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.