Fresh Ideas: He’s the man who inspired Sam Walton |

Fresh Ideas: He’s the man who inspired Sam Walton

Ursula Carlson
For the Nevada Appeal

When Frederick Meijer, age 91, died in Grand Rapids, Mich., I couldn’t help but moan, “Oh, no. Not him. Not Fred.”

I was visiting my childhood friend Ruth who was already up and listening to the news. We commiserated and then made a run to the nearest newspaper stand. In fact, the story was front page news. In the Grand Rapids Press it merited that plus a four page spread, testimony to the fact that almost everyone in Michigan bemoaned Fred’s death. I’m not certain if President Ford (a Grand Rapids boy, after all) received more news coverage at his death than beloved Fred.

Of course, my own (and Ruth’s) connection to Fred went deeper than anyone else’s since we grew up in Greenville, Mich., formerly known as “Danish Festival City” but whose claim to fame these days is “The Birthplace of Meijer.”

Actually, it was Fred’s father, Hendrick, who as the practically starving immigrant from Hengelo, the Netherlands, opened his first grocery store on June 30, 1934, at age 50. By then, Hendrick had been in the United States for 27 years. He had been a foundary worker, a lace salesman, a barber, and a dairy farmer. A social democrat politically, a sympathizer of the Industrial Workers of the World, a risk taker, a lover of history and adventure, he took on the 22 grocery stores then operating in tiny Greenville and beat them at their own game.

What began as the Northside Grocery eventually grew into what are now 197 Meijer Supermarkets across five states including Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. Forbes magazine puts the family business at number 13 in the ranking of America’s largest private companies with annual sales at $14.6 billion. Fred himself was worth $5.2 billion but “you would never know it from meeting him,” as anyone who ever knew him would attest.

Fred Meijer is considered the founder of the modern supermarket: the one-stop shopping store which is both a grocery and department store. (The Meijers gave credit to Zola’s story of the Bon Marche for its low-margin retailing, wide variety, and low prices.) Fred (as did Hendrick before him) believed in keeping the business in the family, so when Sam Walton wanted to pay him a call, Fred made himself unavailable. Those who worked with Fred said that making money was never the ultimate goal. It was giving excellent service to the customer and providing the best quality products for the lowest price possible. Fred’s goal was to be the best in the field, not the wealthiest.

And yet that’s not the end of the story. All of us who have ever shopped at Meijer’s know that Fred reached his goal. We are also grateful and more than a little in awe of the good he has done, especially for those who live in Michigan. He has given millions upon millions to education, medicine, nature, and the arts. His Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and botanical gardens has more than 640,000 visitors a year and is ranked among the 100 most-visited art museums in the world. (It features the monumental bronze horse Leonardo da Vinci never completed.) The Grand Rapids Press lists 38 institutions and organizations as “some” of the places Fred has funded through the years. He has made a huge difference in the lives of everyday people.

To no one’s surprise, he was a man who lived most of his life in a simple ranch house in Grand Rapids; never owned a “vacation” home anywhere; never had yachts or any other trappings of wealth. He visited his stores regularly, knew cashiers by name; chatted with customers. Of his philanthropy, he said, “I can take credit for being a supporter, but I’m a supporter of people with wonderful dreams.”

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.