Detroit- Marian Ilitch is the matriarch of a business empire that includes one of the nation's largest pizza chains, two professional sports franchises and a wealth of real estate.
Now she's on the verge of becoming one of the few private individuals to own a major casino.
Ilitch has long been considered the financial brains behind her family's businesses, which include Little Caesars pizza, hock ey's Detroit Red Wings and baseball's Detroit Tigers, with a combined 2004 revenue of more than $1 billion. She and her family have won praise for their extensive investments in Detroit, a city that has struggled with rapid population decline and economic stagnation, but also criticism for some of their business decisions.
Ilitch, who seems most comfortable behind the scenes, is set to take on a more public role as the sole owner of one of Detroit's three casinos. State officials two weeks ago approved her bid to buy out her partners in MotorCity Casino, which takes in more than $400 million in revenue a year.
Ilitch and her better-known husband, Mike, who are both in their 70s, began their business careers in 1959 with the opening of a pizza parlor in suburban Detroit, the first Little Caesars.
Friends say Marian Ilitch, a mother of seven, has the financial acumen to complement her husband's creative genius and salesmanship.
"Marian was there on the fiscal side all the time," said Detroit businessman Frank Stella, whose restaurant supply company outfitted the first Little Caesars. "They're a tremendous pair. The moment he gets [a project] going, it's OK, Marian, it's yours from here on out.' "
Mike Ilitch has repeatedly told the story of the day they opened that first restaurant in Garden City, outside Detroit. He was so thrilled at having his own business that he gave the first two orders away, free. He was preparing to do the same with the third when Marian intervened and took the customer's money herself.
Little Caesar Enterprises Inc. found its niche in low-priced carryout and is the nation's fourth- largest pizza chain after Pizza Hut, Domino's and Papa John's.
It has had some hard times -- in the 1990s, Little Caesars saw sales decline sharply. Franchisees sued, claiming the company was unfairly forcing them to buy inferior ingredients from its in- house distributor. The company ultimately agreed to let franchisees purchase ingredients from outside sources.
But while Little Caesars struggled, other Ilitch ventures were thriving. In 1982, the family bought the Red Wings for $8 million. Since then, the once-perennial losers have won three Stanley Cups. Forbes magazine puts the team's current value at $248 million.
The family bought the Tigers for $82 million in 1992. The team is now worth $239 million, according to Forbes.
Speaking after a recent Michi gan gaming board meeting, Marian Ilitch said that when possible, the family tries to avoid using one of its ventures to prop up another. "We've had a philosophy that each entity must stand on its own," she said.
Ilitch said her enthusiasm for the casino stemmed in part from her desire to see an economic renaissance in Detroit. "I have a passion for this city," she said.
Ilitch was born and raised in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, the daughter of Macedonian immigrants. She attended community college for a year and took just one accounting class. Before her marriage, she was a Delta Airlines reservations clerk.
In recent years, Marian and Mike Ilitch have allowed their children to be the more public face of their businesses. Their son Christopher is president and chief executive of Ilitch Holdings; Mike Ilitch is chairman and Marian Ilitch is vice chairwoman.
Former Mayor Dennis Archer recalled negotiations with the Ilitches around the construction of Comerica Park, a new stadium for the Detroit Tigers that opened in 2000. "I dealt more with Denise and Atanas," he said, referring to two of the Ilitch children. "But they [Mike and Mar ian] were clearly in the background."
But even when Marian Ilitch delegates, she maintains tight control and demands regular updates, Stella said. "She'd let it go, but she'd watch it," he said.
Since the 1980s, the Ilitch family has been increasingly active in the Detroit real estate market. Many of their projects have been hailed as key elements in the city's effort to revive its downtown.
The family, however, has its critics.
Some urban development and preservation advocates question why many historic properties owned by the Ilitches have stood empty and decaying for years. For example, the family's plan to tear down the long-vacant Madison-Lenox Hotel -- designated an endangered site by the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- has evoked public protests, and the city's historic commission has twice turned down the Ilitches' application for a demolition permit. The family maintains that they have thoroughly explored all the options and restoring the hotel is simply not viable.
Although Ilitch owns most of her ventures jointly with her husband, the casino is an exception. As owner of the Tigers, Mike Ilitch is prohibited by Major League Baseball rules from owning any gambling interests.
Ilitch, who currently owns 25 percent of MotorCity, is paying $525 million for the 53.5 percent stake in the casino owned by Mandalay Resort Group. One of three Detroit casinos, MotorCity is being sold because of the pending merger between MGM Mirage Inc. and Mandalay. MGM already owns Detroit's MGM Grand Casino, and Michigan law prohibits the company from owning more than one casino in the city.
Ilitch also is buying an 11.5 percent stake held by Atwater Entertainment, a group of more than 100 local investors, for $106 million, and the remaining 10 percent from another local investor, Tom Celani, for an undisclosed amount.