Mike Ilitch rose from a humble west-side neighborhood to assemble a food, sports and entertainment empire that enabled him to return the Stanley Cup to Hockeytown, build both a new arena and a ballpark with a Ferris wheel, restore the grandeur of downtown’s iconic Fox Theatre and introduce metro Detroit to the concepts of “pizza-pizza” and an $8 cup of beer.
From his first Little Caesars outlet in Garden City strip mall in 1959 — where a pizza cost $2.39 — Ilitch, aided at every step by Marian, his wife of 61 years, became a major metro Detroit personality and a key figure in the revival of downtown Detroit. In addition to founding the Little Caesars pizza chain, he owned the Red Wings, Tigers and the Fox Theatre, and operated city-owned Joe Louis, Cobo, and Little Caesars arenas, among other smaller businesses, teams and restaurants.
Ilitch, one of the most famous Detroiters of his time, has died at the age of 87.
Success brought Ilitch and his family fabulous wealth. The 2016 Forbes magazine compilation of the 400 richest Americans listed Mike and Marian Ilitch at No. 88 with a net worth of $5.4 billion. In addition, Marian Ilitch is the sole owner of the Motor City Casino.
But perhaps more important to Ilitch were a different set of statistics: four Stanley Cup championships for his Red Wings, two trips to the World Series for his Detroit Tigers, and a vast number of trophies for team and individual player achievements.
Ilitch, whose first job was cleaning vehicles in a used-car lot, frequently expressed astonishment at the way his life seemed to imitate the plot of a Horatio Alger tale.
“At times, it’s kind of like I’m still dreaming,” Ilitch said in 1984.
In May 2009, speaking to Free Press columnist Tom Walsh about Little Caesars’ 50th anniversary, Ilitch said: “You know, we didn’t plan this. It just happened over the years, where there was an opportunity and we relied on our instincts and went ahead with it.”
Ilitch’s success made him one of the best known people in Michigan. But he often squirmed in the limelight and appeared uneasy even in gentle interviews. He was intense and reserved. He kept his businesses private, and he could bristle when asked about internal matters, such as his financial relationship with the city of Detroit, which benefitted greatly from his presence and lured him with public funds.
Critics also could be harsh, especially when the Wings or Tiger struggled. Even though Ilitch’s renovation of the Fox Theatre was one of the golden moments of historical preservation in Detroit, his stewardship of other old downtown buildings sometimes came under fire.
Unlike most people who run large businesses, Ilitch did not have a college degree. A close associate, Charlie Jones, once spoke admiringly of Ilitch as having a lot of Detroit street smarts.
The son of Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch grew up on Chalfonte, near Fenkell and Livernois. After graduating from Cooley High School, where he ran track and played baseball, he served four years in the Marines, then signed a minor-league contract with the Tigers. A shortstop, Ilitch argued constantly with his father, Sotir, a machine maintenance man at Chrysler Corp., about the value of a baseball career, but he failed to make the big leagues.
While traveling in the minors, though, Ilitch became interested in a postwar food fad called pizza pie, and returned home one winter to run a pizza operation from the unused kitchen in the back of Haig’s, a west side bar. It was a success.
Ilitch quit baseball and became a door-to-door salesman who pitched awnings, pots, pans and china, earning enough money to open his first Little Caesars, at Cherry Hill and Venoy in Garden City. Soon, the Ilitches were opening Little Caesars outlets across the metro area and beyond. The chain became known for quirky TV ads and the “Pizza! Pizza!” two-for-one deals. By the early 1990s, the company called itself the “world’s largest carry-out pizza chain,” with more than 4,300 outlets.
As the business grew, Ilitch began sponsoring youth hockey and adult softball, but dreamed of bigger things. In 1982, he bought the Red Wings. It was a bargain: Ilitch didn’t put up a penny of the $8 million price. Instead, he gave longtime owner Bruce Norris a $1 million down payment from season ticket sales collected after the agreement was signed.
Rebuilding the woebegone Wings took several years. Ilitch spent millions and was patient as General Manager Jimmy Devellano and Jim Lites, Ilitch’s former son-in-law, built through the draft and by sneaking players out of communist countries.
By the late 1980s, the Wings had become an interesting team; by the mid-1990s they had become a great team, and today they remain one of the most successful franchises in professional sports, having won four Stanley Cup championships since 1997 and through early 2016 had made the post-season playoffs an astonishing 25 years in a row.
In the late 1980s, Ilitch cemented his role as a godfather of downtown Detroit when he and Marian bought and refurbished the spectacular Fox Theatre and defied the long history of Detroit businesses moving to suburbia by moving their headquarters from Farmington Hills into the 10-story building that contains the Fox. For years, their entertainment arm, Olympia Entertainment, has kept the theater one of the country’s best-grossing venues. Another arm, Olympia Development, built the new hockey arena and other projects.
The new Little Caesars Arena just north of downtown proved controversial at its inception, with about half the cost borne by taxpayers yet the Ilitches controlling the revenues including parking and concessions. But the family softened the criticism of the deal somewhat by pledging to build at least $200 million worth of spin-off developments, and by pledging tens of millions of dollars to build Wayne State University’s new Mike Ilitch School of Business just north of the arena and a new Little Caesars headquarters expansion near the Fox.
Ilitch frequently admitted he always had wanted to own the Detroit Tigers, and he got his chance in 1992, when he bought the storied franchise from Dominos pizzafounder Tom Monaghan. Once he had the team, Ilitch fought hard through complicated political and financial issues for a new stadium. The result was Comerica Park, with such amenities as a centerfield fountain, a carousel and Ferris wheel.
Opening in 2000, Comerica cost at least $361 million; the public bore 37 percent, which was less than taxpayers paid for ballparks in some cities.
On the field, the Tigers were mostly terrible during Ilitch’s first decade as owner. Starting in 1994, they recorded 12 losing seasons, but in 2006 the Tigers made it to the World Series, where they lost to the Cardinals. They made a second trip to the fall classic in 2012 but were swept by the San Francisco Giants.
Over the years, the heart of the empire — the pizza business — rose and fell. By 2016, there were some 4,000 outlets in all 50 states and 17 international markets.
Ilitch Holdings, the umbrella entity the family established to oversee its sprawling network, said the family’s multiple companies collectively employ over 22,000 full-time and part-time employees worldwide and have 371 million customer interactions annually. In 2015, the organization’s total combined revenue was $3.3 billion.
Observers credited Mike Ilitch’s drive, brains and vision for his success. He had a simple reason for his achievements.
“We believed in the pizza,” Ilitch once said.