In the owner’s suite at Comerica Park in Detroit hangs a photo of a baseball player. The black-and-white shot shows a young man full of confidence, searing with intensity, convinced he’s going to make his mark.
The photo is of Michael Ilitch, taken in the 1950s when he was a prospect at shortstop with dreams of playing for his hometown Detroit Tigers.
That never happened. But the story — and those dreams — didn’t stop there.
“I could run real fast, steal a lot of bases,” Ilitch says today, looking back more than 60 years ago. “I was pretty good in the infield and knew how to get on base. I was an honest ballplayer and, most of all, I was determined.”
Ilitch’s personal scouting report reflects a lot more than just his baseball skills. At the root of it are the qualities he would use as an entrepreneur: diligent, honest and dedicated.
Like in that photo from years ago, confident and intense. And most of all, successful.
Although an injury cut short his baseball career, it didn’t halt his dreams of starting his own business. Raised in Michigan by immigrant parents from Macedonia (his father worked in the auto industry), Ilitch would find his destiny in the pizza he loved to eat as a teenager. His passion for pizza and curiosity over its lack of popularity at the time in much of the U.S. drove him to learn how to make good pies. He later started his own pizza stand
Executive Editor Abraham Madkour and NHL writer Christopher Botta discuss the life and career of Mike Ilitch.
The experience led Ilitch to open the first Little Caesars Pizza in a Detroit suburb in 1959 with $10,000 — the bulk of his personal savings. Three years later, a chance meeting with a Texas oil man on an airplane led to the advice that would change his life. In the next two decades, 300 Little Caesars franchises opened across the country, and Ilitch found himself with enough wealth to get into big league sports at the highest level — as a team owner.
And he was able to do it in the city he loves, Detroit.
Ilitch purchased the Red Wings in 1982 from Bruce Norris for $8 million, reviving an Original Six NHL franchise and leading them to four Stanley Cups — in 1997, ’98, 2002 and 2008 — and 16 division titles.
“He’s the consummate team owner,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “To me, Mike has been a mentor, a counselor and a friend.”
In 1992, at age 63, in large part because of his triumph in bringing the “Dead Wings” back to life both on the ice and at the box office, Ilitch realized that dream of being part of the Detroit Tigers. Only now it was as the team’s owner.
|Ilitch, shown above in the owner’s suite at Comerica Park in 2006, used more than $150 million of his own money to build the ballpark in 2000. The move has paid off more recently with two American League titles in the last eight years.
“He tries to make things happen for us, instead of sitting back, stifling ideas and keeping to a budget,” said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ president, CEO and general manager.
Above all else, Ilitch is universally hailed as the savior of Detroit.
“I don’t know what Detroit would be without Mike Ilitch,” said Emmett Moten, who was the director of economic development for Detroit Mayor ColemanYoung from 1978 to 1988. “You look at the neighborhood now — he kept the Red Wings in the city when there was talk of leaving for the suburbs, and the same for the Tigers. He moved the Little Caesars offices to Detroit when they were looking at property he owned in Farmington, Mich. The Lions and so many businesses followed. Any development in Detroit over the last generation is because of Mike Ilitch’s commitment to making Detroit stronger.”
At age 84, Ilitch is as emotionally and financially vested in his teams as ever, but he has begun to maintain a lower profile. He rarely gives interviews these days, and some of his children have assumed part of the leadership responsibilities of the teams. But on a recent morning in Boca Raton, Fla., Ilitch and his wife, Marian, welcomed a reporter into their winter home. Over the course of 90 minutes, Mike shared his memories of building the family pizza business, realizing a dream by owning the Red Wings and then the Tigers, and keeping a civic commitment to his beloved Detroit.
Marian, who first met Mike 60 years ago on a blind date and married him a year later, also participated in the conversation. It was easy to see how they have enjoyed a true partnership across family and business for so long. Here are their thoughts on the life and career of Mike Ilitch …
Detroit, his home
MIKE: I look at me and Detroit as one. The city is like a family member to me. I got sick and tired of people saying to me that Detroit wasn’t special. When I’d tell people that I was from Detroit, they’d look at me like they felt sorry for me. I decided I was going to do everything possible so that one day everyone would view Detroit as a great city.
MARIAN: As you can see, Mike’s very competitive. We both are.
MIKE: Here’s a story for you. Years ago, I’m in New York watching my Tigers against the Yankees in the stands. A guy comes up to me and says, “Mr. [George] Steinbrenner would like you to come up to his suite to watch the game with him.” I said, “Steinbrenner? I can’t go up there! I’ve gotta root for my team. I can’t be sitting next to him in a suite. Tell him I really appreciate the offer, but no thanks.”
