Son Christopher rises to fill Ilitch’s big shoes

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Christopher Ilitch’s ascension within the company founded by his parents has been highlighted in the wake of his father’s passing, but it’s a rise that has been underway for more than a decade.

Ilitch Holdings Inc., with interests that include the Little Caesars Pizza empire, professional sports teams and entertainment venues, released statements in May detailing plans for succession once founders Mike and Marian Ilitch stepped away. Those plans appeared prescient with Mike Ilitch’s death Friday at age 87.

The succession plan announced in May centered on a desire for Ilitch Holdings to remain “100 percent Ilitch-family owned.” And it affirmed Christopher Ilitch as the successor to his parents’ roles.

“We’ve worked a lifetime to build these businesses, and we’re pleased that they will remain in our family,” Marian Ilitch said at the time. “As our health is relatively good, we thought that disclosing our plans now would help provide continued stability.”

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Under the plan announced in May, Mike Ilitch was to remain the ultimate authority over the Red Wings and Tigers. Marian Ilitch would retain control of the MotorCity Casino Hotel.

Day-to-day operation of the company’s holdings fell to Christopher, but those are responsibilities he’s been handling for more than a dozen years. He took over as head of Ilitch Holdings Inc. in 2004, a position that put him at the highest level of decision-making. Combined, those ventures employ 23,000 full-time and part-time workers. And in 2016, the company generated $3.4 billion in revenue.

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In May, Christopher Ilitch released a statement: “I am fortunate and privileged to work with my mother and father, two hard-working, committed and passionate people who have done so much for our companies our employees and our communities.”

Christopher Ilitch enjoys a high level of respect among other CEOs in the business community, a sentiment echoed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

“Chris is a real leader and is more than prepared to lead the Ilitch organization,” Duggan said in an emailed statement Monday. “Our dealings with Chris since he started taking on a more visible role have been positive and productive. We look forward to a good working relationship going forward.”

To the public, however, Christopher Ilitch is a lesser-known commodity than his parents, raising questions about how the company will operate under his leadership.

Despite his role as CEO of Ilitch Holdings, the splashiest headlines out of the family — typically linked with personnel moves for the Tigers or Red Wings — almost always involved his father. Mike Ilitch’s willingness to open the checkbook to help bring a championship title to Detroit made him a favorite of the fans.

It is unclear how or if his son will impact the operation of either storied franchise. A spokesperson for Ilitch Holdings directed The Detroit News to a news release announcing the succession plan last year.

In recent years, much of the company’s focus has been on transforming the area between Detroit’s downtown and Midtown into a sports and entertainment hub. District Detroit will encompass 50 blocks and include the $733 million Little Caesars Arena, home later this year to the Red Wings and the Pistons. At nearly every stage of its development, Christopher Ilitch has been front and center.

He stood next to Kid Rock last month as the star was announced as headliner for the arena’s opening in September. In November, he was onstage with Pistons owner Tom Gores to announce the team would be returning to Detroit for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Christopher Ilitch is a Michigan alum, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration while in Ann Arbor. He is the chairman of Ilitch Charities, and sits on the boards of the Detroit Economic Club and Business Leaders for Michigan.

On Sunday, the Detroit Regional Chamber issued a statement looking forward, saying: “While Mike Ilitch was a one of kind leader who cannot be replaced, we are comforted that his family continues his legacy.”

For all that is unknown about Christopher Ilitch, it is clear he reveres what his parents have built and the way they have gone about building it. In a 2009 interview with WJR’s Frank Beckmann, he spoke about his parents’ approach — what he called “the secrets to the sauce” in creating an empire from the ground up. He focused on aspects that included:

■Big thinking: “My father, when he was in the minor leagues and his career was winding down... he used to tell his teammates as he went around to little Podunk minor-league towns... ‘If this baseball doesn’t work out, I’m going to open a pizza shop in every town across the United States of America.’ And back then, pizza was a fad. It was only being eaten by teenagers. His buddies thought he was nuts.”

■Creativity and innovation: “They constantly had the ability to dream up very creative ways to gain an edge and innovate to advance their business.”

■Courage and risk-taking: “Any great entrepreneur, you have to have the courage to take a risk and they’ve done that over and over again. Whether it was investing their life savings in Little Caesars, buying the Red Wings at the worst cycle for that team, or even buying the Tigers with a depleted talent roster at that point...”

■Commitment and perseverance: “2003 really comes to mind, when the Tigers were the worst team in Major League Baseball – I’ve never seen my father dig his heels in more than at that point... Sure enough, three years later, they were in the World Series.”

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