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Frederik Meijer, 91, founder of the 197-store regional supercenter chain bearing his name, died late Friday in a hospital in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., after suffering a stroke.
Meijer, who most recently served as chairman emeritus of the chain that operates stores throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, is credited with pioneering the supercenter format in the 1960s.
A native of Greenville, Mich., where his father opened a grocery store in 1934, Fred married Lena Rader, a cashier in that original store, in 1946. She survives him, along with their three sons, Hank, Doug and Mark.
Meijer helped his father build the family’s tiny grocery store into a chain of supermarkets. In 1962, the chain opened its first Thrifty Acres store in Grand Rapids, a huge one-stop shopping discount emporium. As the company grew, Meijer became known as an advocate of promoting people from within, an outspoken champion of civil rights and a zealot for low prices.
Known to his employees simply as “Fred,” he was known for his competitive spirit and a keen sense of his own humble origins. In industry affairs, he was one of the longest serving directors of the Food Marketing Institute (formerly the Super Market Institute), and winner of its Sidney Raab award for outstanding service.
"If you run your own business, whether it is one this size, or any size, the fun is being able to make your own decisions, right or wrong," Fred Meijer told Progressive Grocer during an interview in late 2006, when Meijer Inc. was honored as PG’s Retailer of the Year. "Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong, but they are yours to make. They are not going to be dictated by some corporate headquarters answering to Wall Street."
A pioneering entrepreneur renowned for his successful business skills and community leadership, Meijer’s late patriarch summed up his company’s status as one of the remaining family held retailers in the nation in six words: "I would say it is a joy."
And though Fred Meijer was fiercely proud of his company’s rich history and local heritage, he remained committed to keeping its trailblazing reputation firmly intact, as was further relayed during his interview with PG in 2006: "We think company tradition is good, as long as one of the traditions is being an innovator."
In his adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Meijer played a vital role in the early years of the local Urban League and Goodwill Industries, and helped lead downtown urban renewal efforts. In 1984, he worked with a group of civic leaders to build the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on the west bank of the Grand River. He also served on the Cleveland District Board of the Federal Reserve.
While the Meijer name became synonymous with many civic and charitable undertakings that helped local medical institutions and educational facilities, many consider Meijer’s most significant contribution to be the 1994 creation of the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which ranks among the finest in the world, in a complex which has become one of the region’s leading attractions.
Meanwhile, leaders at Grand Valley State University mourned the passing of Meijer’s former chairman emeritus. “As a university community we deeply regret the loss of Fred Meijer," said university President Thomas J. Haas. "Mr. Meijer’s generosity, from the beginning of Grand Valley’s history, has been critical to our success and has helped make us the university that we are today.”
Jeff Chamberlain, head of the Frederik Meijer Honors College, said the program “won’t be the same without Fred Meijer’s regular contact with our students, faculty and staff. He was an incredible supporter of our programs and our students, but more than that, he was our friend. We will deeply miss him.”
Meijer also had close ties to WGVU public television and radio. "Grand Valley's public television and radio stations broadcast from the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University," said Michael T. Walenta, general manager at WGVU. "Fred's support for PBS and NPR has enriched the lives of everyone who watches television and listens to radio in West Michigan. We will be forever in his debt."
Meijer was a faithful Grand Valley supporter. His generosity had a major part in making construction possible for the Richard M. DeVos Center, GVSU Meijer Campus in Holland, and Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.
A member of the Advisory Cabinet for The Grand Valley University Foundation, Meijer was a university supporter since the early days of the school. His generosity helped create the Eberhard Center and the Meijer Public Broadcast Center, the building from which WGVU broadcasts its public radio and television stations.
After donating land to help create the Grand Valley State University Meijer campus in Holland, Mich., he became a member of the “Land Barons.” Under the leadership of Richard M. DeVos, this small group of philanthropists helped secure land and funding for the Grand Design 2000 Campaign. Meijer’s dedication to the project helped Grand Valley expand its downtown Grand Rapids campus and the Eberhard Center.
In September 2003, Meijer’s commitment to the construction of the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences in downtown Grand Rapids was recognized with the naming of the Meijer Family Floor. His gift helped ensure that education would join health care research and delivery as a cornerstone of the emerging health enterprise in Grand Rapids.
Meijer was recognized as one of the university’s Grand Stewards in June, 2011. To honor his distinguished career as a successful businessman and community leader, GVSU also awarded him with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in 1982, while in 1986, was inducted into the university’s Hall of Fame. Ten years later, in 1992, the Economic Club of Grand Rapids named him their Businessperson of the Year. Most recently, in 2004, he received the Business Direct Weekly 30 over 60 Leaders Award.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 people are expected to pay tribute to Fred Meijer this week at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. Memorial boards will be placed along lines to get into the Gardens for people to sign.
Meijer stores will also feature a memorial book at the entrance of each store for customers to sign.