MARIAN: Similar thing with Steve Stavro when he ran the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nice guy, Macedonian like Mike. We’re playing the Leafs in the playoffs [in 1993] and Steve just walks into our box in the middle of the game. Mike starts yelling, “What are you doing here? You can’t be here — it’s the playoffs!” Winning is everything to Mike. He’s been like that forever.
Growing up with sports
MIKE: My dad, Peter, came to Michigan in 1922 from Macedonia. Like most immigrants at the time, he came over to make some money and call for the family to join him in America. It was seven years before he made that call.
|Ilitch grew up with a love of baseball, even playing in the minors, before founding Little Caesars Pizza in 1959 and, later, becoming owner of Detroit’s Red Wings in 1982 and Tigers in 1992.
When I was a young boy, my older brother went into the Army. I was kind of by myself because my parents were so busy working, trying to make money and raise a family. I was feeling a little bit empty. I turned to sports, but I was a little guy, so my focus was on baseball and running track.
When I was 15, the press gave me some nice write-ups in the local papers about my baseball. The Tigers read them and had me visit them at Briggs [Tiger] Stadium to work out with the team. Hank Greenberg was there. He was my favorite ballplayer and later on I’d do some work with his son, Steve [former MLB deputy commissioner and current dealmaker for Allen & Co.]. The first ball they hit to me at shortstop, I told myself, “I’m gonna show them my arm.” I threw it right into the stands.
MARIAN: You sure showed them, Mike.
MIKE: (Laughing) Yeah, I really showed them.
I stayed in the Marines for four years and then signed with the Tigers. A scout with the team came to my house to tell me that I’m a good prospect, but that I should make sure I don’t get involved in other sports, like football.
Sure enough, I couldn’t resist playing in a touch football game with guys down the block. I went up for a pass, came down and popped my knee. There was no technology at all back then to fix my knee. It was bone on bone. I lost some of my speed. Still, I hit .266 in Hot Springs [Ark.] and was hitting around .330 in Tampa in developmental ball, but the knee really bothered me and I had to give it up.
The best thing about getting that workout at the stadium and getting a serious look from the Tigers was the impact on my dad. Being a foreigner, he was always kind of an outsider at work. But when his co-workers saw the stories about me and the Tigers, they made him feel more part of the crew. One guy said that they better start being nice to him because, this way, maybe my dad would give them some tickets when I was playing for the Tigers.
The pizza guy
MIKE: There were only four pizza places in all of Detroit 60 years ago. When I was playing ball, we’d travel by bus everywhere. When we got into the towns, I’d always be looking for the pizza places, but there hardly were any.
I wanted to learn the pizza business, so I told a friend who worked in a pizza place, “I’ll work for free. I just want to learn how the pizzas are made and how you operate. I’ll do a lot of work, you don’t have to pay me and I won’t bother anybody.”
Then I sold my own pizzas in a nightclub after asking the manager for a little spot in the club and working out a deal. My food costs were just 10 percent. I thought, “There’s a lot of money in this business.”
I did all that when I was playing baseball. After the injury ended my playing career, I started my own store. I wanted a unique name for it. I was calling it Pizza Treat.
MARIAN: Mike was my hero, so I saw him as a Caesar. But he hadn’t accomplished much in business yet, so he was a “little” Caesar. Little Caesars just sort of stuck. We compromised and called it Little Caesars Pizza Treat. But those were too many words for the sign, so we took out Pizza Treat. We paid a couple hundred dollars to have that caricature designed for the logo, and that was the start of Little Caesars.
MIKE: We opened our first store in Garden City, Mich.
MARIAN: Typical of Mike, who is all about promotion and marketing, he was giving the food away.
MARIAN: We sold pizza and chicken and fish dinners. He gave the first customer to order a chicken dinner a free meal. Then he did it for someone who’d ordered fish. Why? “That was our first fish dinner,” Mike said to me. Then someone came in to pick up pizzas. Before Mike could give them away, I said, “That will be $2.49.”
MIKE: The first Little Caesars opened in 1959. We started franchising in 1962. Franchising only happened because of advice I got. I was on an airplane, sitting next to a Texan who had some oil wells. He asked me what I did for a living. I said, “I’m a pizza man,” and told him about the stores we opened. He said, “I want to give you some advice. Start franchising and charge royalties.” At the time I met that Texan, around 1962, I had three stores in Michigan. Twenty years later, when the Red Wings came into our lives, there were 300 Little Caesars.
Buying the Red Wings
MIKE: We had a suite for Red Wings games and were really big fans, going back to the early Gordie Howe days. But by now, people were calling them the “Dead Wings” and they were missing the playoffs all the time — back when 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs.
|Ilitch, always with his wife, Marian, by his side, and the rest of the family bought the Red Wings in 1982, and the franchise has gone on to win four Stanley Cups.
Linc liked us a lot. He thought we were nice people. He said, “Are you guys interested in owning the Red Wings?” I was flabbergasted. I said, “Are you serious?” He said he was, but we didn’t think we could afford them.
