HeroVet: Mike Ilitch, Supporting Entrepreneurial Veterans

Mike Ilitch

What does a big-time sports team owner and businessman know about veterans? Quite a lot. The Marine Corps very own, and pride of Detroit, Mike Ilitch has created an employment program to save Vets up to $68,000 in starting their own business--A Little Caesars Pizza franchise.

Mike Ilitch, who owns the Detroit Tigers, Red Wings and Little Caesars Pizza – a $1.2 billion national chain of 2,000 restaurants – was recently inspired by reading about a Kentucky soldier who lost both of his legs in Iraq. And although his rapidly growing family-run business has already contributed millions of dollars to charitable causes, he felt a need to go even deeper.

"I felt a little guilty," Ilitch told the Detroit Free Press in an interview. "All these guys going over there, getting blown up. You always want to do more. I didn’t feel good about myself. What could I do? What should I do?"

"My experiences as a Marine really helped me become more focused and organized, and helped me to set some goals for my future," Ilitch said while describing his Veteran franchise program. "These characteristics are a good fit for business in general, and for Little Caesars in particular."

Like so many of those who continue to serve outside of uniform, the urge to contribute traces from a memorable upbringing and military service. Back in the 1950s, Mike Ilitch was a struggling young baseball prospect from Detroit, who opted for the Marine Corps because of an injury and the war in Korea represented a higher calling.

He got on a military ship, heading across the Pacific. But the ship stopped in Hawaii, and Ilitch was pulled from the ranks "by a three-star general who was a big jock. He took me off the ship so I could play for a (military) baseball team in Pearl Harbor. I finished my service there."

"But it was his service at Pearl Harbor, which introduced him to wounded soldiers back from Korea and recovering at a military hospital there, which made a real impression he says." Could I have ended up that way if I had been sent to Korea? Absolutely."

After his service, Mike worked hard at door-to-door sales and later with partners in an awning business. His wife Marian was managing their finances and building up their nest egg to achieve their dream of owning their own business. In 1959, that savings account reached a grand total of $10,000, and they began formulating a plan for their first pizza restaurant.

It cost about $25,000 to open the doors of his first Little Caesars on May 8, 1959. With only $10,000 saved, they borrowed an additional $15,000, committing to monthly payments of $500 for three years.

Flash forward to 2006, and the start of the Veteran franchise initiative, which offers credits on its franchise fee, the first equipment order and financing. The offer is even better for disabled veterans.

"We wanted to create a program that was a step up, but mostly to give back to those who served our country, who were honorably discharged, and give them a career," said David Scrivano, Little Caesars president. The company has already added several veterans to its training program and hopes to add more.

"I believe that the skills I learned in the military, including a focus on teamwork, dedication and a familiarity with processes, will help me be an effective Little Caesars franchisee," said Navy veteran Patricia Evans, who will open a Little Caesars store in Valdosta, Georgia. "I’m excited about owning my own business and making decisions on a daily basis that impact the bottom line, as well as participating in the Valdosta community."

"The military teaches teamwork and leadership, which are two additional skills that are very important in growing a business," Ilitch added.

Little Caesars Veterans Franchise Benefits Program
The Little Caesars Veterans Program provides the following benefits for all qualified honorably discharged veterans: a $5,000 reduction of the franchising fee, financing benefits and, a $5,000 credit on the equipment order for the first store.

Service-Disabled Veterans
Service-disabled veterans are eligible for additional benefits, including a waived franchising fee ($20,000), additional financing options and benefits, a $10,000 credit on the initial equipment order and grand opening marketing support from leading national companies. The total benefit for service-disabled veterans can be approximately $68,000.

Image Credit: LENNOX MCLENDON/AP

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