DOMINO’S CEO DON MEIJ: In the future, kids will wonder what it was like driving when you could’ve killed someone

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Domino’s Pizza CEO Don Meij.

Don Meij is on a mission to disrupt the very job that started it all for him: pizza delivery guy.

He’s now the CEO of the largest franchisee for Domino’s pizza in the world, with operations in seven countries including Germany and Japan, and more than 2000 stores. The world-leading drone delivery projects that he’s working on should see aerial automated delivery of pizza in New Zealand fully operational from next year.

Meij was listed at No.4 in Business Insider’s list of coolest 100 people in Australian tech this month. He believes automation is going to make the world a much safer place, improving jobs, living standards, and health.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Business Insider’s Paul Colgan: You’ve been in the business for 30 years, and the company is now regularly referred to as a technology company. I saw a quote from you from a few years ago, where you were talking about how it was just ‘because you had thought about it far enough ahead’. When did the promise of technology for a pizza business first become clear to you?

Don Meij: It was around 2005-2006, in that the Internet had evolved from the original HTML, and it now had become a bit of a Lego block system where you had the Flash and embedded videos. We’re no longer using that technology now – but that sort of thing. It meant that instead of just putting a menu up online, like in the HTML days – which was absolutely pointless to a customer – we then started being able to do things like, we invented Pizza Tracker. We could track your order.

We were able to do things like show video of the product as you swiped it. As you dragged the cursor over the product, it came alive, and showed the product visually, which was much more engaging for food. You couldn’t show video in leaflet in a letter box. You couldn’t track a pizza on the menu in a letter box.

Digital started to give solutions with bandwidth, with new technology like Flash and so on, that allowed us to engage the consumer.

The really big breakthrough came about in 2009 when we went mobile. As the second pizza app in the world at the time – and only a couple of months behind the first one – and at that time, still the most successful, we were able to show that we could be anywhere.

Having a pizza store in your pocket meant a lot. It really changed the game. You could track your order, you could do 1.2 million variations of pizza. You always had value. All the inhibitors of pizza, we were solving on a smartphone – and it just shifted the game, materially.

We still do see ourselves as a food business at heart, but technology is the enabler of us as a retailer, and the way we even produce food today is through the thinking that we’ve learned on becoming a lean, and agile, design-thinking mentality. Which is really technology-driven thinking of innovation, but we apply those models to how we even create food.

BI: It’s obviously a big transition. You listed the company in 2005, when it was, as you said, just on the cusp of this big change. How do you think you have adapted your thinking in terms of corporate structure, the kind of people you hire, and the places that you look to for ideas?

DM: The number one employee that we employ outside of our stores is now someone in technology. The number one employee a decade ago would have been an operations manager, or an admin person. Whereas today, they’re a software writer, or anybody who works in technology with hardware, infrastructure and so on. That means that we became quite different.

We’re very fortunate being based in Brisbane, because we’re a big fish in a small pond. Not everybody wants to live in other parts of Australia, or other parts of the world, so we’re a really good recruiting ground for people returning to Australia who may work in international businesses, and we have a track record of a number of those, including our CIO, who wanted to live in Brisbane again, after many years overseas.

Also, from head-hunting out of all the big universities here in Brisbane. Where do those university students go? If they dream big, they’re probably going to have to move. There’s not that many big employers in Brisbane in this space, which is the future economy. We have been big beneficiaries of that.

My reference check to the innovation and where we look to now, has gone way beyond just looking at other retailers. I have always been inspired by the car companies, and the large retailers of anything, because retailing, whether it be food or selling cars, it comes from a way of thinking, but now that way of thinking has expanded to the digital economy, and all of the things that have evolved since then.

BI: One of your big challenges now is getting this drone delivery possible in Australia. You’re doing tests in New Zealand. What’s the latest on the regulatory hurdles in Australia?

DM: If I just step back and enter that… The drone is part of a bigger problem called DRU, Domino’s Robotics Unit. DRU is everything robotics, including machine learning, and AI. That exists in about seven or eight parts of the business.

