Mike Ilitch built empire from humble beginnings
It all started with pizza.
From a single storefront in a strip mall, Mike Ilitch built a diverse business empire that would become synonymous with Detroit.
The self-made billionaire founder of the Little Caesars chain influenced everything from development to sports, casinos to concerts, restaurants to food distribution.
The son of immigrants turned a single pizzeria into a $3.4 billion business, invested in downtown Detroit long before anyone else, and turned the Tigers and Red Wings into perennial contenders.
Ilitch died Friday at a local hospital, his family said a statement. He was 87.
“My father was a once-in-a-generation enterpreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family,” his son, Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., said in a statement. “He made such a positive impact in the world of sports, in business and in the community, and we will remember him for his unwavering commitment to his employees, his passion for Detroit, his generosity to others and his devotion to his family and friends.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder called Ilitch a “powerhouse” whose contributions are felt throughout the state.
“We are a better state today because of the positive differences he made in our communities,” Snyder said in a statement. “He was a strong businessman, an innovative leader, and a loving family man. He was passionate about the city of Detroit and served a critical role in the city’s comeback, investing time, effort, and resources to help craft a better vision for Detroit.”
Ilitch’s single pizzeria in Garden City grew to 2,500 stores on four continents, making Little Caesars one of the biggest pizza chains in the world, with $3.4 billion in U.S. revenue.
Starting with $10,000 in savings, Ilitch and his wife Marian eventually became worth $5.4 billion, according to Forbes. They were No. 88 on the magazine’s list of 400 richest Americans in 2015.
At a time few businesses would come to Detroit, Ilitch resurrected a dying inner-city neighborhood by moving his corporate offices there in 1988, renovating the historic Fox Theatre, building Comerica Park across the street and, in fall, will add Little Caesars Arena.
“If we didn’t have all of that, what would Detroit have?” asked Emmett Moten, former director of economic development for the city. “If not for Mike Ilitch, there may not be a Detroit.”
To the gratitude of this sports-crazed region, Ilitch resuscitated the city’s moribund baseball and hockey teams, turning the city into Hockeytown with four Stanley Cups.
The Tigers came close twice, reaching the World Series in 2006 and 2012, but lost both times, one of his biggest regrets.
‘Self-made in every way’
He amassed his fortune with guile, pluck and hard work, said associates. He wasn’t afraid to take a chance on a business, team or city that, like him, was a long shot.
The Detroit native dreamed big but always kept a flinty eye on the bottom line, keeping expenses to a minimum. He was a hard-nosed negotiator always looking for bargains.
Armed with just a high school diploma, he was a born businessman whose innovations in the fast-food industry were widely copied by competitors.
“He’s self-made in every way,” said Len Perna, a former Ilitch lieutenant who now is president of a sports marketing firm in New Jersey. “There are no other Mike Ilitches. He’s the only one and there will never be another.”
Where others saw blight and despair in Detroit in 1987, Ilitch envisioned a thriving entertainment district.
He bought the historic Fox Theatre, a onetime gem that had fallen into disrepair.
He restored the hand-stenciled walls, ornate golf leafing and jeweled figures of Asiatic gods.
“Many people thought we were crazy,” said Ilitch’s son, Christopher. “The theater had been closed for thirteen years and most businesses were leaving the city.”
The development spread over six square blocks, opening a comedy club, Hockeytown Café and other restaurants.
But the jewel, the anchor, of this entertainment district that only Ilitch had envisioned would be a new baseball stadium, followed by a neighborhood football field. Comerica Park opened in 2000 and Ford Field two years later.
His Olympia Entertainment plans to open the Little Caesars Arena as part of a bold plan to transform 45 blocks just north of downtown.
The $627 million arena will center “The District Detroit,” which will includes homes, stores and businesses.
“It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” Ilitch said in 2011. “It’s going to happen.”
Wayne State University will eventually open the Mike Ilitch School of Business near the new arena.
The Ilitches are donating the land and $35 million to build the school and a $5 million endowment.
Ilitch’s public persona was somber and direct. He had little appetite for the limelight or for projecting an image he thought people wanted to see.
During public appearances, which were infrequent, he rarely smiled and spoke bluntly. What you saw was what you got.
But acquaintances said he was different in private, where he was more comfortable.
Despite all his money, he was still down to earth, never changing from the small pizzeria owner with flour on his shoes, they said.
“Mike Ilitch is the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with,” said David Brophy, associate professor of finance at the University of Michigan. “Ilitch has never lost his Michigan twang or bar-stool wit.”
