David Dillon’s career came full circle Tuesday afternoon.
The retiring chairman of Kroger, parent company of Dillon Stores, returned to where he got his start in the grocery business, the Dillons store at 1319 N. Main St. He visited with customers, thanked employees and even bagged groceries and loaded them into the car for Dianne Coons, an old family friend.
His parents, Paul and Ruth Dillon, came to the store to witness the end of an era. When David’s career officially ends on Dec. 31, there will be no more Dillons in the grocery business.
“I visited the other three (Hutchinson Dillons) stores yesterday with Joe (Grieshaber, Dillon Stores president), and I wanted to end here with this store because this is where I started. It’s a symbolic gesture. But the point I wanted to make to our organization is that it’s really a noble profession to be a grocer. I thought of myself my entire life as a grocer, where the idea is just to be of service to people.”
His father recalled that the North Main store actually is about a year older than his son. And his mother recalled standing with Betty Dillon, the late wife of Ray “Ace” Dillon, to pass out 5,000 red roses as customers entered the store on opening day, July 28, 1950.
“We had another store, Calhoun’s, and that was my first job,” David Dillon said. “I worked in the warehouse and the store in 1966. I was 15 then. Then I bagged groceries here. That was 1967 or ’68. I bagged groceries, mopped the floor, stocked groceries and then I became a checker. Everybody aspired to be a checker.
“After that, I had other part-time jobs. I worked at Jackson’s Dairy (another Dillons company) one summer. My job was to make sure that 52,000 Popsicles every day came out with two sticks in them.”
Dillon, 63, attended Hutchinson public schools and graduated from Hutchinson High School in 1969. He attended the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business, and went on to earn a law degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
After graduating from SMU in 1976, Dillon returned to Kansas to work for the Dillon Company, the grocery-store chain that his grandfather, J.S. Dillon, had founded. From 1977 to 1983, he was vice president for merchandising and warehousing.
Kroger acquired the Dillon Company in 1983, and Dillon continued in executive roles. In 1990, he took on the role of executive vice president of Kroger. He became president and chief operating officer of the parent company in 1995, and in 1999, Kroger merged with Fred Meyer Inc., creating the nation’s largest supermarket company.
Dillon was named chief executive officer of Kroger in 2003 and a year later was elected chairman of the board. Dillon retired as Kroger CEO in December 2013 but remained chairman through the end of 2014.
“He’s gone a lot further and a lot longer,” Paul Dillon said. “But he always loved the grocery business. He was always tagging along with us at Christmas making gift baskets in the warehouse.”
Dillon said he cleaned out his desk at the Kroger headquarters in Cincinnati a week ago, and last Saturday their household belongings were loaded onto a van and shipped to the Kansas City area, where Dillon and his wife, Dee, will be building a home so they can be near their children. They also have another home here in Hutchinson, where they visit regularly because Dillon’s parents, his wife’s mother and her siblings live here.
Dillon said that what he will miss most is the people he worked with.
“It’s the team of people at Dillons and Kroger that every day put the stores together and serve the customers and do it in such a proud way and then the next day come back and do it again,” Dillon said.
In retirement, Dillon plans to lobby state legislators on behalf of Uncork Kansas, the organization trying to change state law to allow the sale of strong beer, wine and liquor in Kansas grocery and convenience stores. Their sale is currently restricted to liquor stores in Kansas, with only “weak beer” containing 3.2 percent alcohol allowed in grocery stores.
Dillon also plans to continue as a guest lecturer at the University of Kansas School of Business. He recently joined the board of directors of the University of Kansas Hospital, and he sits on the boards of DirectTV and Union Pacific.
And he hopes to find a little more time for skiing and playing golf.
“I think I played golf three times last year. Maybe I can play four times next year,” he joked. “But definitely I plan to be back in Hutchinson regularly because it’s a special place.”