MARIAN: We had all those pizza stores, but we didn’t think we had the money to own an NHL team.
MARIAN: We were so excited.
MIKE: I was pretty cocky about it, I’ll admit. As a fan, I felt I knew exactly what was wrong with the team. You need people who are good at evaluating talent. Great scouts are priceless. That’s where I put the emphasis. I went out and hired Jimmy Devellano, who was the assistant GM and chief scout of the Islanders, who had just won three Stanley Cups in a row.
I said to Jimmy D, “How long do you think it will be before we can win a Stanley Cup’? He said, ‘Oh, maybe about eight years.” I said, “EIGHT years? Jimmy, I’ll be an old lady by then!”
We went to the NHL draft after Mike bought the team. I get there and I thought, “How nice. We’re new owners and they put our team in the front row!” I didn’t know we were there because the team was bad and we had one of the first picks. I was so naïve.
MIKE: The Red Wings were a sleeping giant. It was an emotional buy. We didn’t think about the business part at the time. It was a dream come true for us.
MIKE: When people ask me what I’m proudest of, obviously it’s the Stanley Cups with the Red Wings and all of the steps we’ve made with the Tigers and all the relationships we’ve established. But from a business standpoint, something else I’m really proud of is what the Red Wings did with scouting in Europe — at a time when few teams got players from there.
So many of our top players — Sergei Fedorov, Petr Klima, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov — were the result of Jimmy D and the scouts going to Europe in search of the best players in the world.
We helped Klima defect from Czechoslovakia by putting him
|Ilitch’s philosophy — “Be good to people, and do everything it takes to win” — has created a mutual affection between his family, his teams and the city of Detroit.
Fedorov and Kozlov had this dream of getting fancy sports cars as part of their deals to come over, so we got them cars. You gotta do anything to win, to get players.
One time in the early years, Jimmy D told me there were a bunch of college free agents he was interested in signing. We were trying to build up our depth after all those losing years and these players didn’t cost anything to acquire except money. I asked Jimmy how many of these college kids had potential. He said there were eight of them. I said, “Sign ’em all.” We did. Adam Oates was one of them.
Hands-off owner … sort of
MIKE: I let Kenny Holland run the Red Wings and Dave Dombrowski run the Tigers. I’m there to support them. My feeling has always been that if I can make my team better, I believe we should go all out to get the great player. In most cases, we’re going to make money. OK, occasionally we’ve lost some money. But more times than not, the investment in the players was worth it. Of course, it’s tougher now in the NHL with the salary cap.
MARIAN: When Jimmy D or Kenny Holland would tell Mike that someone really good was available, Mike would just say, “Well, then go get ’em.” That’s how we got Brett Hull for the Red Wings.
MIKE: I was reading the paper one day after the baseball season and saw that Miguel Cabrera was available in a trade with the Marlins. We were already at budget, but this guy is something else and he was in his prime. I called Dave Dombrowski and said, “You know this guy’s a superstar, Dave. If you can get him, do whatever it takes.”
MARIAN: Mike’s a risk-taker. He did the same thing with Magglio Ordonez.
MIKE: I met with him and loved his attitude. It all comes down to wanting to win titles. I used to keep a Stanley Cup ring in my pocket. I didn’t like to wear them because they’re pretty big and it seemed like boasting. But every once in a while when someone would ask why I want to go over budget for a great player for the Tigers, I would take out the Cup ring and say, “Because of THIS! I want one of these in baseball for Detroit.”
MARIAN: We’ve got to get Comerica Park a championship. Then that stadium will be completely beautiful.
The family, led by Mike’s wife, Marian (center), has been a major part of both teams’ success, with several of Mike and Marian’s seven children working for the family business.
MIKE: Oh, yeah — a World Series. That’s the one missing piece. I want one badly.
A family philosophy
MARIAN: I always say that we don’t hire people — we marry them. They’re all part of the family. That’s why you see people stay with us so long, at both the Red Wings and Tigers.
MIKE: When Steve Yzerman decided to take the GM job with the Lightning, he came over to the house to tell us personally. Marian stayed in her room with the door closed. She didn’t want to come out because she knew she’d start crying.
MARIAN: That’s true.
MIKE: I have a lot of affection for people. Everybody’s scared to use the word “love,” as if you’ll look soft if you do. But I actually fall in love with many of our people. I’ve always been blessed with great executives. The biggest thrill in my career was getting to work with the people we’ve had at the Red Wings and Tigers, and seeing how they developed.
Times have changed. When I was working on the deal for the stadium downtown that became Comerica Park, I had maybe three or four people with me on it. Now, for the new Red Wings arena project we’re trying to get done, it seems like we’ve got 1,000. But we try to keep the same philosophy: Be good to people, and do everything it takes to win.
I believe that if you treat people right, you get the most out of them, and together you will be successful.