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.
Mr. Meijer — Fred to most who knew him — will be remembered for his philanthrophy. He invested millions into the West Michigan, including creating the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which quickly became one of the state’s top destinations. Other contributions include: numerous donations to hospitals, universities and landmarks such as the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail and the Pickeral Lake Fred Meijer Nature Preserve.
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.
Despite having his name on numerous stores throughout the region, Mr. Meijer remained very humble. “In the early 80s, he gave Mike Lloyd, Executive Editor, Grand Rapids Press a tour of the new Meijer headquarters in Walker. Along the way he showed me his personal office, which was moderate in size and plainly furnished. He said the architect had originally included an executive washroom in his office. Fred said he flushed the bathroom idea. Being Dutch, he pointed out how expensive plumbing is to install and that his personal use of this facility wouldn’t justify the cost. “That’s what I told the architect,” he said. “The truth was, when I walk down the hall to use the same restroom as the people I work with, it’s clear that I go to the bathroom the same as everyone else.” He also said that those necessary trips got him out of his office and gave people a chance to talk with him. “Few things strip away the pomp and title of the corner office like a trip to the bathroom.”
“In addition to the penny pony rides, the other Meijer icon that is synonymous with having fun is the Purple Cow ice-cream card. Fred and Lena have passed these generously to kids of all ages. Lena personally signs each one she gives out. Fred estimates that they have distributed over 500,000 in the past four decades. Former Michigan Governor James Blanchard once yelled across a banquet room his request for a card. Jay Van Andel and Rich DeVos have lined up for their freebies. Summoned to the White House, Fred presented ice cream cards to Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Even presidential brother Billy Carter got one. Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwartzkopf have ice-cream cards, and, on the international scene, so does Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Fred always uses the cards as icebreakers. “You can always tell when Fred is in the store because the Purple Cow suddenly gets busy,” commented one store director. “The cards have no expiration date, and he once told a customer in Indianapolis, “You have fifty years to redeem that.” The man replied, “Fifty years? I’ll be with the Lord by then.” Fred handed him another card, “Well, in that case, here’s one for the Lord, too.”
For the full article, see “Fred Meijer, West Michigan billionaire grocery magnate, dies at 91“, MLive, November 25, 2011.
Excerpts from ‘Fred Meijer: Stories of His Life’, MLive, March 19, 2009.