DETROIT – Five days after resigning as president and CEO of the Detroit Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment, Tom Wilson has accepted a similar post with the Ilitch organization.
Wilson will serve as president and chief executive officer of a newly created enterprise that will work across the Ilitch sports and entertainment businesses.
Tuesday morning, Christopher Ilitch introduced Wilson, who was greeted by a stand ovation from nearly 1,000 colleagues from various Ilitch companies, who gathered for the announcement at the Sound Board theater inside MotorCity Casino Hotel.
Upon his introduction, Wilson – who spent 32-years with the Pistons and their late owner Bill Davidson – joked with his new colleagues, “You are going to be so disappointed.”
Wilson will be anything but a letdown. He comes to the Ilitch organization with tremendous credentials. Under his tenure, the Pistons not only won three NBA championships, they were widely regarded as one of the best marketing entities in all professional sports. He spearheaded the building of the Palace of Auburn Hills, which even some-20 years later is a state-of-the-art facility that has been duplicated many times over throughout NBA and NHL cities.
“I am so excited,” he said. “I’m a little nervous because I haven’t been the new kid in about 32 years, so it is a lot to learn and a lot to know. But this is such a great opportunity for me.”
One of his first focus areas will be leveraging the sales and marketing strengths among the Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and Olympia Entertainment. He will also look to identify other areas of collaboration among the other Ilitch companies, while also seeking out new business opportunities.
“Today is a landmark day for our entire organization,” said Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. “Tom Wilson is a visionary in the industry, who will make an immediate impact on our continued growth. He has revolutionized the business in many ways during his career and will continue to do so. His genuine passion and enthusiasm, coupled with his outstanding leadership abilities, promise to take our successful businesses to an even higher level.
“We have an amazing organization today, with tremendous employees and excellent leaders. And like any successful team, we’re always looking for ways to grow, to improve, to become even better – and to take on new challenges. Tom will play a vital role in helping us achieve these business goals and identifying synergies across our companies. He will have autonomy and support from me, and I know our other business leaders look forward to working side-by-side with Tom to enhance the collaboration among our companies.”
In his new role, Wilson will report directly to Christopher Ilitch.
While the Ilitch and Davidson camps have been highly-competitive over the years for the sports and entertainment dollar in southeastern Michigan, Wilson said that he has always respected what the Ilitches have done in the industry.
“The one thing that was always frustrating, for as much success as we could have, we always felt that we were chasing the Winged Wheel, we were always chasing that Old English D,” Wilson said. “The passion that people have for these two brands was something that was amazing. No matter how hard we tried we just couldn’t catch it, and so the old adage – if you can’t beat them, join them – and today that’s what we’re doing.”
Wilson said that there are amazing correlations between his former boss, Bill Davidson, and his new boss, Mike Ilitch, who were often like-thinkers when it came to growing their businesses.
Examples that Wilson offered were Davidson’s purchase of the Tampa Bay Lightning and of DTE Energy Music Theater, and Ilitch’s acquisition of the Fox Theatre and the Red Wings in the early 1980s.
“You sort of look for parallels,” Wilson said. Having come off of a fairly utopian sort of situation with Mr. D, you know, what’s the difference and what are the similarities? And it was interesting. Mr. I loves crazy ideas. Buying the worst hockey team 20 years before we thought of it here with the Wings and turning it around into a huge success. Buying the old Fox Theatre when it was run down and decrepit and turning it into a jewel for the city.”
Wilson told colleagues that the decision to join the Ilitch leadership team was a thoughtful process.
“It was the hardest decision I ever had to make, other than when my wife proposed,” Wilson joked. “I was going back-and-forth, back-and-forth, and my daughter came up to me and said, ‘Dad, what would you tell us to do?’
“I couldn’t believe that she had been listening. And I thought about it. And I thought of a story that I used to tell our senior staff. It’s funny what sticks with you when you’re a kid.”
The story that Wilson conveyed involved an episode of the old TV show The Twilight Zone, where the lead character – an old successful, self-centered, sadistic boor – made a pact with the devil to surrender his riches in order to return to his youth.
For Wilson, the story has two messages with practical business applications.
“It’s the wonderful journey that you’re on every day from working with people that you sometimes forget are your friends,” Wilson said. “They’re not just your coworkers. They’re not just staff. They’re not just colleagues. These are friends that are going on this life journey. So we may get angry with each other, and we may struggle with each other, and fight with each other, we may have turf battles, but at the end of the day embrace every single day as long as you possibly can, because you can’t go back.
“Message No. 2 was for me, which if you had the chance to do it again, grab it, and do it again. We’ve been so blessed with so many opportunities in our life, and talking to Chris about the things that he’s thinking about doing here, and the vision that he has for this company – visions are just dreams with substance – and his visions are so strong and where he wants to take this that it was something that I just had to do. … To be a part of this is exciting for me and it should be exciting for you.”
Wilson finished his introduction by telling Ilitch colleagues that in business there are no small parts.
“Everyone plays a role,” he said. “Can we do it better? I think you always can. You tend to grow in different ways and you wake-up one day and you say, ‘From a thousand-feet aren’t we doing this a little bit wrong. Are we taking all of the great assets that we have and using them together? Are we taking the 10- or 12- or 14 million people that pass through the collective doors and selling them on other products? Are we maximizing the influence that we have to make everything that we have to be a little bit more successful? That’s going to be the challenge.”