The very first DRU was a ground-based DRU. We’re doing the work with him in Brisbane and Sydney, and then drone-based DRU is only in New Zealand. We’ve had a little bit of delay over there with the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] for technical reasons, but we think we’re on track to have our first delivery by Christmas on a regular basis, and then in the new year, starting to do consistent delivery.

Then, there’s two other countries we operate in today that have put their hand up.

The New Zealand government started chasing us to do work. Stephen Joyce, the innovation minister over there, he could see stuff that we were doing and he would say, please consider us. If you’re for somebody to work – a government that will endorse and support – please [make it] us.

Because the New Zealand government has worked with the CAA to encourage open airspace in certain areas, and is trying to lead in this space – we were already partnered with the world leader in drones, and we are one of the world leaders in retail digital – and you just needed a forward-thinking government.

Unfortunately, Australia hasn’t moved in that area yet. Whether we go from New Zealand to another country, or whether we go from New Zealand to Australia, is yet to be known, but we’re not in a position in Australia to do it yet. It’s still bogged down with regulatory [questions].

The Domino’s DRU delivery drone, from Flirtey.

BI: Are the regulatory issues all at federal level?

DM: We haven’t had direct conversations as such, because we’re not a lobbyist. Our partner is lobbying, and we’re relying on our partner, Flirtey, and what they’re guiding. Domino’s Pizza Australia – I’ve written to the prime minister to encourage him to encourage the environment, as the New Zealand government has, but I personally and none of my team to my knowledge has directly spoken to them, but I’m pretty sure Flirty has.

BI: Did you hear back from the prime minister after you sent that letter?

DM: I have. I got a reply back from the department saying that other departments are being contacted, which is a good thing.

BI: Quickly talk about the drones. How do you mitigate against things like risk for theft or damage, or accidents? I think that’s the one gap for a lot of people.

DM: There are a number of different features. First of all, these things fly at somewhere between 150 to 400 feet. When they’re coming towards you, they’re a long way up, and they’re pretty hard to take out of the sky, because they’re quite small.

They then have safety features. This is from Flirtey’s work with NASA. First of all, it has a parachute built in so if something goes wrong, it can safely, and softly, land to the ground. When it comes above you, and you then engage it through your app to release the product, it comes down on the cable. As soon as it hits a hard surface, it releases. So as soon as it hits anything that’s hard, the mechanism will release the product. So hopefully that is your hands!

If you try to grab the cable and rip it from the sky, the cable would decouple. And you will end up with the cable, and we’ve filmed the whole thing. So, you will have the cable, and probably the next call on your doorstep is the police officer, asking you to return the cable, or the company. Either-or.

The bigger issues aren’t those. We think we’re solving those. The bigger thing are really traffic control in the sky. We can’t overstate, there are three parts to this partnership, and Flirtey are a lot of these technical parts. We’re not the ones solving those, although we’re helping to answer and put to test. We’re more of the commercial side of how we’re connecting and engage the consumer behind all of this, and working through what are our problems, and working with Flirtey to solve our problems. They’re solving the greater drone problems, or challenges; they’re not problems, they’re challenges. And they’re working with NASA on that one.

The tracking system that was brought in with the drone for New Zealand, that’s military grade. They had to get the US government to sign off on that to leave America, to go into New Zealand as a friendly country and so on. These are not just the stuff that’s on your mobile phone or your watch. This is much more sophisticated hardware and software.

BI: You started out in pizza delivery, and you’re now working on building this technology. I think people are excited about it, but it’s technology that is going to make a lot of those delivery jobs redundant. How do you think about the concern there is out there about technology disrupting big parts of the job market?

DM: I’m completely different to a lot of the doomsdayers. Maybe because I’m always the guy that sees the glass as half-full. My view is that our business is going to double in the next five years, so we need more than twice as many drivers because more of the growth’s coming from delivery. When we launch DRU ground and DRU drone, they’re not going to do 100% of deliveries. You can’t get inside buildings and high-rises.

We have done a lot of testing with kerbside service, and not everybody wants to greet a drone in their backyard, or a droid in their backyard. Still, more than half the population will still get a delivery driver in the next five years.

