Marian Ilitch is a leading entrepreneur in the food, sports, and entertainment industries. As a first-generation American, the daughter of Macedonian immigrants raised on grit and hard work, Marian has been recognized as one of the most successful businesswomen in the country and has inspired and created opportunities for generations of people in the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan and beyond.
Family Values and Work Ethic
Marian was grounded by strong family values and work ethic. One of four children, born in Dearborn to parents Sam and Mitra Bayoff, Marian thrived under the structure her parents set.
She never shied away from working hard, whether it was cleaning the house with her mother or helping at her father’s restaurant filling napkin containers and salt and pepper shakers.
Marian’s first paying job was at SS Kresge in Dearborn, where she often shopped with her mother. Before marrying her husband and lifetime business partner, Mike Ilitch, Marian worked as a reservation clerk for what would become Delta Airlines in Detroit, where was captivated by the hustle and bustle of working downtown during Detroit’s prime.
While Marian was clear with her parents that she did not wish to date a Macedonian boy, she was intrigued by the possibility of going out with a baseball player – Mike Ilitch was both. Not long after meeting, she and Mike were married. They eventually would become parents to seven children, 21 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, and always made family time a priority.
An Entrepreneurial Spirit
After Marian and Mike’s third child was born, the couple invested their savings to open their own business – a single pizza shop in Garden City, Michigan called Little Caesars Pizza Treat. A few years later, they explored an exciting new business model called franchising and in 1962, the first Little Caesars franchise was sold in Warren, Michigan. It was store number four.
Working hand-in-hand, Marian and Mike grew that start-up business into a global company. Today, it’s the third largest pizza chain in the world with stores in 27 countries and territories worldwide, including in each of the 50 U.S. states.
Mike had no shortage of ideas to expand the business, and Marian’s strong business acumen was always there to make sure the finances made sense.
Making Sports History
In 1982, Mike and Marian saw an opportunity to leverage their growing businesses and make an impact in the city they loved so much by purchasing the Detroit Red Wings. With the hands-on and innovative approach Mike and Marian brought to the team, the Red Wings won four championships under their stewardship and made the playoffs an unbelievable 25 consecutive years. Marian played a key role in their success.
Marian was only the fourth woman to have her name engraved on the Stanley Cup. Today, there are just 18 women recognized with a Stanley Cup inscription. Marian’s name appears for those four championships, along with her daughters. And in 2010, she was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
Riding the success of the Red Wings, Mike set his sights on a team he had always dreamed of owning — the Detroit Tigers. Spurred by a desire to continue investing in Detroit, in 1992, he bought the team.
A Love for Detroit
Channeling the love she developed for Detroit as a young professional, Marian became a pioneer in the redevelopment of downtown Detroit when she and Mike purchased the Fox Theatre in 1987. They restored the neglected theatre to its original 1928 splendor and a year later moved their business headquarters to the surrounding office building.
In 1999, with determination and vision, Marian started the MotorCity Casino in partnership with Mandalay Bay, transforming the former Wonder Bread factory in Detroit into a destination. In 2005, Marian took full ownership and added a hotel, the revenue in the state of Michigan, benefitting local residents. MotorCity Casino Hotel, as it is known today, remains the only casino in Detroit where that is the case.
Marian’s vision laid the groundwork for the organization’s future development in Detroit. Her son Chris, who took over as CEO of Ilitch Companies in 2004, has continued to drive progress with the opening of innovation-filled Little Caesars Arena in 2017, a new global headquarters for Little Caesars in 2020, and other new office and residential buildings in Detroit.
Investing in the Community
Giving back to the community has been one of Marian’s trademarks since her early days in business. Marian’s spirit of giving has grown from a lifetime of experiences, achievements, and relationships. Her efforts have deeply impacted hundreds of causes and organizations that are meaningful to her and have changed the future for thousands.
As a mother to children who played youth hockey, Marian recognized the positive impact that playing the sport can have in young people’s lives, on and off the ice. She wanted to support amateur hockey, so she and Mike established the Little Caesars AAA Hockey Club in 1968. It is now among the nation’s most elite amateur youth sports programs featuring Boys and Girls teams, winning 103 state championships and 23 national titles, and sending numerous players into the professional ranks.
Following the successful creation of the Little Caesars AAA Hockey Club, one decade later she helped rapidly expand access to youth hockey by founding the non-profit Little Caesars Amateur Hockey League in 1978. For nearly half a century, this league has grown to feature hundreds of teams and approximately 15,000 student athletes across the country.
In 1985, and to help those in need, Marian and Mike created the Little Caesars Love Kitchen program. It consists of two big-rig trucks on the road to serve pizza meals to the food insecure, people without housing, disaster survivors, military and first responders and others. To date, more than 6.5 million people have been served. The Little Caesars Love Kitchen has been awarded two President’s Volunteer Action Awards and a Presidential Citation.
In 2018 Mike and Marian made a $40 million gift to Wayne State University, and the Mike Ilitch School of Business opened. This gift remains the largest in the university’s history and demonstrated a continuing commitment to the city by Mike and Marian. In 2023, Marian received an honorary degree – a doctor of laws, honoris causa, from Wayne State University. The honorary doctorate is the highest academic recognition the university can confer.
“Giving back to the communities in which we do business has been a part of my parents’ operating philosophy since the very early stages of their careers,” Chris Ilitch said. “Those values and the drive to make a positive impact on people’s lives remains a focus of organization today.”
Marian and Mike expanded their interests over the years to include food, sports, entertainment, gaming and other industries. Today, under the leadership of their son Chris, the Ilitch Companies have grown to represent 12 businesses under common private ownership that employ thousands of people in the Detroit area and around the world.