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Podcast: Denise Ilitch From Little Caesars to Major Leagues: The Ilitch Family Story


 As an Owner of Ilitch Family Companies and President of Ilitch Enterprises, LLC, Denise Ilitch shares the remarkable story of how her parents' founding of Little Caesar's Pizza in 1959 has resulted in the third largest pizza chain in the world with stores in more than 27 countries worldwide. The family-owned business is now a large holding company with privately held businesses, including the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, and many others.

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Cliff Duvernois: Today's episode is brought to you by the Stevens Center for Family Business, whose mission is to support the success of family businesses through the generations with education, networking, and collaboration.

Denise Ilitch: I was thinking I was going to do my own thing. I worked for a federal judge. I worked for an antitrust law firm in Detroit. But then, as I got more experienced, I said to myself, I want to work for my family and help my family because I was working for other people and helping them economically.

And I thought, why am I doing this? I should do this to help my family economically. 

Cliff Duvernois: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Total Michigan, where we interview ordinary Michiganders doing some pretty extraordinary things. I'm your host, Cliff Duvernois. 

So today's guest has been an integral part of Detroit's business and philanthropic community for over 40 years.

Dedicated business leader, a devoted community servant, and a supporter of many charitable causes, including an advocate for women and children. She has also been the president of Illich Holdings, which is the home to Little Caesars Enterprise. Yes, that includes Little Caesars, the Detroit Redwings, the Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, and Olympia Development.

Her and her family have been involved in building the side-by-side project, which would be Comerica Park and Ford Field, home to the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Lions. She was voted the best philanthropist in the Our Detroit magazine. Best of Detroit 2022. She's got more titles than a car lot marketing innovator of the year, best and brightest marketer, top businesswoman, and most influential woman.

She's a regular panelist on the weekly Michigan manner show, and that's CBS 62. She also has a podcast, and I'm going to have to ask her how she fits time in to do in to

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the show the owner of Illich Family Companies and the president of Illich Enterprises. And that would be Denise Illich. 

Denise, how are you?

Denise Ilitch: I'm good. Thank you so much. 

Cliff Duvernois: And you're welcome. And I appreciate you not falling asleep while I 

Denise Ilitch: No, no. Thank you for the lovely bio. It's great to be here. 

Cliff Duvernois: Yes. And, uh, it's quite extensive. So we got to kind of a lot of ground to cover. And what I would like to do is I I know your family history is very integrated into your history. And what you're doing for Detroit.

So, if you would just take us back to the beginning, and if I remember correctly, it was actually your father who was an immigrant to this country.


Denise Ilitch: Grandfather. Yes, yes. Where 

Cliff Duvernois: Where did he immigrate from?

Denise Ilitch: So he immigrated from Yugoslavia. At the time, it was called Yugoslavia. Now, it's Macedonia, or that's what we call it. Both my grandparents and both sets of grandparents came from Yugoslavia and were immigrants. 

And then landed here in Detroit. And, We lived in, they lived in Dearborn Heights. And my other set of grandparents lived in Detroit. So when I was young, I lived in a flat at the top of my grandfather's home. So they lived on the bottom and then we lived upstairs for a while until we moved and got our own home. 

Cliff Duvernois: You mentioned this before in a talk that I heard you give, But you said that you were about 10 years old when your dad asked you probably one of the most pivotal questions you've ever been asked in your life. 

Denise Ilitch: We always sat around the kitchen table. I came home from school, and that's where we hung out after, and he said, what did you do to contribute to the world today?

And I sat, and I thought about it a minute. And I said, Right, and I said, Nothing, which felt terrible. And I said, but Dad, I'm only 10. But I often say that that was when I realized you were to contribute to the world. He placed a high value on that. And that it gave me confidence that he thought I could contribute to the world. And it made me feel worthy.

And so it had a significant impact on how I conducted myself from there on in. 

Cliff Duvernois: At some point, your dad had this idea to start a pizzeria. Where did that come from? 

Denise Ilitch: He played ball for the Tigers. He played in the, in the farm system; they traveled all around the country. And he just had this thing where he'd go and visit Italian places.

He loves Italian food, and he'd always search out pizza places, so he started to become interested in it. 

And then he ended up getting a job. He asked a woman who owned a bar called Hague's Bar in Detroit. She let him sell food out of her bar, and that's where he perfected the pizza.