But if you start thinking about 10 and 20 years, as these things are getting more sophisticated – robots are entering your home to deliver to you, and so on – that will go upstream. The big difference about how we think about it and how the doomsdayers think about it is this: the ecosystem to manage this is huge. We’re creating a new industry in its own right.

You still have control rooms that are monitoring the drone that did fall out of the sky somewhere, the drone that had some mechanical issues. If a drone is hovering above you for two or three minutes, and you’re not there, it does return to base.

Then, they’ve got to be maintained and managed, and all of the software and hardware guys behind it continue upgrading it, because drone will be version 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, just like your iPhone. They will be continually upgrading. All of the patenting, all the software and so on – that will create huge amounts of new jobs. It’s just taking the job upstream.

If you put your head in the sand and ignore all of this, it’s just going to happen, and we will end up renting it from Silicon Valley, or other parts of the world. Why wouldn’t we, as Australians, want to be a significant part of that ecosystem, and employ people, rather than have people sitting in control rooms in other parts of the world, and parts manufactured and maintained all over the world? Why wouldn’t we try to do that here?

We’re proud Australians, and we want to be able to solve the problems, or we will end up paying the price, and we’ll be one of the countries that end up begrudgingly paying someone else to do it.

BI: Currently, there’s this talk about how technology, combined with competition, is a really big factor in the low levels of inflation that we’re seeing around the world. There are a few factors, but the technology disinflationary pulse, if you like, is a big talking point. With the technology streamlining this… Is this something that you sort of think about?

DM: Absolutely. The way to look at these things is that society produces more. What are we doing today that we weren’t doing 20 years ago, 30 years, 10 years ago? As society gets more productive, more jobs go upstream.

I don’t fear robots. I don’t fear machine learning. I see it as enhancing, and making myself, and our team members, and everybody in our organization, materially more productive, and therefore, creating a lot more.

Those doomsdayers say, we’re going to have a society where everybody is sitting at home and being on the dole because all these jobs have been replaced. That’s just the most ridiculous thinking I’ve ever heard of. What’s going to happen, in my view, is that we’re going to be a more productive society doing materially more, and living much more enriched lifestyles, and most likely, healthier lifestyles. A lot of this technology is enabling safety.

Let’s be honest, a robot, and a driverless vehicle, and a drone will be far safer than somebody driving in a car. Right now, we deliver pizzas in two-and-a-half tonne vehicles. There’s with 2.5kg to 3.5 kg of food in a two-and-a-half tonne vehicle on a road that’s steered by one human being with another human being coming at them in the opposite direction.

My belief is our kids, my kids, will say: “Dad, what was it like to drive on the road when you could have killed someone?” Because that’s bizarre to them. It’s like an Australian believing you should own a gun. To an Australian, it seems weird that anybody should want to own a gun, unless you’re a farmer…

But, I think the average consumer in Australia would think it’s bizarre. You only go to shoot a gun at a shooting range. [In the future], you will only go to drive a car at a driving range.

Our lives will be so much richer, more productive, and healthier, as we solve more and more of these problems, and that’s a good thing.

BI: You have talked before about maybe adding another food category, beyond pizza, to the business. Is there anything further you can say there?

DM: All I believe is that we are looking at something that will be US-based. We’re looking at longer term, over the next three to five years. The US market is one of the biggest food markets on the planet. Buying a brand that we can take global, back into our business.

It will be in a similar format, similar capex models, similar return on investment to what Domino’s is. So we’ll end up with a dual brand. Domino’s, and this other brand, and we will – I hate saying this, but I still haven’t got a better word – we will digitize the other business to be leaders. What we’re leveraging at the backend, all this digitization we’re doing from, not just the consumer and robotics end, but even the way our shop operates, is materially more productive than the average QSR [quick-service restaurant] business.

The rest of my lifetime, if shareholders still want me here, sometime over the next 25 to 35 years, we will be just rolling two brands out around the world.

BI: It’s not halal snack packs?

DM: Who knows! I wouldn’t like to speak like that, because we’re not locked. We’re open to what the market wants, and how we can digitize another industry.

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