Private, family owned, local businesses are a hallmark in this area and so, too, is the generosity displayed in community beneficence. The number of such businesses in West Michigan is among the highest per capita in any national urban area, and they are the real foundations of West Michigan’s economic vitality. From such loins have come Bissell, Amway, Steelcase, Haworth, Gordon Foods, and so many others (including this publication under the Gemini moniker) this page would not hold all the names. Almost every family business has assisted new generations and creation of new businesses, deepening that economic and philanthropic foothold. The generosity bequeathed by these fellow business community members was most evident last week as the region — and many around this country — mourned the sudden passing of Frederik G.H. Meijer. Thousands passed through the visitation site at his beloved Gardens and Sculpture Park and mourned because community members, from store clerks to the governor, nonprofit and business leaders surely expected to see him again this week, perhaps to wish him a happy birthday on Thursday, Dec. 7, or be gladdened by his ever kind words and perspective, or his inquisitiveness as to how one’s business or life is succeeding. Self-serving accounts by some media members having access for professional reasons pale for the fact that Meijer was accessible to almost anyone, almost any day; it was not an experience unique for the few.
“Fred” was as challenged as any business owner, sometimes in ways unique to his retail operation. Determination, skill and leadership “from good people” helped him compete against the in-your-face competitive encroachment of Walmart stores, openly copying the model Fred created, and building stores almost across the street from those that Fred built, marching right into his hometown.
In this place “Occupy Local Businesses” may be a better battle cry that “Occupy Wall Street.”
The examples of how much Fred gave back to this community, and others in five states, almost pales in comparison to the number of smaller business owners Meijer stores assisted; you can count the ways in the products lining the shelves at Meijer stores. Meijer was and is the store first to carry Birdola, Sue Chef seasonings, Sam’s Joint ribs … or even the product from the Grand Rapids urban children’s garden in the Baxter neighborhood, City Kids Barbeque Sauce. His willingness and desire to assist other local businesses has created hundreds of opportunities throughout the region. It also served Michigan as was demonstrated when Meijer raised eyebrows as well as headlines in 2010 when it began building in the Detroit core city at Eight Mile and Woodward Avenue. No, Meijer did not always secure the cheapest price for products, but it assured that the businesses represented were returned a fair dollar.
His concern for a community’s health and well-being most famously served to help build the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center on Medical Mile, but much longer ago, Fred was concerned that no local ambulance company was serving his community, and Life EMS was born in 1980, operated by his youngest son, Mark.
On the occasion of the dedication of the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in 2002, the chairman for the National Endowment of the Humanities commented after Fred’s remarks (he only occasionally read from the prepared script), “He is a hard act to follow.”
The best characteristic of family-owned firms is that they freely give back time and money to the community they call home in ways seen and unseen, in present and future.
We pray it may always be so.