GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Frederik Meijer, the man behind retail giant Meijer, died Friday at the age of 91.
He was best-known for his work with Meijer stores, although also commended throughout the community for spreading his money to many other worthy West Michigan causes.
Background and family roots
Meijer was born in Greenville in 1919, and started working with his father, Henderik, at age 8, selling milk.
When he was 14, Fred helped his father set up Meijer's Grocery Store, in Greenville. He learned simple business principles from his father.
"Well, I had a great relationship with my father," Meijer said later in life. "He was a marvelous teacher. He was a great father in so many ways."
The Meijers renamed the family business two years later, and changed it to The Thrift Market -- creating a name that would start a retail giant.
The Thrift Market strived to teach consumers about getting the most bang for their buck. Henderik Meijer used local newspapers to advertise sales at the store.
Meijer as a business model
That focus on value continued to influence Meijer stores as the company grew.
And as Meijer Corp. became the chain of stores that we know and love today, the company also became the model for a new kind of discount shopping store that has been copied again and again, according to economists.
""It was certainly one of the reasons why Michigan -- West Michigan -- is really home of family-owned businesses," said Paul Isley, Associated Professor of Economics at Grand Valley State University. "It started or continued trends going on here in West Michigan. And many people have tried to emulate that as they've developed their own business plans."
Meijer has been a staple in the state's economy. Nationwide, Isley explained, about 1 in 100 employed people work for Walmart. In Michigan, 1 in 100 employed people work for Meijer.
In 1946, Fred Meijer met Lena Rader, a clerk at the store. Meijer later admitted that at first, he was reluctant -- but eventually gathered the courage to ask her out.
"I didn't believe in going with anybody who worked in the store," he said. "It just caused trouble if you broke up. So, I never did. But I thought, 'she's a pretty good lady,' so, the first time I asked her out, I said, 'I'm going to marry her!'"
But 1946 brought heartache that year, as well. The Thrift Market burned to the ground. The family received $10,000 in insurance to rebuild, but the repairs were going to cost $100,000.
Still, the Meijer family was determined to make something work. Shortly after, the supermarket giant Meijer was born.
Meijer Inc. now owns more than 190 stores and more than 170 gas stations in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.
Remembering his lessons as a child, Meijer gradually took over his father's share of the business.
"You give your word, you do it," he said. "Period. And you don't need a contract."
Fred and Lena -- who later married -- never forgot the community, and gave back more than what they brought to West Michigan.
Both were strong supporters of the arts, and dedicated themselves to promoting cultural and nonprofit works in West Michigan.
The Meijers led the charge to renovate the Old Civic Theater into the Meijer Majestic Theater in 2006 after a nearly $10 million facelift.
Projects, a legacy of 'family'
Fred's biggest project was the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, which still brings many activities to the Grand Rapids area. The $15 million facility opened in 1995 and is still growing.
Fred's passion was not only connected with the arts but also with nature, creating the Fred Meijer Trails Network -- covering nearly 100 miles.
Meijer was the largest single donor for the new heart center, which opened adjacent to Spectrum Hospital in downtown Grand Rapids in 2004 -- aptly named The Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.
Speaking at the dedication, he said: "But when you think of it, all the things we do ... so many of them are for future generations, whether we like it or not. We get the benefits of past generations, and future generations get the benefit of what we do."
Meijer was not only a business name, but also a family. Employees became family to the Meijers. In 2008, Fred and Lena donated to the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Center, named for two former employees.
Doctors at Spectrum Health said that though Meijer wasn't a physician, he saved countless lives through his contributions to West Michigan hospitals.
Meijer never let the family business go; a part always remained. Even into his 90s, Fred kept an office next to his son at Meijer headquarters.
He also invested in the Meijer Majestic Civic Theatre in downtown Grand Rapids; the Meijer Games; the Meijer Good Schools program, which rewards schools for good performance; and the WGVU broadcasting center.
Fred Glespie was found not guilty in the death of three children who died in an apartment fire.
Police are looking for the suspect in an armed robbery that occurred at a gas station in Plainwell Thursday night.
The rink will be open that day from 3-9 p.m.