Michael llitch was born to two Macedonian immigrants in the heart of Detroit in 1929, a place he would only leave twice in his lifetime. The first was during his four years as a U.S Marine and the second was during his short career as a minor league baseball player. After both of these paths ended, he returned home permanently and over time, became the pizza king of The Motor City. Ilitch had grown up in a foreign household, in a tough neighborhood, in a city that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger every year. His baseball career came to an abrupt halt in 1959, and like any other down-on-their-luck ball player, he went into the pizza business.
Mike and his then wife Marian took their entire life savings and invested it into the first Little Caesars in Garden City, Michigan. Ilitch knew that other pizza places offered almost identical products; offering quality ingredients was not enough to beat out the competition. It would all come down to price - and the ability to lower that price as much as possible per pie. The Ilitch’s were able to do so by focusing solely on carryout and making several genius adjustments. The first was completely eliminating the seating area of the restaurant, allowing them to commit more space to the kitchen without the cost of tables, chairs, upkeep or accessories. Secondly, Ilitch patented a rotating conveyer belt-style oven that could systematically heat his pizzas without the need for a large staff or the risk of any error. Ilitch applied this idea of absolute efficiency, simple marketing and carryout-based focus on his business model and found enormous success.
Today, the Ilitch name is valued at 1.5 billion in personal wealth, with millions more in holdings tied to both the Detroit Tigers, Red Wings and potentially the Detroit Pistons. Ilitch has groomed the franchises he owns into efficient profit machines by focusing on strong marketing, dedication to loyal fans and an almost constant stream of improvements to facilities. Ilitch revolutionized pizza making it into an affordable convenience food, brining it out of the wood oven and into gas stations, stadiums, military bases and strip malls around the world.
Ilitch is a great example of commitment to a singular element in a business. He entered into an industry that was already very competitive and knowing full well there was not a lot of opportunity to distinguish his pizzas from others. Ilitch has been able to maintain his $5 price point by being innovative, resourceful and inventive. This has allowed him to survive the harsh economy of Detroit, recent and past recessions and to continue the growth of his personal fortune. Anyone hoping to find success in business should consider Ilitch as an amazing case study of how improving and focusing on one unique element of your business can help drive major success.
Be sure to keep an eye out for the next installment of Pizzapreneurs when we look at another Detroit Dough Man – Tom Monaghan.