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Bringing Something Extra to the Table

Scott Oelkers '84 BA, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
December 12, 2014
The company:
Domino's Pizza

The mission:
International Expansion of
Production Operation and
Delivery

It’s an early afternoon in February, and the students in a Folwell Hall classroom are listening to Scott Oelkers talk about pizza. Oelkers does not look like Elvis Presley—or James Bond or a Chinese DJ, for that matter. But he insists he’s the one impersonating these characters in the Chinese television commercials he’s showing as part of the presentation he calls, Why a Double Major?

It’s not that Oelkers thinks a double major will help anyone pass for a rock star. He does say, though, that a dual degree is a smart move in a world where college graduates need “to bring something extra to the party” in their job searches. Oelkers is a walking example: His majors in Chinese and economics helped launch a career that has culminated in his current position as the CEO of Domino’s Pizza Japan.

Those commercials he’s showing are over-the-top goofy. They were also wildly successful when they appeared in the mid-1990s, helping to transform the Domino’s name in Taiwan from barely recognized to highly familiar. It’s the stuff of executive dreams, but it required more than a creative advertising strategy. It depended on Oelkers, whose linguistic expertise and cultural familiarity could tap into the puns and homonyms that create Chinese humor.

Oelkers’ 1960s childhood in a blue-collar neighborhood of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota was unlikely seed ground for a globe-spanning career, although his high-school job as a pizza-delivery driver could be seen as foreshadowing. Then, when he was 19, he began a two-year Mormon missionary trip to Taiwan. There, he learned to love the language and the people so much that majoring in Chinese was an easy choice when he returned to Minnesota for his undergraduate studies. The inspiration to add economics to the mix came from the renowned economist Walter Heller.

“I started going to Walter Heller’s
Macro 101 lectures,” says
Oelkers. “It was really amazing
to have a guy of that caliber
teaching a class at that level.
That’s where it started.”

“I started going to Walter Heller’s Macro 101 lectures,” says Oelkers. “It was really amazing to have a guy of that caliber teaching a class at that level. That’s where it started.”

Where it led was to the other side of the globe. Oelkers had earned an MBA and paid his entry-level-job dues when he got a job as a buyer for Domino’s Pizza International. With 120 stores in six countries, Domino’s aimed to expand its international market in a big way. Indeed it did. Today, Domino’s boasts 5,000 stores in 65 countries and Scott Oelkers is inseparable from that story. He went on to run the Domino’s store operation in Asia, where he sold a franchise to a private equity firm that in 1992 asked him to run its entire southeast Asia operation. In his 10 years at the Taiwan headquarters, Oelkers helped turn Domino’s into a powerhouse whose name recognition and store numbers both increased exponentially.

“I wish I could say it was a master-minded, very well-conceived plot,” he says of his career, “but it really wasn’t. It’s just been a really fun ride.”

He’s not the kind of entrepreneur who has risked starting a company from scratch, he says, but adds that intra-company expansion requires the same skills. “It’s really all about growth,” he says. “You have to build the business while helping investors understand your vision.”

Oelkers’ career advice is simple. “Find a part of the business world you love,” he says, “and have a second skill.” He doesn’t recommend celebrity impersonation as this second skill. On the other hand, if his career is any indication, it probably wouldn’t hurt.

What he says:

“It’s not going to be enough just to know a second language; you have to have some other skill. And you have to develop that as an undergraduate in order to prepare yourself for opportunities. It’s really about keeping doors open.”

“I might be biased because it’s my background. But if I look at two resumes with MBAs, the one with a liberal arts background has a leg up. I believe this person is going to be more well-rounded.’”

“I spend a lot of time in the stores. I saw every store in Japan in my first 12 months. Successful entrepreneurs are like that. They love the nuts and bolts of the business. That’s really important.”