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This family is about more than pizza

Mike Ilitch is a visionary who turned a strip mall pizzeria into a family-run business that owns sports teams, a casino and a historic theater.

Associated Press
Published December 29, 2005

DETROIT - In the 46 years since Mike Ilitch opened Little Caesars Pizza Treat in a suburban strip mall, he and his family have turned that first restaurant into a national pizza chain, acquired two professional sports teams and built a huge entertainment complex in downtown Detroit. Last year, his companies took in more than $1-billion in revenue.

Now 76, Ilitch says he is counting on his children to keep the businesses in the family and build on his success.

"I've always told them - people in the family - I think they can make it much bigger and much better because we have a wonderful foundation," Ilitch said. "I think there's enough smarts going around and I think we've got a strong, strong nucleus."

The son of Macedonian immigrants, Mike Ilitch was born in Detroit and played baseball in the minor leagues. A knee injury dashed his hopes of reaching the majors, and he became a door-to-door salesman before he and his wife opened their restaurant in Garden City.

Little Caesars Enterprises Inc. grew into a leader in the pizza business, finding its niche in low-priced carryout. Ilitch didn't stop at pizza though. Today he and his wife own hockey's Detroit Red Wings, baseball's Detroit Tigers, a major theater and a casino and food distribution and manufacturing businesses.

Friends and associates often describe Mike Ilitch as an idea generator and salesman, and his wife, Marian, as the financial brains. That portrayal has some truth to it, said Christopher Ilitch, one of the couple's seven children and chief executive of Ilitch Holdings Inc.

"He definitely tends to be more the sales, marketing, idea guy," the younger Ilitch said. "He's not afraid to make the big decisions."

David Brandon, chief executive of competitor Domino's Pizza Inc., credited the Ilitches with being pioneers in carryout, one of the industry's three main platforms along with delivery and table service.

But as the family branched out, their pizza business has not kept pace, Brandon said this year. Little Caesars has shrunk by more than 2,000 stores since the early 1990s and has gone from being the No. 3 chain to No. 4 - behind Pizza Hut, Domino's and Papa John's.

Christopher Ilitch said the company made a few missteps during a period of aggressive growth during the 1980s, including skimping on ingredients and letting decor get outdated at some locations. He said the company has since decided to remodel its stores and has returned to its original 1959 recipe.

Mike Ilitch said Little Caesars - which, as a private company, rarely releases hard numbers about its operations - has about 2,500 stores. He said the chain is one area he hopes the next generation of Ilitches will target for growth, and estimates the market could sustain as many as 7,000 stores.

But in his hometown, Ilitch is better known for the Red Wings and Tigers than he is for pizza.

The hockey franchise, which Ilitch acquired in 1982, has been one of his most stunning successes. The team once derided as the "Dead Wings" has won three Stanley Cups under him.

Ilitch bought the Detroit Tigers in 1992. He can point to some achievements as an owner - in particular, building a new home for the team at Comerica Park, which opened in 2000 and this year hosted Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. But the Tigers have logged losing records for 12 of the 13 seasons he has owned them.

Ilitch acknowledged the team is a continuing source of consternation. Noting it took him 15 years before the Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup since 1955, he said: "I'm running out of time with the Tigers - we're in our 13th year."

"If we hit the 15-year mark, I'll be very concerned," he added.

Finding the right people to run his businesses has been key to his success in other areas, Ilitch said. His role has been to provide vision, he said, adding that he is "not a real detail guy."

"Where I think my strength comes in is trying to show more vision, stay ahead of the competition and try to project where you're going to be within the next five years," he said.

The Ilitch family has extensive real estate holdings in downtown Detroit, including the historic Fox Theatre, which the Ilitches have restored and turned into one of the region's premiere venues. But while the Fox restoration has brought widespread praise, some preservationists criticize the Ilitches for failing to redevelop several other neglected landmarks they own.

This year, the family became a major player in the gambling industry when Marian Ilitch bought out her partners in the MotorCity Casino. One of three Detroit casinos, MotorCity takes in more than $400-million in revenue a year.

Among other holdings are a food distribution company established to supply Little Caesars franchises and a manufacturer of frozen pizza and cookie dough.

"What I like is our spread. You know, we're in manufacturing, we're in entertainment, we're in sports, we're in food," said Mike Ilitch, whose office atop the Fox Theatre complex is packed with memorabilia and photographs, including a black-and-white one of the first Little Caesars. "Did I say casinos?"


TITLE: Chairman, Ilitch Holdings

AGE: 76 (Born July 20, 1929, in Detroit)

HOME: Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

PIZZA: Opened Little Caesars Pizza Treat on May 8, 1959, in Garden City, Mich. Today Little Caesars has 2,500 locations.

BASEBALL: Played in the Detroit Tigers farm system; career ended by knee injury. Bought the Tigers in 1992.

HOCKEY: Bought the Detroit Red Wings, then known as the "Dead Wings," in 1982. Since then, Red Wings have won Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2004.

FAMILY: Married to Marian; seven children.

[Last modified December 29, 2005, 01:22:58]

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