He sold food. But he also sold pizza. And he says he literally had a cigar box with money in it. And that was where he started to really believe in the product. He did really, really well. 

He ended up taking part of that money and investing it in the first Little Caesars store in Detroit, which was in Garden City, at Cherry Hill and Venoy.

It's still there today. It's been renovated about five times. And that's really where they would take me while they were building that store and working in that store. 

Cliff Duvernois: How old were you at this time?

Denise Ilitch: I was four. And so I sat in the back room on flower bags. And my mom took the money and ran the register. And my dad made the pizzas. And so, again, by watching all of this, it set an example about a work ethic.

And then, of course, the store was very successful. Most people told him, he took $25, 000 and put it towards his store, and many people told him that pizza was a fad. And that he was going to fail. So, um.

And, Of course, you know, we've all learned it's not a fad. And then, that was, like, in 1959. And then, in 1962, was the first franchise that we sold.

Then, the company started to grow. 

Cliff Duvernois: Where did the idea of franchising come from?

Denise Ilitch: My dad never went to college, and neither did my mom. He was a really good listener. And he asked a lot of questions. 

He was on a plane and he was seated next to an oilman from Texas. And they started talking about business. And this oilman put, planted a seed in his head about royalties. He had talked to him about how oil works and how you earn a lot of money off royalties. And I know, right?

And so, he started. That's what franchising is: royalties. You pay a franchise fee. And you pay royalties in order to use the brand name, get the brand secrets, and build whatever that franchise is.

And so, that's really what planted the seed for him.

Cliff Duvernois: Where did the name Little Caesars come from?

Denise Ilitch: That came from my mom.

So, they were talking, and if you knew my dad, you'd really appreciate the story. But, it was early in their career, and they were going to call the restaurant Pizza Treat. And, she said to him, she goes, you know, you're like a, a Caesar. And he goes. Cause that's like King, you know. And he's like, Caesar?

And she's like, yeah, you know. He goes, yeah, that's a good name. And she goes, yeah, but you haven't accomplished anything yet. So, I think it should be Little Caesar. And so it ended up being Little Caesar's Pizza Treat. 

And that's how we got the name. 

Cliff Duvernois: How many pizzas do you think you've made in your life? 

Denise Ilitch: generation Oh my gosh. I never made I never made counted. That's so funny. I don't think I've ever been asked that question. But I have no idea. But quite a few. You know. And also, how much pizza have I eaten? When I worked at the company, my dad was always in the research, the R and D kitchen, and he was always testing new pizzas, new combinations, and new toppings.

And he would be constantly calling us saying, come taste this, come taste that. What do you think of this? What do you think of that? So, we've really been involved in pizza. 

Cliff Duvernois: No, and that's actually really good. That could be another topic right there because I love the innovation piece. People can get burned out eating the same thing all the time. I mean, there's some comfort in the fact that you know, you can call Little Caesars.

And you know exactly what you get. But there's also to something where you sit there and say, you know what? I'd like to try something else. What else do you got on the menu? That sounds good. 

Denise Ilitch: Right. And Dad always talked about cravings. And he always wanted to capture, that craving that you have for things. And so, and like you said, he was always, he was very innovative and always wanted to try new things. Very open-minded about that. 

Cliff Duvernois: So you get to a point where you've graduated high school and you decided to go off to college. 

Denise Ilitch: Yes. 

Cliff Duvernois: Where did you go, and what did you study?

Denise Ilitch: I went to the University of Michigan, and I majored in political science and minored in English. And then I went on to law school, and I went to the University of Detroit School of Law. 

Cliff Duvernois: Now, was it your intent to get a degree and come back to the family business? Or were you thinking you were going to do your own thing?

Denise Ilitch: I was thinking I was going to do my own thing. I worked for a federal judge. I worked for an antitrust law firm in Detroit. But then, as I got more experienced, I said to myself, I want to go work for my family and help my family because I was working for other people and helping them economically.

And I thought, why am I doing this? I think I should do this to help my family economically. And so, that's what I decided to do. I called my dad, and I said, Dad, I'd like to come work for the family business. So, I started out as a lawyer, and I was responsible for real estate leases and trademarks. And that was at the 50-store mark.

We had 50 stores at the time. And when I left the company, it was, four thousand three four thousand, Right? All over the world.


Cliff Duvernois: When so you said that it was right around the 50 store mark where you came back to join the family business. And now we're at 4, 000 plus all over the world; tell us, at what point in time did you ever sit there and say to yourself, Holy cow, this is going to be big.

