How a French Fantasy Inspired an American Institution

How a French Fantasy Inspired an American Institution

Why you should care

Because this guy beat Wal-Mart to the punch and had no designs on world domination.

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“You can sit on my lap,” the elderly man told the child, pointing to a statue of himself at a Michigan park. Instead, 4-year-old Andrew Furman climbed into the real Frederik Meijer’s lap. The billionaire laughed and handed the youngster coupons for ice cream good at any of the more than 200 superstores bearing his name.

Andrew, now grown, and his mom, Amy, are ardent fans of Meijer stores, which stock everything from motor oil and soda to Tonka trucks and telephones. The original American one-stop shop, Meijer inspired the now ubiquitous Wal-Mart and Target, but its founder refused to go either national or public. In fact, Frederik Meijer refused to sell out to Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton, preferring to remain private and expand slowly. In western Michigan, where Meijer grew up, the chain is an institution — the favorite destination for customers looking to buy cereal, guns and medicine under the same roof.

“Fred” to most everyone, his isn’t the story of an immigrant’s son conquering the world; instead, he chose to do the exact opposite — remaining fiercely loyal in a bid to do right by his community.

Until his death at age 91 in 2011, the man Forbes had named the 44th richest American two years earlier was a regular presence at his stores, chatting with customers, distributing coupons and even bagging groceries. Meijer’s friendly disposition and family-oriented management style gave his stores a small-town feel that appealed to staff and shoppers alike. “Fred” to most everyone, his isn’t the story of an immigrant’s son conquering the world; instead, he chose to do the exact opposite — remaining fiercely loyal in a bid to do right by his community.

Meijer’s dad, a Dutch émigré named Hendrik, ran a barbershop in Greenville, Michigan, where the pair dreamed of opening a shop like one they’d read about in Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames. The book describes the Ladies’ Paradise shop, which sells every kind of product under one roof. “Hendrik passed the book on to Fred, and it continues to occupy a place of prominence in his library,” wrote Bill Smith and Larry ten Harmsel in Fred Meijer: Stories of His Life.

Father and son opened Meijers Grocery Store (later renamed the Thrift Market) in 1934 with merchandise Hendrik had purchased on credit. Three decades later, Hendrik passed the reins to Fred, who took their dream a step further, launching the first supercenter, Thrifty Acres, in 1962.

In thick and thin, Meijer stores were known for fair prices, convenience, principled leadership and philanthropy — priorities that secured the loyalty of customers throughout the Midwest, where the chain eventually expanded to five states. Liz Kaufman, of Okemos, Michigan, is one such customer, noting that Meijer has been “our source for almost everything” for 44 years. “The staff are always helpful, and the customer always right,” she says. For Jeff Nemic, who grew up in Rockford, Michigan, the 24-hour shopping bonanza was the major draw. “It was the only place where you could buy flannel shirts, gummy bears and tropical fish at two in the morning,” he says.

“An honorable leader has to be driven, always, by conviction,” Fred Meijer was quoted as saying, and this “do right” attitude earned him the respect of his staff. In one surprising instance, a manager who’d been fired for incompetence was later discovered to still shop at the store. When asked why, the man replied, “Meijer was always good to me, and they have the best prices. So why not?” In addition, Meijer, an early proponent of civil rights, was committed to integrating Blacks into management and challenged a lawsuit by a white former employee who’d been fired for mouthing off and refusing to work for a Black manager.

For Diana Morgenstern, of Byron Center, Michigan, Meijer’s philanthropy is what stands out the most. “Meijer Gardens and the Heart Center are incredible gifts to the community,” she says. The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which opened in 1995, offers nature trails, sprawling gardens and a 21-foot bronze horse sculpture inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci statue. Meijer and his wife, Lena, led the fundraising for the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, which opened in Grand Rapids in 2004, as well as the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, named in honor of former Meijer colleagues.

So why didn’t Fred Meijer go public and take on the world? “Stockholders demand profit statements every three months that are made public,” he once said, noting how his company was involved with lots of projects he deemed “respectable” — namely, charitable work — that “are sometimes not considered to be good business.” When Meijer died, he may have been one of the richest men in America, but his fellow Michiganders hailed him as a local business leader who consistently put community first.

In the words of a loyal customer, Amy Furman, he was, simply put, “a very nice man.”

This editorial article was originally created by OZY Media and published on OZY.com prior to, and independently of its inclusion in this JPMorgan Chase & Co. sponsored series. OZY Media claims the full rights and responsibilities of this article.

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