Donald Sheldon Perkins, retired CEO and Chairman of the Board of Jewel Companies, the founding Chairman of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, and an independent director of multiple public and private corporations and not-for-profit organizations, died at his home in Northfield, Illinois on March 25, 2015 at the age of 88.
Mr. Perkins was named President of Jewel in 1965 at the age of 38 and then CEO and Chairman of the Board in 1970, a role he would limit to ten years, believing that it was important for other talented leaders to have a chance to have their impact on the company. His leadership at Jewel was marked by rapid expansion and exploration of multiple retail formats, including the acquisition of Osco Drug, Star Markets in Boston, and Buttrey in Billings, Montana; the development of discount department stores, hypermarkets, no frills supermarkets, convenience stores (White Hen Pantry); and successful partnerships with GB Enterprises in Belgium and Aurrera in Mexico. Under Perkins, the company pioneered the grocery-drug store combination, generic products, open-dating and aggressively sought other ways to serve its customers. When he retired, Jewel was no longer the small home-delivery coffee business it had started out as Jewel Tea Co. in 1899.
When Perkins became president, his role was at the bottom of what he called the “upside-down organization chart,” with the customer at the top. Each manager in the company was to serve as “first assistant” to the people who reported to him. Perkins’s focus on the development of talent made Jewel a training ground for retail executives including Tom Stemberg, founder of Staples; Sam Parker, founder of PETSMART; Robert Nakasone, Chairman and CEO of Toys “R” Us; Dick Cline, Chairman and CEO of Nicor; Dick George, founder of Ulta; John Shields, Chairman of Wild Oats; and Joe Jannotta and Bill Bennett, founders of Yoplait.
Don Perkins was also known as a champion for strong corporate governance. He recruited independent directors to Jewel, and then made a career of being an independent director in the years that followed his retirement from Jewel in 1983. As of 2006, the last time he counted, he had more than 350 cumulative years of experience as an independent director on corporate boards, including Inland Steel, Kodak, Corning Glass, Cummins Engine, AT&T, Lucent Technologies, Time Warner, LaSalle Partners, Freeport McMoran, G.D. Searle, TBG (Thyssen Bournemisza), Firestone, Putnam Funds, Aon, Springs Industries, Illinova, and Kmart Corporation. That experience led him to the creation of an annual Governance Conference, cofounded with Northwestern University and Shields Meneley Partners. He was a life trustee of Northwestern University, and served as a trustee of the Ford Foundation, the Brookings Institution and the International Council of Morgan Bank, among many other not-for-profit endeavors. He was also an active member of The Business Council.
As Mr. Perkins reached mandatory retirement age as a director of major public corporations, he found that his wisdom and experience were valued by smaller venture companies, often involved with technology, including Nanophase and Blue Ridge Partners.
The founding of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago is another way that Don Perkins’s impact continues to be felt across the Chicago metropolitan area. It stemmed from his conviction that Jewel could only be healthy if the communities the company served were also healthy. Early in its existence, the Commercial Club was best known for the development of the Burnham Plan, Daniel Burnham’s vision for the beautification of Chicago, in 1914, but had accomplished little of note since. Perkins felt that the combined talent and resources of the business leader members of the Commercial Club were untapped and he pushed for creation of the Civic Committee, which was established in 1982, with Perkins as its Chairman. Its first project was a landmark study in 1984 called “Jobs for Metropolitan Chicago,” and the Civic Committee continued to support the city and its surrounding communities with business resources and economic expertise.
Perkins credited his own success to two factors – education and volunteering. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised by a single mother, who worked as a secretary and withheld from her employer the fact that she had three children in order not to lose even that poorly paying job, he defied expectations by getting a scholarship to Yale University, where he received his Bachelor’s degree in 1949, and where his schooling was interrupted by two years of service in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. Another scholarship led him to Harvard Business School, where he graduated first in his class in 1951. Between his graduation from Harvard and his signing on at Jewel, he served as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.
A 1978 Harvard Business Review article called “Everyone Who Makes It Has a Mentor” contained an interview with Perkins and his predecessors and mentors at Jewel, Frank Lunding and George Clements. Mentoring relationships became part of the formal process for developing managers at Jewel, but extended far beyond Jewel. Perkins’s role as a mentor was something treasured by family members, CEOs of boards he served on and countless others.
An account of Perkins’s life story is contained in A Calm Temperament Expectant of Good, the memoir co-written with his daughter, Betsy Perkins Hill.
His survivors include his wife of 30 years, Jane Phillips Perkins; his brother Bob Perkins and sister Joan Gerrard; his children Betsy Perkins Hill, Susan Perkins (David MacKenzie), Frank (Mary) Phillips and Elizabeth (George) Phillips-Sorich and daughter in law, Pat Mayland Perkins; grandchildren Zachary (Mari) Hill, Andrew (Lauren) Hill, Shelley (Anthony) Getzendanner Loveridge, Christine Perkins, Jessa Getzendanner, Hal Phillips and Bennett Phillips-Sorich; and great granddaughter Charlotte Hill. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Phyllis Babb Perkins, his son, Jervis Babb Perkins and his grandson Jeremy Jefferis Hill.