Pillar of My Perception


It is quite possible I would have been content or even happy for the last nine years if not for Mike Ilitch and people like him. Like most organizations, Little Caesar’s had various documents like the Founding Principles, Founding Philosophies (I can’t remember their exact titles but I remember they were two very different lists), Stakeholder Operating Principles, and so on but the #1 rule at the top of whichever was the most common (it’s been a while, cut me some slack) was,

“Little Caesar’s must be a fun place to work.”

It was. I grew a lot. I learned a lot. A great many people who I respected and admired encouraged me and help me along. I miss them.

Little Caesar’s and New Horizons Computer Learning Centers of Michigan (as superior to franchises in other states as you may have heard) are the firm foundation of my very high standards for co-workers and employers. I worked with people that loved what they did, wanted to be, if not the best, then at least great at what they did. They were role models. I miss them.

I am continually disappointed and frustrated with anything less. I’ve spent the nine years since I left Detroit baffled at the Bizarro World that is, apparently, corporate life everywhere else. Thanks, Mr. Ilitch — you ruined me for everyplace else. Though I worked around him, I never worked directly with him so have but one story and I’d like to share it with you so you’ll know what a cool guy and gentleman he was.

Rebecca*, a co-worker, and I walked into the Fox Theatre (current world headquarters of Little Caesar’s, across the street from Comerica Tiger Park which he also owns) at the same time as Mr. Ilitch one day after lunch. After stopping to show the security guard our IDs, we caught up with him in the lobby at the (world’s slowest) elevator.

The doors finally opened and he walked in but we stayed where we were because our boss (the one bad apple in an otherwise orchard of excellence and professionalism) warned us to never get on the elevator with an Ilitch because it was disrespectful or something to make them stop on another floor on their way to the top. Our boss wasn’t the only one who tried to instill fear of the sixth floor in people and, obviously Mr. Ilitch was aware of such nonsense because he waved us on.

We, of course, were like, “No that’s totally cool” but Mr. Ilitch rolled his eyes, waved again and said, “Come on.”

On the elevator, I felt obliged to return this courtesy by trying — for once in my life — to make small talk so I wouldn’t, you know, be ignoring him. I couldn’t think of anything else to say so, still irritated about the security guard asking me to show my badge every single time I entered the building for three years, I asked, “So, do they, uh, make you show your badge, too?”

“No,” he said in a deadpan way that would intimidate those smarter than me into shutting up, “No, we’re past that.”

Too nervous or stupid to leave it at that, I kinda blurted (at a reasonable volume), “So, how are ya?”

Full disclosure: I can’t remember if he said “good” or “fine.”

“Fine,” he deadpanned again, “A bit hung over, but fine.”

He paused for just the perfect amount of time and said, “Kidding. I’m kidding.” just in time for the elevator doors to open on our floor.

Not only was he a gentleman and let us on the elevator but he was genuinely friendly and very, very funny.

And he let us play baseball on the field across the street. And had ice-skating company Christmas parties at Joe Louis Arena. And they paid for me to go to film school so I could make great training and motivational videos for them. And they let me use the recording equipment to make a short film that got shown at Cinema D, the Detroit film festival.

A couple years ago, I interviewed at the headquarters of a Florida furniture company. They asked me some questions about my experience, specifically Little Caesar’s, corporate culture, what I liked about it and so on. I got a little choked up talking about how awesome the Ilitches were and how they treated their employees. The recruiter told me I didn’t get the job (despite getting through 2-3 interviews) because I “got emotional” during the interview. I have one thing to say about Badcock and that interviewer: [potty word] them. Mr. Ilitch’s passing is a great loss–not just to Detroit but to leaders and stewards of outstanding workplace values–and I get emotional about [another potty word] like that.


*While learning to use the new camera equipment they bought me, I went around to various desks and offices asking people to say nice things about me …

That’s Rebecca who sat next to me. She loved it when I’d play it on repeat which I did often (the first part of this sentence is a lie).

It was a fun place to work. Mr. Ilitch’s values live on.