Mike Ilitch, who grew a strip-mall pizza joint into a national chain and brought four Stanley Cup championships to Detroit, passed away today. He was 87.
Ilitch was a sports fan from the beginning, playing shortstop at Detroit’s Cooley High School before signing a contract with the hometown Detroit Tigers in 1951. After leaving pro baseball he launched Little Caesars Pizza in 1959 and expanded it into a nationwide leader. That provided him the basis to buy the Red Wings in 1982 and the Detroit Tigers in 1992.
“My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family,” said Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc., in a statement released by the company.
“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. Together my family and the company celebrate the tremendous man he was, and we will continue to work hard to uphold his remarkable legacy. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to work with him to nurture and grow our businesses, but mostly, I’m grateful to have called him my Dad, and I know my siblings feel the same.”
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.”
Today the Ilitch companies employ 23,000 full-time and part-time colleagues worldwide and posted revenues of $3.4 billion in 2016. The Ilitch companies include: Ilitch Holdings, Little Caesars Pizza, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Little Caesars Pizza Kits Fundraising Program and Champion Foods.
Mike 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 benefited greatly from his presence and lured him with public funds.
Besides owning the Red Wings and the Tigers, Ilitch will also be remembered as a a businessman committed to downtown Detroit. His firm brought the Fox Theatre back to its former glory after an extensive renovation, and he led the construction of Comerica Park and Little Caesars Arena, opening later this year as the home of the Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons (NBA).
Image courtesy Ilitch Holdings.