Alex Grass dies at 82; founder of Rite Aid

An attorney by training, Grass came to retailing almost by accident when he went to work for his father-in-law's grocery distribution company in 1951.
(Rite Aid Corp.)
Times Staff And Wire Reports

Alex Grass, who opened a small health and beauty aids store in Scranton, Pa., in 1962 and built it into Rite Aid Corp., one of the nation’s largest drugstore chains, died Thursday. He was 82.

Grass, who was also a philanthropist, died of lung cancer at his home in Harrisburg, Pa., said Elizabeth Grass Weese, one of his four children. He had had the disease for a decade.

An attorney by training, Grass came to retailing almost by accident when he went to work for his father-in-law’s grocery distribution company in 1951.

Grass had noticed an absence of stores that sold health and beauty aids at competitive prices, so he opened one in his native Scranton and called it Thrif D Discount Center.

By 1968 the chain had grown to 50 stores, and its name was changed to Rite Aid when it began trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The public offering earned the family $8.75 million, a large sum at the time for an initial offering.

When Grass stepped down as the company’s chairman and chief executive in 1995, Rite Aid was the nation’s largest drugstore chain in terms of total stores and No. 2 in revenue.

“I didn’t think this business would be anywhere near this successful,” Grass told the Harrisburg Patriot-News in 1995 as one of his sons, Martin, prepared to take over the company.

“But apparently our method of operation was superior to a lot of other competition,” he said.

Over the next few years, he watched Rite Aid unravel as his son aggressively expanded the chain.

Martin Grass was ousted from the Camp Hill, Pa.-based company in 1999 after being implicated in an accounting scandal that nearly destroyed the company.

The younger Grass is serving a federal prison term for conspiracy stemming from an overstatement of Rite Aid’s earnings in the late 1990s.

After Alex Grass left Rite Aid, he pursued other business interests, including the Fleer/SkyBox sports trading card company that he and another son, Roger, bought in 1999. The business was closed and sold off in 2005.

Alexander Grass was born Aug. 3, 1927, to Louis and Rose Grass. His businessman father died when Alex was 9, and he later recalled a hardscrabble childhood.

“It’s probably the reason I worked so hard and wanted to achieve so much, because I started with so little,” Grass told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2000.

His philanthropic legacy includes a $14.5-million medical building named after him at PinnacleHealth’s Harrisburg Hospital and $1.5 million he gave to establish the Alex Grass School of Business Leadership at Harrisburg Area Community College.

He also contributed $1.5 million to the University of Florida, where he earned his law degree in 1949, to establish a chair for its Center for Jewish Studies and construct a new law school building.

Grass was divorced from his first wife. His second wife, Louise, died in 2007.