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John V. Shields Jr. dies; Trader Joe's CEO made grocery chain a powerhouse

John V. Shields Jr. dies; Trader Joe's CEO made grocery chain a powerhouse
Trader Joe's Chief Executive John V. Shields Jr. in the grocery chain's Pasadena store in 1995. He cared less about carrying products continuously than carrying products that were new and unusual. "We are a fashion food retailer," he said. (Los Angeles Times)

John V. Shields Jr., a former CEO of Trader Joe's who made the quintessentially California grocery chain a national powerhouse by breaking out of the Golden State and building stores throughout the U.S., has died. He was 82.

Shields, who lived in Thousand Oaks, died Oct. 31 after a lengthy illness, his family announced.

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During Shields' tenure, from 1988 to 2001, sales surged from $132 million annually to more than $2 billion. Despite questions about whether frostbitten customers would cotton to TJ's laid-back style and genial, aloha shirt-clad "crews," Shields charted a course relentlessly eastward and expanded the chain from 27 stores to 174.

"He was nervous about whether they would be able to transfer the culture of Southern California to the East Coast," said Mark Mallinger, professor emeritus of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management.

"They had to maintain the image of being a neighborhood specialty grocery store in a national market," Mallinger said. That meant chatting up customers — but not so much that they'd fail to return for another jar of mango chutney to top off their curried veggie burgers. To establish company culture in foreign surroundings, Shields sent effervescent SoCal clerks into the unknown.

At a new store in upscale Scarsdale, N.Y., one of them admitted to The Times in 1997 that some of the more reserved locals daunted him.

"They've kind of got the 'droid thing going," he said.

Still, Shields, a man who seldom wore a tie to work, saw no choice but to grow or be locked into the maximum hundred or so stores he thought the West Coast could support.

"I said, 'Fine — what do we do after that?'" he told Mallinger in a 2003 Graziadio Business Review interview.

Born March 23, 1932, in Illinois, Shields went to high school in San Mateo and studied European history at Stanford University. Working the breakfast shift in a dining hall his freshman year, he befriended fellow "hasher" Bill Rehnquist — "a warm individual with a sly sense of humor," as Shields later described him, who went on to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

One of Shields' fraternity brothers at Alpha Kappa Lambda also became famous. Joe Coulombe, who sold Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door as a student, founded Trader Joe's.

Shields graduated in 1954 and received an MBA from Stanford in 1956. After two years in the Army, he joined Macy's as an executive trainee and left in 1978 as vice president of operations. He held a similar position at Mervyn's until he retired in 1987, moving with his wife Juliana to the desert community of Indian Wells.

Five weeks later, Shields was a consultant for Coulombe at Trader Joe's. The two had kept in touch over the years — they even collaborated on a business plan for Pronto Markets, which morphed into Trader Joe's — and now Coulombe needed some advice about expanding the business. When he retired a year later, Shields took over as chief executive, bringing his own management style to the job.

"Joe had run the company for 26 years basically as a benevolent dictator," Shields told a California Lutheran University business forum in 2010.

Shields said he spent days in stores asking employees, "What are we doing at the office to screw you up?"

"And, boy, I filled up 20 notepads," he said.

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He urged employees to have fun at work and sought out upbeat sorts who might just do it.

"John told me that when he'd interview someone for retail, he wouldn't hire them if they didn't smile within 30 seconds," Pepperdine's Mallinger said.

Shields also sought out a stream of novel items for the shelves, some packaged under store labels such as "Trader Jose's" and "Trader Ming's."

"He loaded the stores with as much fun and interesting merchandise as he could find," Chain Store Age magazine said in 1993. "He worried less about carrying products continuously, and more about carrying products that were new and unusual."

"We are a fashion food retailer," he told The Times in 1995.

The chain is owned by the Albrecht family trust in Germany, which also controls the Aldi supermarket chain in Europe. Coulombe sold it in 1979.

Shields retired in 2001 but continued speaking to business classes and conferences.

His survivors include sons John Shields III and Michael Shields; daughters Kathleen Shields and Karen Haake; and five grandchildren.

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