(Reprinted from Report to the Community with permission of Vancouver Public Schools.)
Fred Meyer President Lynn Gust and Kroger President/Chief Operating Officer Mike Ellis are anomalies. In a working world where the average employee tenure was 4.6 years in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both have built decade-spanning careers with Fred Meyer and its parent company, Kroger.
Both have risen to top posts within their organizations. And both can trace their trajectories back to a common origin: Hudson’s Bay High School.
The oldest of three children, Vancouver-born Gust attended Harney, Ogden, Glenwood, and Marshall elementary schools and McLoughlin Junior High School. In 1968, as a sophomore, he entered Bay, where he played the drums and baseball, joined the German club, and never missed a football or basketball game.
Ellis, one of five children, moved to Vancouver from Longview at a young age. The family eventually settled in the Minnehaha neighborhood, where Ellis’ parents still reside. He attended Minnehaha Elementary and Lewis Junior High School before advancing to Bay in 1972. He played junior varsity basketball one year.
Both fondly recall the Bay faculty. “The way that they taught subjects and about life helped me be more prepared when I went out into the work world. It allowed me to be flexible depending on who I was working for or customers I was dealing with,” said Gust.
He sought grocery store work in 1970, when he was a junior. After a talk with the manager of the Fred Meyer store on Fourth Plain Boulevard, he signed on as a parcel clerk at $1.60 an hour.
Ellis’ involvement in the Distributive Education Clubs of America led him to the workforce. After a year at a carwash his sophomore year, he also was hired by the Fourth Plain Fred Meyer, becoming a parcel clerk in 1975 and earning $1.65 per hour.
“They told me, ‘When you’re going from Point A to Point B, you never walk; you always run,’” said Ellis of his first day. “I got home that night and had never been so tired in my life.”
Gust and Ellis, who would meet only years later, loaded grocery bags into customers’ cars, swept floors, rounded up shopping baskets and carts, filled the dairy case, and re-shelved items. During the school year, Gust worked 20 to 24 hours per week; Ellis’ weekly hours sometimes reached into the high 30s. Homework was completed during the school day, or before shifts. Getting up for school could be difficult.
Despite the challenges, both graduated on time. A few months after his graduation, in 1971, Gust embarked on what would become a six-year stint with the National Guard. He spent six months on active duty. When he returned to Vancouver, he enrolled full time at Clark College with the goal of getting a law degree. He also returned to the store on Fourth Plain.
Fred Meyer promoted him to be “an assistant assistant assistant manager,” he said. Before long, he discovered that working at Fred Meyer could be more than just an after-school job. In 1972, he entered the food management program and became a food department manager in 1979. The law degree eventually fell by the wayside.
Over the next three decades, Gust’s roles included training coordinator, grocery buyer, director of grocery sales, and group vice president of special projects. In 1997, he attended the Cornell University Food Executive Program. In 2006, he became executive vice president of corporate merchandising and advertising. A promotion to vice president of operations came in 2011. “Every day, every decision you made had an impact on 30,000 employees,” he said. “Knowing that everything you do will produce immediate positive or negative results really makes you be on your best behavior and push yourself.”
Ellis also stayed with the company after his graduation, in 1976, and, similar to Gust, realized that he needn’t look far to find his professional path. “If you worked hard and did well, you could advance and have a great career,” he said. His first management job was at the Fred Meyer in Longview, followed by stores in North Portland and Vancouver. In 1989, he became Fred Meyer’s frozen food buyer. Over the years, he supplemented his on-the-job training with college classes, including Cornell’s program.
Ellis was named director of grocery in 1992 and senior vice president of Fred Meyer’s Food Group in 1999, the same year Kroger acquired the company. In 2004, he was promoted to Kroger’s group vice president for grocery, drug, general merchandise, pharmacy, and advertising. He returned to Fred Meyer as its president two years later. The first store built during his six years at the helm was the Grand Central Fred Meyer.
In that role, one of Ellis’ priorities was sustaining associate engagement. He said, “If we can connect with our associates and they find Fred Meyer to be a great place to work, then they will connect with the customer in a more meaningful way.”
In 2012, Ellis left the Fred Meyer presidency for a senior vice president position with Kroger. He became Kroger’s president/chief operating officer in January 2014. He resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.
His daughter, McKenna, a Skyview High School graduate, is a sophomore at the University of Oregon. His son, Nicholas, graduated from Prairie High School and Clark College and lives in Seattle. Ellis plans to return to the Northwest someday.
Gust succeeded Ellis as Fred Meyer president—what he calls the best job in the world. He and his wife, Julie, a retired nurse, live in Portland. They have four adult children, nearly all University of Oregon graduates and two of whom are attorneys. Gust serves on several boards, including that of the Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. He still plans to attain a law degree.
The former Eagles have grown up in Fred Meyer and flown high, but both say that the greatest rewards of their career trajectories have been personal. Said Gust, “We’ve got some great people in this company, and I like to think I may have had a small part in helping them get where they are.”
Ellis echoed that sentiment. “When you can help people’s careers, help them grow and develop and provide for their family, that’s good stuff,” he said. “That’s really what it’s about at the end of the day.”