Saturday, November 26, 2011

Super Fred

Fred and Lena Meijer
Fred and Lena Meijer, from the Fredrick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

Rest in peace Mr. Meijer.

Frederik Meijer, the Grand Rapids billionaire credited with inventing the supercenter store format in 1962 that made his Meijer chain a successful Midwest retailer and was copied by Sam Walton for his chain Wal-Mart, died Friday at age 91.

When I was a little kid, going to the first "super" market at 28th and Kalamazoo with my great grandmother was always an adventure. They had toys!

As a boy, Mr. Meijer worked on the farm and delivered milk door-to-door by horse-drawn wagon, while dreaming of attending college, perhaps studying history. He gave up that dream to help run the store.

In 1942, he and his father opened a second store in Cedar Springs, and a few years later, Mr. Meijer married Lena Rader, a cashier in the Greenville store. In 1949, they opened a third store on Fuller Avenue in Grand Rapids. The chain continued to grow, and, in 1962, father and son considered a venture unprecedented in the retail business: combining a grocery store with a general merchandise discount store.

On the verge of going ahead with it, Mr. Meijer asked his father, “What should we do?“

Hendrik Meijer mulled the question a moment, then said, “Well, I don’t think I’d do it.“

Mr. Meijer was surprised, knowing his father had favored the venture. Why would he back out now?

“If we go broke and I die, I don’t want you to blame me,“ the elder Meijer explained. “I want it to be your decision.“

It was the father’s way of passing command to the son. Mr. Meijer went ahead with the plan, expanding the grocery store on 28th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue into the chain’s first hypermarket — or supercenter — called Meijer’s Thrifty Acres. More stores followed in Lansing, the Detroit area, then into adjacent states.

While Meijer's contributed to the demise of the smaller urban grocery stores, they also kept Wal-Mart at bay in this area (although we still have both). Sam Walton wanted to buy him out in the 70s, and he said no. The rest is history.

What happens to the chain now is up to the kids.

In 2010, Forbes magazine listed Meijer Inc. as the 15th largest privately owned company in the country, with estimated annual sales of $14.25 billion. The same year, Fred Meijer was listed as 145th on Forbes list of world’s richest with an estimated personal wealth of $5 billion, ahead of DeVos who ranked 176th.


In November 1963, the year before his father died, Mr. Meijer, then 44 years old, took out sheets of lined papers and wrote out long-hand his plan for the business’s future in case of his own death. His heirs could sell the business, manage it by committee or formulate another plan to continue operating, he wrote.

“First, I would prefer you not sell out,“ he wrote. “I would like to see the business continued, because on a sellout, many of our key employees would lose their jobs.“

A major philanthropist in this community, and always a part of my life. I'm on my way to one of his stores today. And I must tip the hat and offer thanks for his splendid Meijer Gardens Sculpture Park, a beautiful and very popular place to visit.

The Press has an extensive biography here.