What is the measure of a story? Is it the distance scaled between the point at which it begins and the point at which it ends? If that were the case, one might get the impression that Mary Lynne Carraway’s life has been a straight line connecting these two points, when nothing could be further from the truth. In truth, the events that separate the four-year-old waitress drawing her customers’ orders in crayon from the woman who won the Circle of Excellence Award as one of Washington, D.C.’s top ten CEOs in 2010 dip even as they soar. They show us, more than any made-up fairy tale or fabricated anecdote could, how being true to one’s self and one’s convictions can weave the greatest trials into the greatest triumphs. “If you try to live your life in accordance with the principles you feel to be true in your soul, I really believe that you’ll find your place and everything you need,” Mary Lynne describes. “Your story is unique to only you, and you can become anything you want to be. Things you thought would stop you in your tracks are forgivable and surmountable, so don’t give up.”
With the moral of the story in mind, let us flip back to a different beginning, a different ending. Twenty-five years ago, a young man named Frank Meeks made the move from Mississippi to Washington, D.C. to attend law school. Strapped for cash, he got a job delivering pizzas for extra money but soon realized how valuable the business was and instead launched his own Dominos Pizza franchise. Everyone said the product wouldn’t catch on in D.C., but Frank was soon able to add a couple more stores to his repertoire. It wasn’t until Frank’s story intersected with David Carraway’s, however, that things really changed.
David was a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi who had come to Washington to work on a political campaign. Frank and David had been fraternity brothers, and after reconnecting at a fraternity fundraising event in DC, Frank persuaded him to join his team. David then worked through the MIT Manager-In-Training Program and soon became manager of his own store before vaulting into the position of Vice President. Together, Frank and David built Domino’s Team Washington to sixty stores and over 1,400 employees, making them among the most successful franchisees in Domino’s history.
Enter Mary Lynne, a young woman raised in rural Pennsylvania with a past that was just as interesting as her future promised to be. The youngest of seven children, she sensed the true measure of loss at the age of two when the family’s house burned down along with all of their possessions. This devastation was further compounded several months later when one of her brothers was killed in a car accident. Clinging to the restaurant they had owned and operated for seventeen years, Mary Lynne’s parents had a tenacity and perseverance rarely cultivated in today’s generation. “They are people of substance, truly loyal to their cause,” Mary Lynne reflects now.
“I was raised in the back room of that restaurant,” she says, “coloring during the rush times and then coming out to help when the atmosphere was more laid back.” Though she would do dishes, burn garbage, sweep, and mop, her favorite job was packing together the hamburger patties, and she remembers fondly how the sense of necessity drew her family together under the banner of honest hard work for the good of the whole. “We all worked together, and it was the greatest gift my parents could have given us,” she emphasizes now.
After her family sold their restaurant when Mary Lynne was fifteen, she continued working for the new owners for a time until she got a job as hostess at a Holiday Inn thirty miles away in Indiana. This was followed by a modeling job on the weekends as she finished up her high school career. Opportunities in the fashion industry began unfolding for the young girl, and after much consideration, she decided to seize the day and leave Brigham Young University after her freshman year to pursue them in Chicago.
It was around this time that Mary Lynne flew out to Washington, DC to join her parents on a trip when she was stricken with appendicitis, forcing her to put her modeling career on hold and head in another direction. Resolving to stay in the area, she got a job as the manager of a Marriot Hotel and moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland.
A strong believer in the Mormon faith, she later signed up for a mission trip and was in the midst of her preparations when she met David Carraway. “Getting married and having children was always a focal goal of mine,” she explains, tracing this ambition back to the tremendous love and support she enjoyed as a child from her own family. A non-Mormon, David didn’t fit into the mold she had always imagined for herself. Instead, he inspired Mary Lynne to love outside the lines of her own expectations.
Free to move around and experience living in D.C., New York, Paris, and Chicago, the young couple enjoyed happiness and prosperity save for one setback: their inability to have the children they had always dreamed of. They adopted their first daughter, Molly, and then learned of a European doctor who had developed a brand new fertility treatment with great promise. Through a fortuitous series of events, Mary Lynne was able to be among the first U.S. patients to undergo the procedure, resulting in the miracle of her first son, Carson. The blessing was replicated over the following years with the births of Brandon and then Hannah, filling the Carraway house with the abundant love it had yearned for so dearly.
