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Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.
Joe Pichler’s childhood home in St. Louis was always filled with family devotion and classical music, but make no mistake about it: He wasn’t raised on Easy Street.
To the contrary: In high school this retired business executive, frequently named one of the nation’s most powerful by Forbes during his illustrious career, worked weekends and summers at a gas station. While at the University of Notre Dame, he worked more than 30 hours a week and held more than 20 jobs during his college career, from washing dishes and scrubbing floors to operating an elevator and washing bottles, the latter two positions at a St. Louis brewery.
Born in 1939, the fifth of six children, a strong family bond helped Pichler through the loss of his father and mother during his high school years. That family strength – along with a challenging Jesuit high school education – formed the core values of discipline, strong morals, respect, compassion and curiosity that guided his career to the post of chairman and CEO of The Kroger Co., the nation’s top grocery retailer, as well as to become regarded as one of Cincinnati’s foremost civic leaders.
Pichler’s father, Anton, an Austrian immigrant who worked as a waiter most of his life, and his mother, Anita, taught their children to respect people of all walks of life. “My parents didn’t judge people by their occupations,” Picher says. “To them, the person who cleared tables was just as important and valued as the chef. They taught us that every job is important because it contributes to others. That is a value I still hold dear.”
With the death of his father and mother, Pichler’s sister, Marian, moved back home with her new husband to care for the family. Later, during college, Pichler lived with his elder brother, Frank, and his family, and relied on his brother’s financial support during his first two years at South Bend. “They gave me a gift I can never repay,” he says of his siblings.
As a college senior, Pichler applied for a Woodrow Wilson scholarship for postgraduate work and was Notre Dame’s first business student to win the prestigious liberal arts award. He graduated magna cum laude in 1961 and earned a master’s in business from the University of Chicago in 1963. He continued at Chicago, earning his doctorate in 1966. The intensity of his training left an impact. “At the University of Chicago, learning is a contact sport.”
During graduate school, Pichler married Susan Eyerly, who taught English at an inner-city Catholic high school. In 1965, Pichler joined the faculty at the University of Kansas School of Business, where he taught for 15 years. Between 1968 and 1970 he also served as a special assistant to the U.S. Labor Department’s assistant secretary for manpower. He also served as chairman of the Kansas Manpower Services Council from 1974 until 1978.
In 1974, he became dean of the University of Kansas School of Business. Four years later, he was asked to join the board of the Dillon Companies, a supermarket chain headquartered in central Kansas.
In 1980, the company asked Pichler to join the management team full time. “I said I can’t do that. I told them that I had a steady job as a full professor and I had four children to educate”, he recalls. When the company told Pichler his children’s education would be assured, he joined the Dillon Cos. as executive vice president. In 1983, Dillon merged with The Kroger Co. and, three years later, Pichler became president, moving to Cincinnati in 1986.
Pichler helped guide The Kroger Co. through a takeover battle and financial restructuring in 1988 and a decade later engineered the largest merger in Kroger’s history. Pichler served as chairman of the company from 1990 to 2004 and as CEO from 1990 to 2003.
Under his leadership, Kroger grew from approximately 1,200 supermarkets and $20 billion in annual sales to more than 2,500 stores, $54 billion in annual sales and 290,000 associates. On Pichler’s watch Kroger made many acquisitions including Fred Meyer, a West Coast chain of grocery and general merchandise stores.
Education has remained an important part of Pichler’s life since leaving academia. In 1989 Pichler co-founded the Greater Cincinnati Scholarship Association, which provides college scholarships to needy graduating high school students in Cincinnati. The association now provides $1 million annually to support 1,000 students a year with scholarships. The fund has grown to $25 million. “No other city has done this,” he says. “Education is a route to a full personal and professional life.”
In 2000 Pichler and his wife donated $1 million to Cincinnati inner-city Catholic elementary schools, where Susan continues serve as volunteer librarian. They have four children and nine grandchildren. His father’s love of classical music instilled a lifelong appreciation of music, a large reason why Pichler served on the Cincinnati Opera Board for nine years.
Upon moving to Cincinnati, Pichler was struck by the outreach of other business leaders to get involved in the community. “Within a week of my arrival I was getting phone calls from people like Clem Buenger and John Pepper,” he says.
“It was stunning (because) they weren’t after money. They wanted my participation. The people who called were so committed. It was very touching. Lyle Everingham, Kroger’s CEO and a great civic leader, encouraged me to become involved.”
Pichler is a member of the Board of Directors of Macy’s Inc. and is a member of The Business Council. He served as vice chair of the Board of Food Marketing Institute from 1995 to 1997 and was inducted into the Grocery Hall of Fame in 2003. He also has been involved in numerous civic and charitable activities on national and local levels. He is an emeritus member of the Board of Trustees of Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, MI, and a former member of the Boards of Catalyst and of the Salvation Army School for Officers Training.
In Cincinnati, Pichler is chair of the Xavier University Board of Trustees, an advisory member of the Cincinnati Opera, a member of the Advisory Board of the Cincinnati Chapter of The Salvation Army, a former chair of the Cincinnati Business Committee, chair of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine Community Advisory Board, and vice chair of the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation (3CDC). He chairs the 3CDC Work Group to Develop Over-the-Rhine that will add 240 condos in the neighborhood by next year. From 2001 to 2003, he served as co-chair of the Economic Inclusion Committee of Cincinnati CAN.
Among his many honors: the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Chicago School of Business in 1994; the Horatio Alger Award of the Horatio Alger Association in 1998; the William Booth Award from the Salvation Army in 1998; the Distinguished Service Citation from the National Conference for Community and Justice in 2000; induction into the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Business Hall of Fame in 2001; and the Jacob Davis Award for Community Service from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation in 2007.
Pichler is co-author of “Inequality: The Poor and the Rich in America,” co-editor of “Ethics, Free Enterprise, and Public Policy” and author of numerous professional articles in the areas of labor relations, economics and ethics. He holds honorary degrees from Chatfield College and the Cincinnati Arts Academy.
To Pichler, Cincinnati offered everything a person could want in a home. “This is a city that has resources way beyond its size,” he said. Everything, that is, except fly-fishing. “Susan and I both love to fish,” he said. “Fly-fishing is a very graceful sport and it’s completely absorbing because trout are smart.” Pichler, an Anderson Township resident, was humbled by the Great Living Cincinnatian honor. “I am deeply honored and feel very gratified,” he said. “Susan and I are grateful to be a part of Cincinnati. This city and the wonderful people here have given so much to us.”
Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization