Strictly Business: Visionary Fred Meyer

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoGordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

As a teenager, Fred Grubmeyer decided to explore life beyond Brooklyn and headed west. He briefly tried his hand at gold mining in Alaska but realized his small miner's shovel was no match for the mountain in front of him. The young man found his way to Portland, shortened his name to Meyer and over decades built a chain of shopping centers that made him a local household name.

Fred Meyer was sometimes charming but often a bully, calling his wife, Eva, and stepson, Earle A. Chiles, both employees, "dummies" in corporate meetings and berating executives for hours on end. Meyer could cut people off cold. After a business dispute in 1927, Meyer never spoke again to his brother Henry, who lived in Portland another 40 years. But often an outburst would be forgotten by the next morning.

Portland author Fred Leeson tells Meyer's life story in gritty detail in his new biography, "My-Te-Fine Merchant: Fred Meyer's Retail Revolution." Leeson, a retired Oregonian reporter, became curious a couple of years ago about the man who cultivated a friendly public image with his signature bow tie and walking cane. He discovered a trove of forgotten oral histories of Fred Meyer Inc.'s top executives at the Oregon Historical Society that helped him bring the legendary retailer's story to life.

With only a grade school education, Meyer pioneered self-service grocery shopping and is one of a handful of merchants nationally credited with creating one-stop shopping for everything from clothing to cookies. His influence extended to Sam Walton, who paid a visit to Portland to gather ideas for his growing chain of Wal-Mart stores.

Leeson portrays Meyer as a man with a single-minded focus on business success who eschewed the trappings of wealth. The sudden death in 1960 of Eva caused Meyer to turn even further inward to business matters and to a handful of executives who, in many cases, shared his humble beginnings.

Meyer's entrepreneurial instincts were rarely wrong. Meyer's first Walnut Park store in Portland was an instant hit in part because it attracted customers from Vancouver, who'd been hit by a state sales tax instituted the year before. His first Clark County store, in Hazel Dell, opened in 1962.

Meyer's boundless determination became a flaw later in life when he refused to cede control to his deputies or to deal with tangled property ownership and other financial issues. After Meyer died in 1978 at age 92, the wounded company sold three years later to the Kohlberg Kravis Roberts private equity firm and then to Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. in 1999.

Meyer left a legacy of philanthropy through the Meyer Memorial Trust, which his will directed be created after his death.

Greatness, it seems, is seldom accompanied by courtesies or charm. But Meyer's uncomfortable mix of moxie and meanness make him worthy of our recognition and respect.