Hailed as an economic “tipping point” and as an attractor for more prospective urban tenants into downtown Mobile by Mayor Sandy Stimpson, Lafayette Land Company and the Greer Family jointly hosted the official groundbreaking (and 103rd anniversary kickoff) for the new Greer’s in St. Louis Street Place development in downtown Mobile on Wednesday.
It is the latest ongoing project for the family-owned chain’s now 30-something sites spanning three states, and the groundbreaking proceeded as planned despite the passing of family patriarch Jack Greer on July 2, at the age of 91. A moment of silence was observed at the event to honor his memory.
“The Greer Family, while mourning the death of Jack Greer, made the courageous decision to proceed with this groundbreaking as the newest addition to the redevelopment of the St. Louis Street corridor, ” Robert J. Isakson, president of locally owned Lafayette Land Company, said.
The 13,500-square-foot space is located in the circa-1936 historic, former Davis Auto Parts store located at 260 St. Louis Street. The new high-tech site will also be near the site of one of their oldest stores. In the 1930s a Greer’s store was open for business around the 800 block of St. Louis Street, a brief horse and buggy ride away from the epicenter of a currently bustling Central Business District.
“The company was started downtown in 1916 by my grandfather, Autry Greer, on the corner of Water and St. Michael streets,” Jan Greer Endfinger, director of human resources and daughter of Jack Greer, said. “Dad always said that ‘the show must go on’ and was very excited about us coming back to downtown to support the progress the city of Mobile and other development groups are doing.”
Born on Sept. 26, 1927, 11 years after the first store started, Jack Greer graduated from Murphy High School and then afterward from The University of Alabama. He also served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army, stationed at Camp Lee near Petersburg, Virginia, where he received an honorable discharge.
Jack Greer started working for the family business at 21, bagging and checking groceries. He labored in various roles, moving up the company ladder, before becoming president in the 1980s. Greer retired in the early 2000s, moving aside for fourth- and fifth-generation relatives to take over stewardship of the family business.
Prominent family scions assuming roles of responsibility after his retirement included Stephen Thomas, Lucy Greer Cheriogotis, Gray Fobes and Les Buerger, holding various executive roles within a company now employing over 1,000 across the central Gulf Coast.
“Over my 39 years in the grocery industry, we have witnessed a huge consolidation, which is still going on to some extent,” Jack Greer told Lagniappe in 2016 for Greer’s 100-year anniversary.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, large regional chains dominated the big markets. Smaller independent grocers like Greer’s filled in the niches and smaller markets. Big-box retailers have driven out or caused many of the regional chains to buy each other and consolidate. This has made it tough for independents to survive, but the struggle has made our company better and more competitive,” he said.
In 2014, the company partnered with Ace Hardware Corp., a retailer-owned hardware wholesaler that began operation in 1924. Greer’s currently operates four Ace Hardware Express locations in Mobile, Theodore, Bay Minette and Quitman, Mississippi.
Jack Greer and his wife of 70 years, Janice Wheeler Greer, made every major business decision together as a partnership, according to Endfinger.
“Every important decision or idea Dad ever had over the years was first discussed with my mom,” she said. “It should be known that she played a huge role in the growth of our business over the decades as well as being the backbone of our family, helping raise four children. Dad wouldn’t have made any major moves on the business without her blessing. They were a true team.”
An example of this was on display when Jack and Janice were presented the Lou Fox Community Service Award by Associated Wholesale Grocers in 2016 for Greer’s 100th anniversary celebration. That same year they were also recognized as the “Grocery Retailer of the Year” by the Alabama Grocers Association.
Also noteworthy were Jack Greer’s lifetime efforts to help preserve the local environment and waters of Mobile Bay as a founding member and supporter of Mobile Baykeeper. He and his wife also helped preserve two historic buildings: St. Michael’s Catholic Church and the 1859 Toulminville School, which were moved to the property — Sunny Cove Village located in Theodore near appropriately named Greer Road — and renovated on-site. The Colonial Dames of the XVII Century, of which Janice Greer is a member, arranged for the historical marking at the school.
A posthumously published book, “How to Get Along in a Family Business,” is tentatively expected to come out sometime next year, per Endfinger. “There are 22 rules laid out in the book that Dad put together through his experiences of managing all the challenges of our company,” she said.
Jack Greer is survived by his wife, four children — Janice Wheeler Greer Endfinger (Gene), Jack Vidmer Greer Jr. (Sally), Julia Claire Greer Cone (Louie) and Kathryn Murrell Greer Martindale (George) — 12 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
With an eye on the future, ambitious plans are in place for the high-tech development opening downtown. These include a five-story building with 29 luxury apartments, 8,000 square feet of retail space, a gymnasium, an upscale corner restaurant and 5,000 square feet of office space restored from an 1860s-era warehouse.
To date, nothing with this sprawl or ambition has ever been developed by the family, indicating an educated perspective on modern needs for a century-old company.
“We have come full circle to our beginnings in downtown Mobile,” Endfinger said. “We feel one of the greatest joys of a family business is for different generations of people to work together and learn from each other. The old teach the young and the young keep the old ones feeling young and energized — all throughout the business. As Jackie Greer liked to say, ‘We’re not 100 years old, we’re 100 years young.’”
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