George Jenkins Jr., the founder of Publix Super Markets Inc. and one of the pioneers of the modern supermarket, died late Monday.
Jenkins, 88, died in his sleep after being admitted Monday to Lakeland Regional Hospital.
"It's certainly a great loss," said Gov. Lawton Chiles, who knew Jenkins all his life. "He is a fellow that kind of started off in his own store sweeping floors and built this huge chain."
Known affectionately as Mr. George among Publix employees, Jenkins retired six years ago as chairman of what has grown into the ninth-largest supermarket chain in the country.
But his figure still casts a long shadow over the Lakeland-based supermarket giant he started at the dawn of the Depression. As recently as last year he was still a regular sight at store openings with his pencil-thin moustache and Publix green jacket.
Employees revered the man who ran a chain that, despite a reputation for higher prices, maintained loyalty from its customers that is unmatched by any competitor.
Publix was rated tops in the nation in 1993 in customer service by Consumer Reports.
While privately held, Publix even in its humble origins in 1930 reflected Jenkins' belief that ownership was the key to employee performance. He lured his first department managers from a competitor with stock offers.
In 1975, concerned that all employees could not afford to buy shares that had been offered to them, Jenkins turned Publix into an employee-owned company that gives them shares for each year of service. The privately traded shares can be cashed in only when an employee leaves or retires.
Jenkins was as much a cigar-chomping showman as a grocer who understood the links between shopping, entertainment and pleasing customers.
He once drove a car around the interior of a store to show off its wide aisles. Not content to just build state-of-the-art stores, he once commissioned an artist to create one-of-a-kind mosaic tile murals for hundreds of storefronts. In the early days he even passed out free flowers to lure customers.
And to teach employees to keep the stores spotless, he was known to put a quarter under a loose piece of paper on the polished wooden floor to reward whoever picked it up.
In contrast to the gregarious Mr. George, his soft-spoken, analytical and reclusive son Howard has run the company since 1990.
"My father enjoyed a long, successful life and made a tremendous difference in the community and the food industry," said Howard Jenkins. "I'm thankful he was with us to see Publix become more successful than he ever imagined."
However, one offshoot of the elder Jenkins' management style remains unresolved. His vision of paying well and promoting from within gave paternalistic Publix a highly competitive internal power structure that, like most of the supermarket industry, has been dominated by white males.
Now the company has the distinction of getting a chapter in The 100 Best Places to Work In America while fighting several lawsuits arguing that the company systematically has denied women and minorities pathways to promotion.
Over the years, Jenkins had distributed most of his Publix stock to heirs and the George Jenkins Charitable Trust. So his death probably will have little or no effect on the company's stock price. At his death he owned less than the 5 percent minimum stake required for reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Born in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1907, Jenkins first worked in his family's general store in Harris, Ga. When boll weevils decimated the town's agricultural economy, he moved at 17 to boom-time Tampa in search of his fortune.
He didn't have enough money to stay in a hotel.
"So the prospective real estate tycoon spent a nickel to ride the trolley from Ybor City into downtown Tampa and spent the first night, for 50 cents, in a little flophouse down near the river," he told a biographer in 1980. "I wrapped my 9 dollars in my sock, put it inside my pillowcase and spent a restless night with the bums on Skid Row."
He got a clerk job at Piggly Wiggly, rising in two months to manage stores in St. Petersburg and Winter Haven. But he quit in a huff after traveling to Atlanta to share his zeal for self-service grocery stores with a new owner who played golf rather than meet with him.
Jenkins opened the first Publix in 1930, right next door to his former employer. He invested $1,300 in the venture, money he had been saving to buy a car.
Over the years, his chain would grow with Florida's population and his desire for clean, modern stores, attentive service and the widest selection. He not only opened the state's first supermarket in 1940, he charted much of Florida's development by building shopping centers and anchoring them with new Publix stores.
Jenkins received honorary doctorate degrees from Florida Southern College, the University of Tampa, Stetson University and the Florida Institute of Technology. He also has been cited for service to the Boy Scouts of America and received the Alexis de Toqueville Award for personal contributions totaling $1-million to the United Way of America.
He is survived by his son Howard; daughter Carol Jenkins Barnett, a member of the Publix board of directors; daughters Delores Socia, Julie Fancelli and Nancy Jenkins; and son David Jenkins. He is also survived by his brother Charles H. Jenkins Sr., a retired chairman of the Publix board; 14 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church in Lakeland. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to any charity.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.
through the years
1907 _ Born in Warm Springs, Ga., the son of a general store owner.
1925 _ Arrives in boom-time Florida at age 17 with $9 in his pocket. Lands a $15-a-week clerk's job at a Piggy Wiggly, fully intending to earn tuition money to attend Georgia Tech. But within a year he has tripled his salary and is store manager.
1930 _ Opens the first Publix in Winter Haven. "Borrows" Publix name from a local theater.
1940 _ Opens Florida's first supermarket, sporting electric eye doors, piped-in music, terrazzo floors, fluorescent lighting and air conditioning. So customers can get chilled water from the drinking fountain, he runs a hose through a walk-in cooler.
1945 _ Purchases All American Stores, a chain of 19 small grocery stores and a Lakeland warehouse that fuels Publix's ability to grow.
1956 _ After prospering in St. Petersburg's Central Plaza _ Florida's first shopping center _ Publix buys land in Largo for its first shopping center.
1975 _ After annual sales top $1-billion, Jenkins expands his 45-year-old profit-sharing program by setting up employee stock ownership program.
1990 _ Retires as chairman of Publix.
1991 _ Publix begins march into Georgia and South Carolina. Today it has 516 stores, 75 of them outside Florida, and annual revenues of $9.5-billion.
1996 _ Dies in Lakeland at age 88.