Lyle Everingham, CEO who saved Kroger from a takeover attempt, dies at the age of 94

Without Lyle Everingham’s leadership, Kroger might be a different company than it is today. Everingham introduced modern technology to the stores and saved the chain from a takeover attempt in the late 1980s.

Everingham died Wednesday, according to an obituary posted by Geo on H. Rhode & Son Funeral Home. He was 94.

Everingham planned to go to college but enlisted in the military during World War II. When he returned, he got a job with Kroger and never finished his training.

Everingham began his career at Kroger in 1946 as a warehouse boy in the Adrian, Michigan store.

The entire Everingham family worked at Kroger at one point, so it was no surprise when 20-year-old Lyle Everingham followed in the footsteps of his older siblings. At one time, five members of his family worked in the same business.

“The store manager obviously had to be patient to endure so many Everinghams,” he told The Enquirer in September 1983.

Everingham saw Kroger not just as a place to work, but as an opportunity to learn.

“I don’t think I should have an experience without learning something, good or bad,” he told The Enquirer in September 1983.

Everingham rose to the rank of Vice President of Product Merchandising and President of the Food Stores Division before becoming President, then CEO and Chairman of the company.

In 1988, Kroger was faced with a takeover offer from the Haft and Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. (KKR) family.

Many at Kroger, including Everingham, turned down a takeover because they saw what KKR had done to other companies like Safeway and laid off thousands of employees.

However, Kroger’s board of directors considered the proposal. Tom Murphy, group vice president of human resources and labor relations, said the board felt it had to do so out of its obligation to shareholders.

At a meeting in New York, Everingham met with the board to discuss KKR’s proposal. Everingham, who was usually calm and relaxed, gave an impromptu speech telling them that Kroger also had a responsibility to the communities it served and to the thousands and thousands of its staff.

“(It was a) moving, unplanned, impromptu speech that absolutely turned the few board members who were seriously considering it,” Murphy said. (It) changed everyone’s minds within minutes, and it was something to see him who is not known for his eloquence really change the direction of the board of directors completely. ”

Instead of selling to KKR, the board decided to implement a restructuring plan.

Don Dufek, former senior vice president, said the failed coup at Kroger marked the first time KKR failed to take over a company that wanted to take it over. Both he and Murphy attribute that success to Everingham – and say if it weren’t for his lead, Kroger would be very different today.

During his time at Kroger, Everingham also made many changes such as the introduction of scanning technology and the placement of pharmacies in the branches. It resulted in meat and fish counters being run as separate departments, giving these employees a sense of ownership, Murphy said.

According to a September 1977 Enquirer article, Everingham oversaw the expansion of the grocery store to include items such as cosmetics and small electronic devices in addition to groceries.

“I think people thought he was the father of the modern day Kroger company,” said Larry Kellar, former group vice president of real estate and finance at Kroger.

Everingham was working on building larger stores, which was considered controversial at the time.

Dufek said that was what made Everingham a good leader: he was not afraid of making difficult decisions and doing what he believed was in the best interests of the company, its employees and customers.

According to his former co-workers, Everingham was the kind of boss everyone wants.

Murphy reported to Everingham directly, saying they had a weekly meeting where Everingham would ask what he was working on and give him his undivided attention. Everingham would ask a few questions and get Murphy to see for himself how to improve the plans instead of telling him what to do.

Despite being the CEO, staff said Everingham was approachable.

“He was the kind of person to share anything with,” said Dave Dillon, who worked under Everingham and later became chairman and CEO.

Everingham also took great care of its employees and customers. Dufek had colon cancer, but said company insurance wouldn’t cover his surgery. Everingham spent hours fixing the problem.

It was actions like this that made Everingham so popular with those who worked for him.

As Dick Bere, former senior vice president put it, “It’s hard to replace a guy like that.”

In 1990 Everingham retired from Kroger.

The next year he was in the first group to be inducted into the Greater Cincinnati Business Hall of Fame.

He also served as the trustee of the University of Cincinnati and received the school’s honorary doctorate. He has also served on the boards of Bethesda Inc., Cincinnati Milacron Inc., Central Trust Co., Capital Holding Corp. and Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s).

When he was named Great Living Cincinnatian by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber in 2002, Everingham turned the spotlight on others. “It is not me who should be recognized,” he said. “It’s the people I have been connected with that have enabled me to be identified as a contributor.”

Everingham was preceded in death by his wife Rlene (nee Lajiness) and sister Donna Miller. He leaves behind two daughters, Nancy Hensley and Christine Tucker; one son, Mark Everingham; three sisters, Jackie Smith, Joan Schill, and Lind Porter; two brothers, Bob and Jim Everingham; six grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

Services are held privately. Instead of flowers, the family asked people to contribute to the Cincinnati Hospice.

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