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Xavier Magazine | October 22, 2014

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The Lesson of Life: Joe Pichler’s Climb up the Food Chain

The Lesson of Life: Joe Pichler’s Climb up the Food Chain
By France Griggs Sloat

Joe Pichler calls himself “the luckiest man in the world.” It wasn’t always so.

The man who would one day lead one of the largest grocery chains in the country began life happily enough as the fifth of six children in a family led by Anton Pichler, an Austrian who served the Austro-Hungarian empire as a soldier and emigrated in 1911 to the United States, where he found work as a waiter at Schumacher’s Restaurant in St. Louis. His long days waiting tables eventually allowed him to buy the business.

But the world of the happy, working-class, Catholic family came crashing down when Anton suffered a stroke that affected his speech and his ability to walk—and work. Pichler was only 11, but he remembers how everyone had to pitch in to help their mother, Anita, who had to manage the business by day and her family at night.

The family’s resiliency was challenged again three years later when their mother developed cancer and died. When Anton died a year later, the three brothers and three sisters turned to each other.

“It was the family supporting each other that made life not only livable but actually joyful,” Pichler says. “My sisters and brothers taught me to take life as it comes and to celebrate it.”

Pichler has been celebrating life ever since. The life lessons he learned from his parents and the Jesuit teachers who educated him about hard work and caring for others are lessons he carried into his adult life. “My parents are my heroes,” he says.

The fact they never gave up was not lost on him or his siblings. And the glue that connected them to each other after their parents were gone is what helped Pichler get through college and get his start in life. When he was accepted to the University of Notre Dame, Pichler’s older brother, Frank, and sister, Rosie, helped pay his first-year expenses with money they were saving for their own children. Pichler also worked odd jobs—21 in all—to pay his way through college, even after he was awarded a scholarship, earning his business degree in 1961. He followed that with a scholarship to the University of Chicago where he earned an MBA and a PhD in business in 1966, and a position as a tenured professor at the University of Kansas for 15 years, including six years as dean of the business school.

A lifetime of honors

• Watch: A video from Pichler being named a “Great Living Cincinnatian” in 2008.
• Watch: A video from Xavier honoring Pichler with the Founders’ Day Award in 2013.
• Watch: A video of Pichler being honored by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.

• • •

While at Kansas, Pichler served on the board of the Dillon Companies, a grocery store chain. In 1980, they asked him to join the company as executive vice president. That meant leaving academe. “It was a hard decision, but I decided it was an opportunity to run a New York Stock Exchange company.” After two years, he was named president, just before Dillon merged with Kroger in 1983. And in 1986 he was appointed president of Kroger. That’s when he and his wife, Susan, moved to Cincinnati with their four children.

“It was a company of high integrity, and I thought I could live the Jesuit mission here, being people for others, in maintaining the integrity of the company and recognizing we are an important industry because we feed people,” he says.

Outside the company, Pichler and Susan plunged headfirst into Cincinnati’s charitable communities. Joe serves on the board of The Salvation Army and was a leading figure on Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine development group that oversaw the revitalization of Washington Park and its surroundings. Susan, a former teacher, has volunteered for years as a reading tutor at schools supported by the Catholic Inner-city Schools Education Fund (CISE), which they also support financially. And together they founded the CISE Scholarship Fund that helps pay high school tuition for students from CISE elementary schools.

The combination of service work and corporate leadership caught the attention of former Xavier President James Hoff, S.J., who approached Pichler in 1993 with an offer to join Xavier’s Board of Trustees. “He was irresistible, and I had great admiration for Xavier and I was honored to be asked,” he says.

Pichler has been on the board for 20 years, including five years as chairman. This year, he agreed to chair the development committee of the board, which is preparing for the next capital campaign. Just a few months ago, he was recognized for his contributions to Xavier as the recipient of the Founders’ Day Award.

“In addition to a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, St. Louis U. High School taught us the Ignatian gifts of spiritual reflection, ethical behavior, compassion and service to others,” he said upon receiving the award. “We learned to ‘open’ ourselves in order to become ‘men and women for others.’ Does that sound familiar? I think you will find those same virtues embedded in Xavier’s ‘Mission, Vision and Values Statement.’ These ideas form the foundation for a fulfilling life. They provide perspective for considering the events of this world and they urge us to take action that all serve the common good. For Jesuits, the action word is Magis: ‘More…always more.’ There is always more good that we can do if we are open to the call.”

[Read Pichler's complete Founders' Day speech.]

Thinking about how far he’s come, he says, “My father would be amazed.” But he never takes full credit, because there have always been others helping him every step of the way. Which is why he considers himself so lucky.

“My reward is the knowledge that I’m at least trying to be a person for others, and that’s the code I started out with in high school,” he says. “People have been very generous to me, and I would feel absolutely negligent if I weren’t generous to others.”

 

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