Billionaire Mike Ilitch, Founder Of Little Caesars Pizza Chain, Dies At Age 87

One of Detroit’s most successful entrepreneurs, billionaire Mike Ilitch, died Friday, according to a statement from Ilitch Holdings, the family-owned company that includes Little Caesars Pizza, the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Red Wings. He was 87.

Known as “Mr. I” by his 23,000 employees, Ilitch was a former minor league baseball player who went on to become a champion for the city of Detroit at a time when other business leaders walked away. He moved his company headquarters to Detroit in 1989, sparking a renaissance that has since gone into overdrive.

Before his death, the Ilitch organization had embarked on a massive $1.2-billion District Detroit project, transforming dozens of blocks of largely vacant land in downtown Detroit into a vibrant neighborhood that will include office, retail and residential spaces, as well as the new Little Caesars arena. The project will continue under the leadership of his son, Christopher Ilitch, who became president and CEO last year, amid reports of Mike’s ailing health.


Ilitch is survived by his wife and business partner, Marian, and seven adult children.

The son of Macedonian immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1924, Ilitch was born and grew up in Detroit where he was an All-City athlete in both baseball and track. He joined the Marine Corps after high school and served four years at  Parris Island, Pearl Harbor and Quantico. After being discharged, Ilitch was hired by the Detroit Tigers to play shortstop in the minor league. He played four seasons, making it to AAA and hitting over .300, until a knee injury ended his baseball career.

He later worked as a door to door salesman before saving enough money to start Little Caesars with his wife Marian, also from a first-generation Macedonian family.  They opened their first pizzeria on May 8, 1959 in Garden City, Michigan. He was the marketing guy; she had the financial sense, famously stopping him from giving away free meals in the beginning. Today Little Caesars is one of the nation’s largest pizza chains, with estimated revenues over $4.2 billion.

Ilitch and his wife paid $9 million for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings in 1982. The team won four Stanley Cups during his time as owner and is now worth $625 million. A decade later, he spent $82 million for his former employer, the Detroit Tigers. That team won two American League Pennants with Ilitch as owner but never the World Series. It is now worth $1.15 billion. FORBES estimates the Ilitch couple’s net worth at a current $6.1 billion.

The Ilitches, who were married 61 years, raised their seven children in metro Detroit and never left the Motor City.

“Mike Ilitch saw the bright possibilities of Detroit’s Woodward Corridor at a time that other investors had fully turned their backs on the city,” said Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation. “Revitalizing the historic Fox Theatre and relocating his business headquarters to the city were bold moves, but ones that ultimately set downtown on a course for incredible investment and remarkable transformation. While our hearts are heavy tonight with his passing, we celebrate Mr. Ilitch’s legacy and unwavering belief in Detroit and its people.”

Chris Ilitch added: “My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family. 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.”

Mike Ilitch (R) with his wife, Marian (Photo: Ilitch Holdings)

Tigers, Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch dead at 87

Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch died Friday at the age of 87, his company, Ilitch Holdings Inc. announced.

A staple in the city of Detroit, Ilitch also founded the Little Caesars Pizza chain and owned the historic Fox Theatre. His family-owned company also operated Joe Louis, Cobo, and Little Caesars arenas, among other businesses.

Under Ilitch, the Red Wings won four Stanley Cup championships and his Tigers went to the World Series twice.

"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."

Ilitch companies employ 23,000 full-time and part-time colleagues worldwide, according to the Detroit Free Press. The companies posted revenues of $3.4 billion in 2016. In 2016, Forbes magazine listed Ilitch and his wife, Marian as the No. 88 wealthiest people with a net worth of $5.4 billion. Marian, who owns the Motor City Casino, was married to Mike for 61 years.

In 1982, Ilitch bought the Red Wings for $8 million and turned the franchise into a success story all professional sports teams came to adorn. The Wings have made the playoffs 25 years in a row under Ilitch.

Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992 from Dominos Pizza founder Tom Monaghan and eventually turned the team from losers into big-spending winners. He moved the Tigers into Comerica Park in 2000 and experienced his players win everything from the MVP to Cy Young Award. A World Series title, however, eluded him.

"Mike Ilitch was far more than a model owner of the Tigers franchise, the team he loved all his life and played for as a minor leaguer," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement released Friday evening. "He was also a fierce believer in his home city of Detroit, and the role that the Tigers and sports played in contributing to civic pride and renewal.

"Mr. Ilitch led a decorated life of service to his country, accomplishment in business and philanthropy in all of his endeavors.  He was also extremely supportive of me both personally and professionally.  On behalf of all of Major League Baseball and Mr. Ilitch's countless friends and admirers throughout the game, I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Marian and their entire family, the Tigers organization, their fans and his fellow citizens of Detroit."

Ilitch and his wife of 61 years, Marian, had seven children. Marian Ilitch and three of the couple's daughters are among only 12 women to have their names engraved into the Stanley Cup.


Mike Ilitch, owner of Red Wings, Tigers, dead at 87

Mike Ilitch, founder of the Little Caesars Pizza empire and owner of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, has died. He was 87.