Denise Ilitch: I think it was when, um, we decided to go on national advertising. I was responsible for all of the marketing at the time. And we were getting big enough to market our brand nationally. And that's when I realized, wow, we are a national company. We are not, yeah, we're in the big leagues. Our competitors were Pizza Hut and Domino's, And they had very big budgets for national advertising.

We were an up and comer.

But we grew very methodically. We decided we wanted to grow down the I-75 corridor. Florida was always the most popular state that people wanted to franchise. But then, as we got bigger, we started to go to the West Coast and the East Coast, and it was very exciting.

I learned so much um, with that experience.

Cliff Duvernois: that experience. I bet. And when you talk about that you were in charge of marketing, was marketing always just in your wheelhouse? Did you have to take special classes for that?

How did it work?

Denise Ilitch: it was so funny because I worked in the legal department. And the marketing department would come over and ask me to approve trademarks. And so I'd look at the ad, And I started to give ideas about how to sell the pizza. And I remember I was like, What do you think about a 25-cent slice to try to create more traffic?

So they're like, Wow, we like that idea, let's try that. And they did. And the sales went up. And I was so excited about that because it was an immediate reaction instead of a trademark. Or a lease that you negotiated that you might not see the benefit of it for five years.

After doing that, I said to my dad, I'd like to move over to marketing. And it was really a natural instinct and gift. I had absolutely no training in marketing. And my father was brilliant in marketing. He and I worked very closely together, um, in marketing, in order to grow the business. We were very simpatico, with my fresh ideas, and his fresh ideas, and his wisdom about the business.

We were able to put a lot of really good programs together. So that was how I, how know, landed in marketing. 

Cliff Duvernois: And I could also imagine, too, that just because you grew up in the business, you've seen so many customers and heard so many comments about the pizza and everything else like that, that that probably really played a big factor in your ability to effectively market.

Because if we're talking 4000 franchises, right? These are people that have given you their hard-earned money. Not only that, but they have to have customers that are like, Yes, we want Little Caesars.

Denise Ilitch: Right. And, and, you know, I asked my dad, he was so good at it. I said, well, how are you so good? I asked him the same thing you're asking me. How are you so good at marketing when you didn't go to college? And he said, I, he used to sell pots and pans door to door. Oh, that was. I know, right? And he said, though, that when he was in there potential customer's home, he learned about how they made decisions, who made the decision, what what factors went into the decision to buy something, and what they valued. And so that's how he ended up doing it.

Cliff Duvernois: That is incredible for our audience, we're gonna take a quick break and thank our sponsors. When we come back, uh, we're gonna talk about, just how far the Illich. Family expanded their empire. We'll see after the break.

The Stevens Center for Family Business supports the success of family businesses throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region of Michigan. It provides a wealth of resources that family-owned businesses can access to leverage the unique strengths inherent to family enterprises. 

The Center provides educational opportunities for managing the often complicated combination of family and business. Members attend networking events where family business leaders can share their experiences and learn from one another, drawing on experts from around the country. 

The Center focuses on topics and issues that are just unique to family-owned businesses. They focus on an emphasis on optimal business results, including family harmony, succession planning, preparing the next generation, conflict resolution governance, family dynamics, policy development, company culture, and so much more.

Regardless of the size of your family business or the number of years that you have in your history, the Stevens Center for Family Business is a valuable resource for helping to secure the ongoing legacy. Of a multi-generational family business. The Stevens Center for Family Business, where networking and knowledge meet to support the success of family-owned companies, both in business pursuits and in family relationships.

For more information, go to svsu. edu slash scfb or contact Casey Stevens at 989 964 2776.

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Total Michigan, where we interview ordinary Michiganders doing some pretty extraordinary things. I'm your host, Cliff Duvernois. So, Denise, you and I talked during the break, and we have a small correction to make. Why don't you tell us?

Denise Ilitch: Yes, I just want to make sure that we're clear. I've been referring to numbers kind of loosely, just counting franchise stores.

So when you take our company stores and our franchise stores in total, we have 5 400 Little Caesars stores across the world. 

Cliff Duvernois: This is still mucho inspiring, 

Denise Ilitch: Yes, it's a 

Cliff Duvernois: impressive, yeah, a lot of pizza. And so a couple more questions here, one of the things that really impressed me was the fact that when everybody gave up on Detroit, I mean, your family didn't.

