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Fred Meyer’s: A Oregon Icon

October 20, 1998 GMT

Since Fred G. Meyer began opening grocery stores in Portland in the 1920s, the company has grown into more than just a one-stop shopping retail giant _ it has become an Oregon icon affectionately known as Freddy’s.

Monday’s announcement that the nation’s biggest grocery chain, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., bought Fred Meyer Inc. in an $8 billion merger came as a shock to many people who had grown up with the stores.

After all, Freddy’s was not only Oregon’s biggest private employer, it was just plain big _ a place that under one roof stocked everything from shoes to sheetrock, paint to potatoes, stereos to strawberries.

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And no matter how big it got, it never lost its identity with a mild-mannered, bow-tied man whom employees still spoke reverently of as ``Mr. Meyer.″

``The old guy died in 1978, but I must have had at least 10 people come up to me today and say how sad it was that the old man’s store was lost to a major conglomerate,″ said Gerry Pratt, a longtime employee of Meyer.

``At Disney, when you have lunch down there, they say, ‘Thank the mouse,‴ said Norm Myhr, senior vice president of marketing. ``What we say here is, `Thank the man in the bow tie.’ ″

Born in Germany in 1886, Meyer grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a family of grocers and rode the rails out West at 19 with dreams of striking it rich in the Alaskan gold fields.

When mining didn’t pan out, he headed for Seattle, where a slick-talking salesman sold him a store in Portland near the railroad depot.

While the store was indeed near the train depot, it had been left with few customers after the shopping district moved, so Meyer loaded the goods in a wagon and peddled them to the nearby logging camps. He used the profits to open a tea and coffee stall.

As Portland grew from a rough-and-tumble logging town, Fred Meyer stores grew, too, pioneering the idea of one-stop shopping where people could buy clothes, hardware and groceries. The chain now counts 282 stores in 19 states, 45 of them in Oregon, where it employs 13,000 workers.

One of them was former Sen. Mark Hatfield, who boxed groceries in the Salem grocery store in the late 1930s.

``As I read that Fred Meyer was sold today, you sort of start to feel you are just a field station to major companies,″ Hatfield said. ``People of my generation, we miss these corporations that had really become a part of Oregon.″

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A skillful promoter, Meyer once held a grand opening with the promise he would give away a baby. The idea created a public uproar, but when time came to award the lucky couple, the baby was a pig.

But Meyer was also a charitable man, keeping an eye on the newspapers for people in need, often writing checks on the spot.

After his death at age 92, his $100 million fortune endowed the Meyer Memorial Trust, which now distributes about $20 million a year with the idea that even small gifts can have a great impact if thoughtfully given.

In 1929, Meyer founded Portland’s first self-service drug store and in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, opened his first suburban store in a bankrupt car dealership in Portland’s Hollywood district.

``Portland had outlawed double parking downtown, and Mr. Meyer thought this would be bad for business,″ Myhr said. ``He would go out and collect the parking tickets off the windshields. This was like the first market research. He would take the tickets down and pay them. But he would get the addresses of the customers. Then he would plot them on the map. He noticed they were all driving in from the Hollywood district. He opened that store on the basis of where the pins on the map were.″

Meyer was also know for finding good managers. One of his finds was Pauline Lawrence, who poured coffee at the cafeteria where Meyer and his wife had lunch every day. When Meyer decided to put coffee shops in his stores, he hired Lawrence to run them. When she retired she was a senior vice president and served on the board of the Meyer Memorial Trust.

Twenty years after his death, executives still pull out the quotes from Mr. Meyer to guide them in business decisions _ quotes like ``Never confuse activity with progress.″

``He had a genius and a great idea,″ Myhr said. ``Our whole deal here is, ‘Don’t mess it up.’ ″

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