Howes: Ilitch CEO leads using ‘secrets to the sauce’

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The new top guy at Ilitch Holdings Inc. isn’t new.

The youngest son of Mike and Marian Ilitch holds a University of Michigan business degree, but the education of Christopher Ilitch, 51, spans the nearly 30 years he’s worked alongside his parents inside the pizza and entertainment empire they built. Along the way, Chris, CEO of the family company since 2004, learned a few things.

Think big. Be prepared and thorough. Be creative yet humble. Treat people well even as you demand accountability and, yes, performance — be it in the batters box at Comerica Park or the latest quarterly sales report from Little Caesar Enterprises Inc., the multinational pizza company founded in 1959. And do things right.

“We’ve been very focused to make sure we get it just right,” Chris Ilitch told WJR’s Frank Beckmann during the 2014 groundbreaking for the Ilitch family’s District Detroit development. In an update a year later: “And we take it very seriously to make sure we get it just right, we get it perfect.”

The death of Mike Ilitch last week at age 87 unambiguously thrusts his son, Chris, into a role his father built on a foundation of pizza. Those pies enabled his parents to acquire the Red Wings in 1982 and the Tigers a decade later; helped craft an entertainment business; and fueled a development push reshaping the tracts connecting downtown to Midtown.

It’s all Chris’ game now. Altogether the family of businesses accounts for roughly $3.3 billion in annual revenue, employs 21,000 and possesses some of this town’s most hallowed brands — the Red Wings, the Tigers, the Fox Theatre and Little Caesars.

True, he’s been CEO since 2004. That’s when his sister, Denise, resigned as co-president and his parents elevated him to chief executive. Last May, Mike and Marian Ilitch detailed a succession plan that confirmed Chris as CEO, saying the companies and its two big-league franchises would remain “100 percent family-owned.”

Still, the passing of the patriarch and the fact that Marian Ilitch, by Chris’ own telling in a WJR radio interview three years ago, spends less time in the office means generational change is nearly complete atop the Ilitch empire.

“I have great respect for Chris,” says Patrick Doyle, CEO of Ann Arbor-based Domino’s Pizza Inc. “He’s a very thoughtful, focused leader. They’ve performed well in the pizza business over the past decade or so.”

That’s high praise coming from an industry archrival. It echoes sentiment frequently heard among the business and civic leaders who’ve watched Chris Ilitch mature into a purposeful, respected business leader.

A spokesman declined an interview request for Chris Ilitch. And people who have worked closely with Chris over the years decline to speak on the record about his record and style as CEO, citing deference to the family.

But the associates nonetheless describe a leader who is thoughtful, deliberate, “very diligent” and “very calculated.” One former executive described a CEO who shared his father Mike Ilitch’s knack for marketing, as well as someone who didn’t want to “jump to easy answers.”

They say Chris Ilitch frequently talks about “our founders” and his responsibility to help them succeed. He intuited a sense of their management style, which he morphed into a speech he calls “Secrets to the Sauce” — hard work and perseverance, humility and risk-taking.

Listen to interviews over the years, and what emerges is the unmistakable portrait of a dutiful son. He exudes deep respect for the companies his parents shaped from a single pizza storefront in Garden City, for a winning, family-centric culture that will be challenged as the generation passes because that’s life.

Insiders describe Chris as a CEO who’s been “the guy” inside the company for at least the past five years, more so as the father’s health declined and Chris began to accumulate more senior-level hires. Only major calls at the Wings or the Tigers were reserved for Mr. I, and now those general managers will be reporting to the son.

That’s a test for any CEO.

Managing talent matters

Running a company is not easy. Hiring good people and letting them do their jobs isn’t easy, either, which is why micro-managing is no way to succeed — or to retain talent, because talent has options.

Mike Ilitch didn’t have that problem. Whatever his shortcomings, hiring smart and letting folks do what they do didn’t appear to be two of them. In the hothouse of major league sports, word gets around. And owners who can’t retain GMs and can’t build winners get reputations, fast, and not the good kind.

Mr. I was not one of those owners. And people who’ve watched Chris grow into his role as CEO say the son has learned from the father: look for good fits to the family-influenced corporate culture, hire good people, communicate and let them work.

An organization like Ilitch Holdings doesn’t keep Ken Holland, GM of one of the NHL’s most winning franchises over the past 25 years, by meddling. It didn’t keep Dave Dombrowski at the Tigers during a 13-year run that included two World Series appearances by meddling.

It doesn’t keep Dave Scrivano atop Little Caesars Pizza by meddling. And wooing former Palace Sports & Entertainment CEO Tom Wilson to the Ilitch organization reveals a chief executive who is unafraid to recruit someone with his own stature. Meddling it’s not.

It’s not practical, either. How can a CEO meddle when his holdings include two big-league teams, a multinational pizza company, a casino, an entertainment company, a development company, a food-service distribution company, a pizza fundraising company and a charitable foundation?

He can’t, and smart CEOs don’t even try.

Execution is Job One

When Chris Ilitch became chairman of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau in 2009, he had an idea: persuade the region’s companies to hold their annual meetings in Detroit.

“Let’s Meet in The D” was the result, a convention tag line whose time was just about right for a region climbing out of a nasty recession that pushed two of Detroit’s three automakers into the ignominy of bankruptcy. It worked.

“He held people accountable,” says Larry Alexander, CEO of the convention and visitors bureau. “Chris is extremely thorough, and that drives quality decisions. He’s very quiet. He doesn’t stomp or hit his fist on the table. With his presence, you gotta think, you’ve got to be on your game.”

Chris Ilitch impresses as a worker, not a publicity hound given to grand pronouncements and fits on social media. He’s generally guarded with media, an easier stance to take when the companies you run are privately held and family-owned.

“He doesn’t seek the limelight,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, where Ilitch serves on the executive committee. “And I think that really helps his effectiveness. He’s very well liked in the business community.”

The District Detroit development rising above Woodward at I-75 helps. The $1.2 billion project, anchored by the new Little Caesars Arena for the Red Wings and possibly the Pistons, carries the indelible stamp of Chris Ilitch — even if it is backed by his parents’ fortune.

He’s played key roles in its conception, evolution and, most importantly, its execution. Because that’s what the new boss has been doing for years at the companies his parents founded: executing a vision born of native Detroiters done good.

Now it’s his turn.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.