me are strong culture across all locations, a strong emphasis on consistent process and customer experience, measures, laser focus on why they are in business, and an expectation that people deliver for the customer.

The combination of strong leadership and strong operations led to a successful company that employs many people in our community (over 175 stores in 6 states) and has grown over decades.  Jim and his wife Christina are also strong supporters of the community by giving time and money.   It was a pleasure to learn more about Jim and his business philosophy this evening.

I am left with a desire to reevaluate my vision to see if it stands the 100-year test Jim mentioned this evening.  I feel inspired to be better.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

5 replies
  1. Michael Fluty
    Michael Fluty says:

    What are some of your comforting, motivating or inspiring thoughts you repeat to yourself? Here are some of my favorite affirmations…

    • admin
      admin says:

      One of my favorites is “I am balanced, vital, and healthy and all is well”. It has been very easy for me to focus too much on my work and this helps me put things back in perspective and also remember that I am supported by many others and do not need to take on everthing by myself.


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