|Birth: ||Dec. 7, 1919|
|Death: ||Nov. 25, 2011|
Fred Meijer, Chairman Emeritus of Meijer Corp., passed away Friday evening, November 25, 2011 at the Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids, Michigan after suffering a stroke in his home in the early morning hours.
Mr. Meijer — Fred to most who knew him — will be remembered for his philanthrophy. He invested millions into West Michigan, including creating the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which quickly became one of the state's top destinations.
Mr. Meijer's family became one of the richest in the country, yet the patriarch of the Walker-based retail chain once remarked: "Money is only a tool. And money doesn't buy happiness."
If that's true, Mr. Meijer found pleasure in giving much of his away, and the people of West Michigan were the beneficiaries.
Mr. Meijer's rise in the world of business began simply enough in Greenville during the depths of the Great Depression. When his father, Hendrik, a Dutch immigrant, couldn't find a tenant for the space above his barber shop, he opened a small grocery there in 1934.
Frederik Gerhard Hendrik Meijer was born Dec. 7, 1919, in the family's farmhouse on the north edge of Greenville. His surname might have been Meyer or Myer but for a Greenville attorney, who used several variations on the name while filling out legal papers. Fred's father decided to go with the spelling on his naturalization papers: Meijer.
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.
As the chain grew, it caught the attention of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton who tried to meet with Mr. Meijer in the 1970s to talk about buying the Meijer business. Not wanting to offend Walton by saying no, Mr. Meijer said he was too busy.
Had Walton succeeded in buying the Meijer chain, it would have dramatically altered the course of Grand Rapids' economy, which grew over the following decades with Meijer and other major local companies.
Even if its founder was irritated, Wal-Mart never hid the fact the one-stop-shopping center format that catapulted it into retail dominance was based on Meijer's innovative concept.
As the Meijer patriarch celebrated his company's 75 year history in 2009, there are no regrets about taking a different path than rival Walton in Arkansas. Mr. Meijer believed that ultimately gave him more control over how his stores treat customers and employees.
"We've had umpteen offers to take us public. We've all agreed we would rather do our own thing," said Mr. Meijer in 2009.
Staying private meant growing slower than some other chains but keeping control of the company's direction.
Mr. Meijer was not afraid to take risks. Neither was he your typical entrepreneur. In the introduction to the 1995 book "Fred Meijer In His Own Words," his son Hank described him as a "puritan with a rebel's disdain for convention."
He may have inherited that rebellious streak from his maternal grandfather, Gerhard Mantel, a man he met only once as a child.
Mantel, who remained in the Netherlands, associated with Dutch anarchists and socialists. He was a vegetarian, an advocate of birth control, women's rights and a pacifist. He opposed Nazism, the church and capitalism.
Meijer, though clearly a capitalist, shared some of his grandfather's concern for the disadvantaged and skepticism of government. He was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and favored a woman's right to choose abortion.
As his wealth grew, so did his influence. He became active in the Urban League and advocated for civil rights and affirmative action.
He was not overly religious but was interested in religion, figuring there were positive things in all organized faiths. He once recalled that a prominent member of the community, worried about Meijer's salvation, once told his wife, Lena, "We have to get Fred right with Jesus."
At first he declined to name the community member, then, without prompting, said: "It was Rich DeVos," the Amway co-founder.
He and DeVos were contemporaries, members of a generation of entrepreneurs who built their businesses in the Grand Rapids area and gave much back to the community.
Not that the expansion of the Meijer corporation was without growing pains. The banks occasionally balked at lending it money, and Meijer sometimes couldn't pay the bills on time. In recent years, the company laid off hundreds of employees to remain competitive with Wal-Mart and other chains.
Its workforce now numbers 60,000, down from 72,000 a decade ago. The company operates about 200 stores in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky.
In 1992, Meijer led the company into the wholesale membership business, opening seven SourceClub stores in competition with Wal-Mart's Sam's Clubs. The following year, Meijer closed the SourceClub stores.
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.
Years ago, Mr. Meijer put the family-owned corporation into trust for his three sons and future generations.
Meijer never was comfortable discussing his personal wealth.
"I do not think money equates to brains," he once said, "and I do not want to get into the position that people think just because we built these stores, now we ask Fred's opinion and it is worth more than if he did not build the stores."
For years, he and Lena Meijer continued living frugally. He usually drove an older car, and the couple lived in the modest Grand Rapids home they built in 1957, where they raised their three sons. In later years, they moved into a condominium in the Cook Valley Estates development operated by the Porter Hills retirement community.
Throughout his career, Meijer was committed to assuring his company's survival.
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."
Later, Mr. Meijer put the family-owned corporation into trust for his three sons and future generations.
That commitment to continuing the company after he is gone reflects Meijer's attitude toward his growing workforce, that every employee — "associates," he called them — deserved to be treated with dignity.
"When you have good people, you've got to let them do their thing, make mistakes and be human," he said.
He was equally committed to assuring the company's integrity. When the company underpaid a supplier by $10,000 and no one had caught the error, Harvey Lemmen, who later would become the company's deputy chairman, asked Meijer what he should do.
He recalled his boss's answer: "We'd scream if we had overpaid it, so... let's tell them."
In 1990, Mr. Meijer handed control over to his sons, Hank and Doug, who became co-chairmen of the company's executive committee. Hank has served as CEO since 2002.
Meijer continued his involvement with the company as chairman emeritus and continued as the company's unofficial ambassador, slapping an employee on the back for a job well done, chatting with customers and passing out his ever-present Purple Cow coupons, redeemable for a free ice cream cone.
Looking back on the business he built, he once said: "It has been an interesting life, and I would not have missed it for anything else in the world. But believe you me, it was a lot of hard work."
Retirement gave him more time for his community involvement and philanthropy, as he delighted in seeing what his money could do for the area's hospitals, colleges and cultural institutions.
In 1992, he was the major contributor for a Kent County park in Cannon Township that became known as the Pickeral Lake Fred Meijer Nature Preserve. He gave a section of the Berlin Wall to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
He never would discuss how much money he donated to various causes, but among the recipients was Grand Valley State University, which named its public broadcast center after him.
When Spectrum Health began a $30 million fund drive for a proposed heart center, Fred and Lena Meijer became the lead donors. In 2004, the hospital opened the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.
In November, it performed its first heart transplant. In May 2011, Mr. Meijer was awarded the second annual Richard M. DeVos award by the American Heart Association for his philanthropic efforts to improving prevention and care for cardiovascular disease.
Mr. Meijer began working at an early age in the grocery business and grew his father's store into a leading supercenter. Now located in five states throughout the Midwest, the chain has nearly 200 stores and almost 60,000 employees. Meijer is ranked as the 18th largest privately held company in the country.
Along with that growth, the Meijers developed a love for philanthropy that is evident in West Michigan.
The breadth of his generosity donations covers four major areas: trails, culture, education and health care.
Hendrik Meijer (1883 - 1964)
Gezina Mantel Meijer (1886 - 1978)
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
Created by: Patti Podboy
Record added: Dec 10, 2011
Find A Grave Memorial# 81795376