Nurturing the Intelligent Fanatic in our Children
Meijer, a chain of grocery stores and supercenters, is one of the largest private companies in the United States. Dutch immigrant Hendrik Meijer founded the company in 1934. Hendrik and his son Fred Meijer would open two-dozen stores over the next thirty years before opening the first modern day supercenter in 1962. Fred Meijer is best known for pioneering the supercenter concept later copied by Sam Walton for his Wal-Mart chain. Today, there are over 235 Meijer stores across Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Fred’s son, Hank Meijer, who is a billionaire, now runs the company.
From my viewpoint, the greatest lesson from the intelligent fanatic story of Hendrik and Fred Meijer isn’t the founding of an empire, but how Hendrik raised, nurtured, and produced an exceptional person in his son Fred Meijer.
Let me give you some background.
Before opening his first grocery store, Hendrik Meijer had always been restless. He wasn’t afraid to try new things. Hendrik would work at a half a dozen trades from selling furnaces, peddling lace, raising chickens, almost opening a furniture store, running a dairy operation, and lastly becoming a barber.
In 1919, Hendrik and Gezina Meijer had a son, Fred Meijer.
In 1923, Hendrik took the family life savings and constructed a building with three storefronts. Hendrik’s plan was to set up his barber operation in the basement, rent out the storefronts to merchants, and the family would live in an apartment on the second floor. The plan worked for several years even though Hendrick always had issues leasing the storefronts.
When the great depression hit, the bad times hit barbers hard. Haircuts quickly became luxuries many could do without. The Great Depression was the defining moment of Fred’s youth.
"I used to study as a kid with my feet in a corn flakes box to stay warm. We only heated one room in the house during the days." - Fred Meijer
The Great Depression and subsequent decline in Hendrik’s barber business made it even more crucial to fill the vacant storefronts. Hendrik had tried to get A&P and Kroger to rent out one of the storefronts but both said no. He continued to be a barber while thinking of other ways to make money.
Finally in 1934, at the age of 50, Hendrik decided to sell the barber business to his assistant, and open up his own grocery store in the storefront. He sold almost all the families possessions so that he could outfit the store. He even traded away Fred’s violin for plaster services to finish the store.
Fred was 14 years old when his father decided to open the grocery store. Watching his father during his early years would instill a fearless determination in young Fred.
"From as early as Fred could remember, his father involved him not only in the labor of whatever project he had embarked upon, but in the decisions relating to that project as well. If he was trading a horse or buying a cow or talking over a loan with banker, he brought Fred along. When a salesman came into the original grocery store and Hendrik was next door in the barbershop, the children were in charge. Fred had been trusted to deal with the bread man or the wholesaler’s truck driver. Even when Hendrik and Fred were together, Hendrik would nudge Fred ahead and let him do the talking." - Hank Meijer
By the time Fred was in his early 20’s he had more business experience than men twice his age because his father included him in all business affairs and conversations since he was a kid. Fred would say later in life that his father engaged with him on a variety of subjects that caused him to think deeply about areas that most children and teenagers didn’t. Hendrik would let his teenage son negotiate with salesmen. He would let Fred fail and learn hard lessons. He would let Fred fall, but he would pick him up. This early business and social maturation provided an early confidence and launching pad for his later success.
"He (Fred) operated with an innate confidence born of the trust and experience that came from two decades of sharing decisions almost daily with his father." - Hank Meijer
I think the lesson learned from Hendrik and Fred Meijer isn’t that you should take your kids to your next annual accountant meeting. It isn’t that you should start a business with your kids. I think the lesson here is we need to engage with our children, and fan the flame of curiosity and conversation.
When parents don’t pay attention, listen, and engage with their kids when they talk it teaches the kids not to respect their own thoughts. When you feel like those closest to you aren’t listening you lose confidence in yourself. It’s hard sometimes to engage with our kids. I know it’s an area I need improve upon. The biggest competitive advantage a child has is having parents that value them.
"I never realized how big Home Depot was getting while I was growing up because he was always there for me." - daughter of Arthur Blank, cofounder of Home Depot
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