Retailer Fred Meijer’s Life

Fred Meijer: Stories of His Life
by Bill Smith and Larry ten Harmsel,
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
351 pp, $11.00 cloth, 2009

At a time in American history when successful businessmen are widely viewed with disdain—as selfish plutocrats divorced from any moral sense and interested only in feathering their own nests with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice—it is refreshing to read about a successful entrepreneur whose life reads in large part like something out of Horatio Alger. It will be remembered that Alger (1832–1899) entertained American readers of the nineteenth century with hope-engendering novels telling how the poorest slum-born boy was capable of rising to great heights, in terms of wealth and the much-deserved love of his fellow men, through gritty determination, square-dealing, thrift, and much hard work.

Fashionably sneered at today by the kept iconoclasts of the faculty lounge, the Horatio-Alger hero can still be encountered today. Retail magnate Frederik Gerhard Hendrik Meijer is one such person; and in Fred Meijer: Stories of His Life his pleasantly old-fangled (but never out-of-fashion) beliefs and admirable deeds are celebrated by those who have known the man. His story presents a different vision of the possibilities for a free-market system grounded in traditional values.

The retailer renowned for a Midwestern chain of big-box stores that sell groceries, garden supplies, clothing, and nearly everything else a person could possibly need, Meijer was born in 1919 and reared duringthe Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression in small-town Michigan. He grew up on the western side of the state’s Lower Peninsula, where many of the families areof descended from old-time Danish and Dutch stock: meaning hard-working, self-denying, teetotaling, and stubborn, believing that if a person fails at one venture, there’s always tomorrow to summon one’s courage and try another.

Young Fred was the oldest of two children born to Hendrik and Gezina Meijer, Dutch immigrants who raised their son and his sister Johanna on a dairy farm in the town of Greenville. Unlike anything one would read in Horatio Alger, Hendrik and Gezina were what we would call leftists today: each had anarchistic and (in her case) feminist leanings inherited from the Old World, though each embraced a great love of the United States and her capitalist system. Though none of the family was or is religious, they (like Russell Kirk, the founder of this periodical) lived what would today be considered morally upright lives, living on the bank and capital of faith and upstanding conduct inherited from previous generations.

Contrary to the words of an old John Denver song, life on the farm was far from laid-back: in truth it was hard work, but the Meijers expected nothing less. Still, it was not all work, for both the children learned music at home and found time for occasional fun times with friends. To help make ends meet, Hendrik Meijer operated a barber shop in town on the side, and in time he decided to expand his business to become a grocer, with teenage Fred as his partner. That was the beginning of the family’s true rise and the founding of their fortune.

During his early years as a businessman working with his father, long before the expansion of the family store into a chain, Fred Meijer learned the importance of paying close attention to the details of business while pursuing a hard-working, stick-to-it discipline that combined a stubborn desire to succeed with business savvy and a non-religious sense of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—with his employees as well as his customers. Of those early years the authors write, “For Fred it was a busy life, focused on the intricacies of maintaining a business where a price difference of a penny could make a significant dent in the family fortunes for the week. One can see the emergence of his lifelong habit of paying meticulous attention to details while not losing sight of the big picture.”

The rest of this heartfelt book records the rise of Meijer from a small-town grocer to the chief of a retail chain that is part of the fabric of life throughout much of Michigan and the states immediately south of the Wolverine State. In the Midwest at least, the Meijer stores today stand as a major competitor to several nationally known competitors, such as WalMart, K-Mart, and Target. The recounting of his successes and the major events in his life—his marriage, the raising of his children, the lessons learned in life and business—are served up with homely anecdotes and glowing testimonials by many friends, family members, business associates, and satisfied customers. Each story points to the central truth that at age 90, Fred Meijer—just plain “Fred” to all his employees—has adhered to the same humble, self-effacing but stubborn, humane, but business-savvy values that enabled him to rise in the first place.

There are dozens of stories scattered throughout this volume that portray Meijer in this light, and in conclusion we might cite the following as typical and telling. A Meijer employee named Gabe Ensenat recalls: “I was relatively new to the company, having just come from K-Mart, when our son became seriously ill with a heart problem. He was in intensive care, and the prognosis was bleak. Fred somehow heard about the situation and came by to say he wanted to help. “He had us flown to the Cleveland Clinic on the Meijer plane, and made arrangements with the specialists to operate on our son. I’m convinced that his action saved our son’s life. I’ve always believe that God puts people in our lives just when we need help. My family will be forever grateful thatthere are the Freds of this world, who put people before business.” Such businessmen are fewer these days, when an abstract “global capitalism” has largely replaced the rooted, local businesses that formed the backbone of American economic success and tradition of liberty. With this book, we see that such men are with us still.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999), Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow (2005), and numerous book reviews.