Son of immigrants
Michael “Mike” Ilitch was born on the east side of Detroit three months before the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. His parents, Sotir and Sultana Ilitch, were Macedonian immigrants with Sotir working as a tool-and-die maker for Chrysler.
After graduating from Cooley High, he played minor league baseball for the Tigers. He wanted $10,000 to re-sign in 1948 but the team offered only $5,000 so he joined the Marines.
After his military hitch, he returned to the minors, bouncing between several teams before giving up on baseball after three years.
He became a door-to-door salesman, peddling aluminum awnings. He was so good at it his partners called him the Hammer because of his ability to nail down deals.
His father arranged a blind date between Ilitch and Marian Bayoff, a Dearborn resident who worked as a Delta Airlines reservation clerk. They married in 1954 and had seven children.
They opened their first pizzeria, Pizza Treat, in 1959. Marian wanted a snazzier name so they changed it to Little Caesar, which was her nickname for him.
She handled the business finances while he did production and marketing.
One day, during those early, struggling years, Marian was surprised when a stranger came to her home.
“I’m here for the couch,” he announced.
Her husband had neglected to tell her that he had sold the furniture to help pay their business bills.
Little Caesars forged a niche in the competitive industry by being the first chain to offer only takeout.
That helped keep costs low, which would become a hallmark of Ilitch’s management style. He had little staff and no delivery expenses.
His first pie cost $2.39.
When the economy slumped after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, he drew business away from competitors by offering steep discounts, which was unheard of at the time.
A national advertising campaign, using wacky humor to tout the chain’s two-for-one deals, would later make Little Caesars synonymous with discount pizza.
One “Pizza Pizza” commercial showed a family so happy about the deal it danced in a conga line, with the family poodle in the rear.
“That put Little Caesars on the map,” said David Scrivano, president of the pizza chain.
Ilitch began franchising the chain in 1962 after getting a tip from a Texas oilman that the best way to make money was to have other people make it for you.
The entire industry rode a wave starting in the ’70s when pizza evolved from a teen snack to a dinner staple.
“I came from zero,” he said during an interview years ago. “It’s hard to believe sometimes. It’s hard to believe that this is yours.”
The Ilitches also started Blueline Foodservice Distribution, which eventually became one of the half-dozen largest food-distribution companies in the country.
Fostered hockey in U.S.
When Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982, they were called the Dead Wings.
They were lifeless on the ice and in the stands, which were empty. They missed the playoffs 12 of the past 14 seasons.
He stocked the team with superstars and promising college players.
The team eventually joined the elite of the National Hockey League, making the playoffs the past 25 seasons, the longest current streak among major sports in North America.
It won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life,” he said after the first championship. “Sometimes I wondered if we’d see it through to the end. But one of my strengths is perseverance.”
Most of Ilitch’s accomplishments are well known but often overlooked is his role in popularizing the playing of hockey in the U.S.
In 1968, when few Americans played in the NHL or the minor leagues, he began sponsoring amateur hockey teams.
Little Caesars AAA Hockey has become a respected organization in the U.S. and Canada, sending 100 players to the NHL.
His induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame recognized his fostering of youth hockey in Metro Detroit. He also is a Hockey Hall of Fame member.
Finally buys Tigers
As for baseball, Ilitch had tried to buy the Tigers in 1983 but was outbid by Tom Monaghan, another local boy who built one of the largest pizza chains in the country, Domino’s.
When Monaghan put the team up for sale nine years later, Ilitch snagged it.
Despite his love of baseball and longtime dream of winning a championship in the sport, he never lost his business sense with the team, said associates.
When negotiating with Monaghan, he struck a hard bargain, buying the team for $82 million. It’s now worth $1.15 billion, according to forbes.com.
“I’ve never seen a man more dedicated to a community than him,” said Dave Dombrowski, former Tigers general manager. “What he’s done for the franchise, for the city, he’s always there to give us whatever we need, whatever we want.”
The Ilitches’ business empire will remain in the family. In May the couple announced Christopher, who already runs the day-to-day operations, would eventually take over their roles.
Their businesses include Champion Foods, Olympia Development and Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program.
Besides his wife and Christopher, Ilitch is survived by six children, Denise, Ron, Michael Jr., Lisa, Atanas and Carole.
The Ilitch family will hold a private funeral service. A public memorial is also being planned, with details to be announced.
Ilitch touched the lives of most people in Metro Detroit. If they ever gambled, ate out or attended a concert or pro game in Detroit, they’ve likely seen his handiwork.
He bet on losers and long shots, downtrodden projects in a downtrodden city, said associates. The projects somehow turned into winners and, along the way, so did Ilitch.
News staff contributed.