Ilitch, who was praised for keeping his professional hockey and baseball teams in Detroit as other urban sports franchises relocated to new suburban stadiums, died Friday at a hospital in Detroit, according to family spokesman Doug Kuiper.

"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," his son Christopher Ilitch said in the statement Friday night.

Ilitch and his wife, Marian, founded Little Caesars in suburban Detroit in 1959, and eventually grew the business into the world's largest carry-out pizza chain with several spin-off companies. Under his ownership and open checkbook, the Red Wings soared back to stability and won four Stanley Cup championships, and the Tigers — who'd scouted a young Ilitch in the 1940s — made it to the World Series.

He was as much a fan of the often-struggling Detroit as he was of sports. When approached in 2009 by organizers of the Motor City Bowl in Detroit, Ilitch agreed to sponsor the annual college football bowl game despite a poor local economy. The game was renamed the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

"It's a sporting event, and we need sporting events," Ilitch said at the time. "It picks our community up to no end, with all the great colleges we have in this state and the professional teams that we have. Thank God for `em, especially at times that are rough right now."

The son of Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch was born on July 20, 1929. He played baseball at Detroit's Cooley High School and was signed by his hometown Tigers after his four-year stint in the U.S. Marines, spending three years in the team's farm system before a knee injury ended his playing career.

But he found his niche in business. His family's companies had combined revenues of $2.4 billion in 2011.

It started with that first Little Caesars restaurant in Garden City, a working-class suburb west of Detroit. A food service distribution company soon followed to supply ingredients and other products for the growing number of restaurants. Blue Line Foodservice grew into one of the largest program account food service distribution companies in the U.S.

Ilitch Holdings Inc. was established in 1999 to manage the family's interests in food, sports and entertainment, and the company remained family focused. His son, Christopher, is president and CEO, while his wife, Marian, was vice chairwoman as well as sole owner of MotorCity Casino Hotel, one of Detroit's three casinos.

Ilitch broke into sports ownership in 1982, when he paid a reported $8 million for the struggling Red Wings. Once a National Hockey League powerhouse, the team had bottomed out to mediocrity, but it began winning again under Ilitch. The Red Wings took home the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

"With the passing of Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings have lost the consummate owner, the National Hockey League has lost a cherished friend and passionate builder, Detroit sports has lost a legend and the city of Detroit has lost not only a devoted native son but a visionary and driving force in the rebirth of downtown," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

"Mike's commitment to excellence and to winning were unparalleled and his commitment to the community was unrivaled — as was his boundless support of youth hockey. He was a prolific philanthropist, and, above all, a devoted partner and husband to his wife of 62 years, Marian. At this moment of heartbreaking sorrow, we send deepest condolences to the entire Ilitch family and to all who were privileged to know him, play for him or work for him."

Ilitch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame a year later.

"Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch are incredibly passionate about Detroit and their teams," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told The Associated Press in a 2010 interview. "They create a family atmosphere with stability, loyalty and a personal touch. But we all understand we have to produce to be around for a long time."

As part of his long-term plan to build a Detroit-based business empire, Ilitch also bought Olympia Entertainment, which manages sports and entertainment venues, in 1982.

Husband and wife bought the downtown Fox Theatre five years later and started a massive, $12 million restoration. It reopened a year later and became a lucrative venue for musicals, plays and other productions. The Little Caesars world headquarters also was moved downtown.

Then, in 1992, the man who once dreamed of playing for the Detroit Tigers bought the team for $85 million. He moved it in 2000 from the storied but fading Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park, across from the Fox Theatre.

Unlike previous owners of both sports franchises, Ilitch opened his checkbook to sign top players — finding solid success in hockey, and a roller coaster in baseball.

'Not afraid to spend money'


The Tigers lost an American League record 119 games in 2003, but advanced to the World Series three years later, losing in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Near the end of a disappointing 2008 season, Ilitch said he and the team would review everything done to put the roster together but focusing on the $138 million payroll wasn't the priority.

"I'm not afraid to go out and spend money," Ilitch said. "It's been very costly, but I'm not going to change my ways."

But Ilitch never got the chance to see his team win a World Series as its owner, despite spending millions of dollars on contracts for stars like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez and Prince Fielder.

"I've never seen a man more dedicated to this community and to baseball than Mr. I," Tigers Executive Vice-President and General Manager Al Avila said Friday in a statement. "What he has done for this franchise, and for Detroit, is immeasurable. He was always there to give us whatever we needed because he wanted greatness and happiness for all of us — especially the fans."

The Tigers made the American League playoffs in 2011, a return to winning that brought more fans to Comerica Park. The team last made the playoffs in 2014, losing to the Baltimore Orioles.

"We won a lot. I wish we would have won the ultimate world championship for him," former Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski told The Associated Press on Friday. "He loved the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan and its fans."

Christopher Ilitch called his father a "once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader."

"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," Christopher Ilitch said in a release.

Ilitch is survived by his wife, seven adult children, 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private, but plans are being made for the public to pay their respects to Mike Ilitch and the Ilitch family.

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