People were packing, leaving bags, leaving town. Detroit's done. It's gonna, it's going to rot away. And you and your family are like, noop. And you actually like doubled down on Detroit. So I guess my bigger question would be is what is it about Detroit that your, your family just invested so much into it?

Denise Ilitch: I don't know if you saw that Cranes article, but, er, it was a cartoon.

And when we moved down there in 1987, did you see it? When all, everybody was leaving and this big truck was coming into Detroit?

I think it's really, the fact that this is our home. My parents were born and raised in Michigan, in Detroit, Michigan. They have so many memories of Michigan and then, of course, raising us. They place such a high value on Detroit. It's been our home. And so it was very natural to want to be able to go downtown.

And what really triggered it was the Fox Theater. So we had an office we had made an announcement in Farmington Hills that we were going to build a world headquarters on 38 acres. We, I still even have the; it was like a little trophy thing or whatever, uh, with dirt in it. Or whatever that we still have on the groundbreaking. 

But we decided we wanted to renovate the Fox Theater. And part of it was a business decision.

There was a new arena in Auburn Hills. And we were competing for concerts. And we knew that there was a 5,000-seat venue in Detroit. Besides, or in addition to Joe Louis Arena at the time. There was the idea to, you know, be able to book events at the Fox Theater. So we were intrigued. And I, you know, I'll never forget going through with my family, and particularly my dad, when we walked through the Fox Theater.

And it was very old, really blown out. very, just abandoned. And, uh, it was at that time that my parents, got us all together and said, look, we, you know, how do you feel about building our world headquarters in Detroit and changing direction? Because it's going to impact all of you. 

And so everyone resoundingly agreed to it. Thought it was a wonderful idea. And that's what we decided to do. And we did hear a lot of criticism. I kind of sometimes felt bad for my dad because people thought he was crazy. They thought he had lost it. And that, what was he doing? 

But, you know, we stuck to our guns. And it's a beautiful theater. People were so happy when we restored it.

Many Detroiters have just amazing memories. Whether they were their first date or they were proposed to. Everyone's got a story around the theater. 

Cliff Duvernois: Yes.

Denise Ilitch: that's really what motivated it. And 

Cliff Duvernois: And at some point in time, like some people go out and buy a car, your family decided, hey, let's go out and buy a major sports 

Denise Ilitch: right. So which one did you buy first?

Uh, the Detroit Red Wings. Now, why?

Well, that, you know, if you know my dad, you would understand, you know, he would buy a team over a car. But he just loves sports. Always wanted to be a sports owner. I think it was a dream of his as time went on. We had sponsored tons of hockey teams.

All my brothers played hockey. My sister was a goalie. There was a real love of the sport by both he and my mom. And so the Red Wings became available. And they were doing very poorly for many years. And so This was 19, uh, 82, when he, When we actually bought the team. 

I remember saying to him, at the time, the New York Islanders were like a dynasty. And I had said to him, why did you buy such a bad team? Why couldn't we have bought, Like, a good team. Like, the Islanders? It was starting to dawn on me that this was going to be very hard. 

Fans were really disappointed about the performance of the team.

And it was going to take a lot of work in order to turn the team around. And time. And he said it is because it builds character, Denise. This is going to build character. And I'm like, okay. I feel like I have enough character. So off we went.

Off we went. And, you know, as a family, we built the team.


Cliff Duvernois: Then the one thing I got to say is during the presentation you gave, you showed a, you showed this photograph of your father and he's wearing the Red Wings Jersey. And he's holding the Stanley Cup. And this is like in the 1990s when the Red Wings were on fire. And I thought to myself, you know what?

That photograph right there just encapsulates a family story. I mean, literally starting from nothing to the point where you're owning a major team.

Denise Ilitch: Yes, it is my absolute favorite picture of my dad. He was always a happy person. But, you know, he didn't smile often. And there was such joy on his face. And I teased him after. I'd say, you know, you had seven kids.

I don't see any pictures in the albums that you're smiling like you are about that Stanley Cup. I would tease him about it. But, yeah, it's a lovely picture. That's why it's in my presentation. 

Cliff Duvernois: And then at some point in time, if one team wasn't enough, you went after a second team. 

Denise Ilitch: Yeah, well then, what happened was Dad's love and passion growing up was baseball. I had mentioned that he played in the farm system and just loved the sport and really understood the sport. 