“In a way, I think many of our greatest trials are uniquely made for us to serve as real tests,” she reflects. “Tests of faith, tests of trying to understand it all. And even though it’s hard, it always comes back to what I know is true and good about this life and beyond this life.” While her story thus far had certainly helped to outline this ideology, it wasn’t until several years later that it was leant more breadth and conviction when Frank Meeks fell gravely ill and David was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly afterward. Dominos lost a wonderful friend and franchisee when Frank then passed away, but with his own cancer in remission, David concentrated his energy on helping Mary Lynne learn the ropes of Team Washington. The family hoped for the best but faced the odds realistically, striving to equip Mary Lynne with the tools she would need to fill the shoes of her mentor and husband if necessary. “It’s a mental strength you have to gain through your life,” she says now, reflecting on the experience. “It’s holding on and enduring—not just enduring, but enduring well.”
Despite these proactive strides, Mary Lynne still found herself faced with an advanced-level agility course when David took a tragic turn for the worse. Because Dominos was a comparatively young company, the majority of its leadership was still coming of age, and the sudden loss of such a pivotal figure presented challenges that the young corporation was not prepared to face. Constrained by a web of established policies and practices, Mary Lynne had to assume management of a store and work her way through the ranks, fervently supplementing her work with accelerated accounting classes and the Manager-in-Training Program David had taken. What’s more, Frank and David had been awarded seats in Domino’s Chairman Circle, among the company’s most coveted honors. “For me to step in, a homemaker who had been at home with her children for twenty years, was definitely unprecedented,” Mary Lynne recalls. “It was understandably hard on everybody.” In the end, however, her efforts paid off, and she was officially named President and CEO of Domino’s Team Washington only one week before David passed away.
With four children to support and decent means by which to do so, many people might find the prospect of developing an entirely new range of aptitudes simply out of the question when dealing with the death of a spouse. For Mary Lynne, however, stepping up to the plate her husband had dedicated his life to developing was a no-brainer. “It was a very interesting and trying time, but I always knew I was supposed to do it,” she explains. Through David’s tremendous passion and commitment to the company, Dominos had truly become part of the Carraway family. “I look at these guys that work for us with great admiration,” says Mary Lynne. “David was part of their team, and for many of them, losing him was like losing a brother or a father figure. I knew Frank and David’s deaths would either make us pull together or jump ship.”
Incredibly, this time of devastating transition didn’t drive a single employee from Team Washington’s upper management ranks, and as Mary Lynne sits on the Board of Dominos Pizza Worldwide today, other leaders are constantly asking how they might instill the same culture of family and closeness that has always defined the Washington franchises. “I think we really stand out because of what we’ve been through,” she points out. She also promotes the commitment to balance between work life and family life that David himself always maintained, augmenting his approach with her own presence, which lends a calming and peaceful element to an otherwise competitive and thick-skinned industry. Above all, Mary Lynne understands that her employees are people with good days, bad days, and families of their own. She not only embraces this reality, but celebrates and encourages it, ever attuned to the evolving character and needs of both her employees and of the company as a whole.
This respect and appreciation for the softer side of business is infused in the management style and leadership philosophy Mary Lynne strives to enforce every day throughout Team Washington, Inc. Integrity is paramount throughout its franchises in both workers and managers. Ideals like honesty and respect can be difficult to maintain in an environment that can get heated and intense at times, but Mary Lynne expects nothing less from her employees. “I don’t care how intense it gets. Everyone is to be treated humanely and kindly at all times,” she affirms. “David would want us all to learn to be a little kinder, a little gentler.” For her, leading at Dominos through example is just another avenue through which David’s life and work can be kept alive. “When people get distanced from a situation like the loss of David, they tend to forget the lessons that came along with it,” she observes. “Instead, I focus on remembering and conveying them everyday.”
With so much texture to her story, it comes as no surprise that Mary Lynne’s advice to young entrepreneurs maintains the same element of timeless relevance outside of the workplace as it does within a business setting. “From one moment to the next, a bad day can transform into a great day, so don’t get lost in the moment thinking something is too hard to handle,” she says. “Try to be a positive person in all that you do. Not only is this attitude infectious, but it conveys to others that you have the kind of depth that allows you to learn from your hardships rather than shy away from them.” Indeed, it conveys the will not only to live your own story, but to examine it, coming to know and embrace its characters, themes, and morals. It shows the courage it takes to find your own ending, and in that ending, a new beginning from which to persevere.