Hendrick Meijer: The Paradox of Thrifty Generosity

Do you have a favorite grocery store that you frequently visit? There are many different reasons to like a grocery store: price, cleanliness, food selection, location, fellow shoppers, familiarity, etc. My Mom loves “Hardings” because they play good music-even though they have awful food selection and people are regularly caught shopping lifting (the most recent story was of a woman running out of the store with a package of bacon concealed under her armpit). My favorite grocery store is Meijer (pronounced My-er) because it has low prices, great food variety, and a clean store. I try to avoid Kroger because it is a little dirty and Walmart is more circus then grocery store (I was there a couple days ago and witnessed a employee yelling at a customer for asking a question). I have gone to Meijer my entire life so I thought it would be good to learn more about its founder Hendrick Meijer in the book Thrifty Years: The Life of Hendrick Meijer by Hank Meijer.

Hendrick Meijer (1883-1963) was born in the Netherlands and lived a very hard life as a manual laborer during his teen years. The Netherlands did not allow for upward mobility and had strict class divisions between the rich and poor. Feigning the arduous labor of factory work, Meijer set sail for America to build a better life for himself. Hendrick settled in Holland, MI which was a Dutch town that emulated the piousness and tight-knit community of the old-world. For the next five years he did odd jobs in foundries but never found a niche that fit his dynamic personality. Eventually, he took up the trade of barber and found a stable job in Greenville, MI. Thereafter, his childhood sweetheart, who had been waiting 5 years for him to get a steady job, moved to America to be his wife. Meijer had two children and continued his barber profession until the Great Depression. At nearly 50 years old, the Great Depression took away most of Meijer’s clients and he needed to figure out some other form of income. He had an empty building and the advice he was given was to open up a grocery store-“everyone needs food, even in a Depression.” At that time however, the small town of Greenville had over 20 grocers with almost a 100% failure rate; as soon as one would fail someone would change the sign and open a new store. Meijer was different from the other grocers because he was honest, cut prices even while sacrificing profits, and cared for the customer above all else. His determination to offer the lowest prices and work 16 hour days, 7 days a week led to more customers and eventually several stores. When Meijer died in 1963 he had dozens of stores throughout west Michigan and a business that had millions of dollars of sales annually. Today, Meijer is privately owned with 213 stores, 72,200 employees, and 15 billion dollars in yearly revenue.

Hendrick Meijer is a very admirable man because of his character and generosity towards other people. When Meijer was running his first store he was the only grocer who accepted “taboo” food stamps from the downtrodden of the Great Depression. Meijer was obsessed with getting the lowest prices for his customers even if he didn’t make money on the sale; for most of his life his business was barely profitable because of this approach. He had three of his stores burn down and each time he said “we will rebuild” without flinching-living a creed that you can’t worry about the things outside of your control. He was a practical joker who loved to make people laugh and would always talk with his employees and customers as if they were his long-time friends. Meijer was a innovator who wasn’t afraid to fail and who made a whole new life for himself at the ripe age of 50. I learned a lot from Meijer and I think that his life has inspired me to live with more character and less worry about the future. I think many people struggle today because they try to figure out their life story before it happens. Emulate Meijer with his openness to change and his resilience in the face of life’s obstacles. My goal is to be less thrifty with my generosity and hopefully impact people positively just like Hendrick Meijer did throughout his entire life.

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