The team became available in 1992, so he decided to buy the baseball team, the Detroit Tigers, which was so exciting for him. We were all so happy for Dad because that was his passion. 

And during this time, your family owns now that the Red Wings, you've moved on to the Tigers. And again, if that wasn't enough, let's build Comerica Park. Let's get involved with Ford Field. 

Cliff Duvernois: Did the city come to you? How did that work? 

Denise Ilitch: How did that work?

Um, playing baseball in the old Tiger Stadium. And It was very old. But it is very traditional.

And, you know, we're in the food business. We're in the entertainment business. And we really wanted to offer the best amenities to our fans. And we did build, like an addition, a little food court at Tiger Stadium in order to accommodate some of that. But at the end of the day, everyone around the country was building new baseball stadiums.

And my dad had said to me, you know, I want you to go travel and visit every new baseball stadium across the country in order to see what people are doing and see the amenities. And so, really, he wanted to build a new stadium. And then, of course, what, it just came together so naturally. It was going to happen behind the Fox Theater.

But then, uh, There was the idea. The Lions wanted to do the same thing. And so we decided to, the property became available across from our world headquarters. It used to be a law school, and Stro business did business there. But they agreed to sell that land. And we ended up taking that land and building side-by-side stadiums, which was the first in the country at the time in an urban area to build side-by-side stadiums.

And it's been a tremendous success. 

Cliff Duvernois: Oh,

So, in 2017, your father passes 

Denise Ilitch: Yes. 

Cliff Duvernois: And you're, you're in charge. Yeah, right. So, the Family's in charge. Yes, so what about, so talk to us about, You know, that transition like the key driver, the key person that had the vision, and let's, you know, move this forward. There's no longer there. And what was it like when you first stepped up and started running the company?

Denise Ilitch: Well, I think that, um, obviously, it's devastating when you lose your parent. And, um, but we all had been involved in the business. Of course, my mother is alive and is a very strong force in our business.

We had been working on the stadium, the LCA. And dad had, uh, unbelievable input. I mean, you know, I think that was his vision. The sad part, though, is that he died before he actually saw it. So, he never was able to walk into LCA and see it done. But he did see parts of it being constructed.

Cliff Duvernois: raised, carry

Denise Ilitch: But it'll never be the same, in my opinion, without him. 

Cliff Duvernois: In my opinion,

In addition to this, you are involved in so many non-profits and causes. You've got more scholarship funds than anybody I've ever seen. 

Denise Ilitch: Right. Well, education is really important to me. After everything I've learned, I believe that all roads lead back to education. I am a regent at the University of Michigan. I am running this year for reelection for my third term because I have such a passion for the work.

I find that if we can help students, the costs of education will become higher and higher. So, I feel strongly about scholarships and being able to use the resources I have to really impact every student and help them get a good education. 

We also have a scholarship that my sister came up with a terrific idea for. My sister Carol graduated from the University of Detroit Law School as well. So, she came up with the idea of doing a scholarship together as siblings. We would sponsor siblings who went to law school at U of D. We just sponsored our first sibling group, which was a brother and sister, which we think is really cool.

So, it impacts students directly. You can help them, you know, pay for costs, and I love that. 

Cliff Duvernois: Excellent.

Denise, if somebody is listening to this and they want to connect with you, maybe check out your podcast, 

Denise Ilitch: so nice of you. Thank you. we didn't 

Cliff Duvernois: I didn't even get a chance to chat about that, but yeah, tell us what is, you know, what is your podcast? How can people connect with

Denise Ilitch: Well, it's very uniquely called, I joke, The Denise Ilitch Show. It's on Apple, Spotify, and Amazon, all of the different vehicles with which to listen. And I hope that it's inspirational. I, um, care a lot about, you know, confidence and helping people deal with adversity.

I think that a lot of people are struggling now. And so I hope that listening to other guests talk about what they've gone through and how they've coped with it and giving people a few tips on how to do that will touch people's hearts and help them through whatever they're going through.

So, I would encourage everybody to tune in and check it out. 

Cliff Duvernois: Denise, it's been great having you on the show today. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story and your family story. 

Denise Ilitch: Thank you and thank you for having me. And 

Cliff Duvernois: And for the audience, you can always roll on over to Total Michigan. com and click on Denise's interview and get the links to her, the podcast that she just mentioned. We'll talk to you next time when we talk to another Michigander doing some pretty extraordinary things; we'll see you then.


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