How he got from delivering pizzas to delivering keynotes is a fascinating tale of chutzpah and perseverance, of street smarts and tech savvy, providing a road map for any kid from any neighborhood, anyone willing that is to start small and think big.
Borrow a Belt (i.e. Do Whatever Else It Takes to Get Started)
Looking for a part-time job while still in school, DeLeon put in a
cold call to a local Domino’s store. Having already delivered
newspapers in the same Chicago neighborhood, DeLeon made his case well
enough over the phone that they told him to show up for work the next
day at 5pm. Arriving a half-hour early only to learn he’d lose the job
if he didn’t find a belt to wear, DeLeon dashed to his sister’s to
borrow a frilly ribbon number two-sizes too small, thus avoiding getting
fired before he had even started.
Listening to DeLeon now, it is easy to downplay the significance of
this little interlude. But if you’re a kid just getting out of school,
you might want to take note. DeLeon was able to get his foothold in the
industry that has made him highly successful by building up a portfolio
of relevant experience, in this case delivering papers. When he got the
opportunity to get in the next door, he didn’t let it slip by and
instead scrambled to find a belt, however ridiculous it might have made
him look that first day. He did whatever it took to get started.
DeLeon credits much of his success to his parents, whom he described
as his “biggest role models.” When DeLeon was in elementary school, his
“blue-collar parents used to buy clothing wholesale and sell it at work
or to friends.” He took note of the relationships they built with
their friends and customers and tried to do the same when he started
delivering pizzas. He paid attention to the smallest details, even how
to park unobtrusively in driveways and how to ring doorbells to the
When cell phones came along, DeLeon used them to improve the delivery
experience, calling when no one answered the door. It wasn’t long
before he’d get calls directly, saying, “Hey are you working today, we
want to order pizza.” Like his parents, DeLeon was building strong ties
with each of his customers, ties that distinguished him from his peers.
At the same time, DeLeon found joy in pleasing customers, noting with
pride, “It became a high for me, the excitement, the doorbell, the kids
jumping and shouting ‘the pizza guy’s here!'”
Learn to Make the Pizza
After delivering pizza with aplomb for three years, his manager asked
DeLeon to arrive early and open up the store since the shift manager
was going to be late. Think Lou Gehrig filling in at first base for
headache-pained Wally Pipp except for one key fact, metaphorically
DeLeon didn’t know how to hit or catch. When the phone started ringing
and orders arriving, DeLeon and another driver had no idea how to make a
pizza but somehow they did just that.
When the manager did arrive, DeLeon exclaimed, “I don’t want to be in
that situation again!” Taking time before and after his delivery
shifts, DeLeon learned how to make the pizza and everything else the
store sold. Shortly thereafter Domino’s asked DeLeon to join their
management-training program. The lesson here is clear–learn the business of the business even if it isn’t your primary job. In this way, when opportunity strikes, you’ll be able to jump in like DeLeon and Gehrig, relegating the Wally Pipp’s of the world
to mere footnotes.
Take the Low Performing Store
Paying his dues as an assistant manager, DeLeon was working at one of
the highest volume stores in Chicago when a manager spot opened up at
an underperforming location. According to DeLeon, “There were other
people more qualified to take over that store but no one wanted it.”
Asked why he would want such a dog, DeLeon gamely offered, “When stuff
is that low, the only thing you can do is look up.” Not surprisingly,
DeLeon’s willingness to take on the bigger challenge paid off.
On the first day of the job, DeLeon somewhat brashly told his
District Manager that his store was going to be off the underperformers
list by the end of the week, even if that meant he had to buy the pizza
himself. Knowing that he couldn’t transform the store alone, DeLeon
“rounded up the right people who wanted to stay and let the others go
who didn’t.” Having established his business goal and then put his team
in place, DeLeon started a series of guerrilla marketing activities
that helped his store set a nationwide Domino’s record for most
consecutive weeks of sales growth and set the stage for his groundbreaking use of social media.
Final Note: Ramon DeLeon did not have the advantage of an Ivy
League education or social connections that would give him a head start.
he started out at the proverbial bottom of the barrel, delivering pizzas on a part-time basis to pay for school. How he became a pioneering practitioner of social media is all the more remarkable, and part 2 of this series, to follow later this week.