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Michael J. O’Connor, who was a constant and vigorous presence in the development of the modern American supermarket industry, died late last week at age 86.

In 1962, O’Connor became CEO of the Super Market Institute (SMI), the precursor to the current Food Marketing Institute (FMI). “The supermarket industry had just completed a decade of explosive growth and could have lapsed into complacency,” said FMI President and CEO Tim Hammonds in a prepared statement. “Mike wouldn’t let that happen, challenging the industry to innovate and grow, always skeptical of conventional wisdom.” And, he said, “Over more than four decades, Michael O’Connor instilled in executives everywhere the mindset that drives our constant pursuit of reinvention.”

Hammonds also noted that O’Connor “introduced the supermarket industry to the Information Age long before most of the business community understood the concept.” O’Connor was a longtime friend of management philosopher Peter Drucker, and Drucker’s beliefs and philosophies played a strong and recurrent role in O’Connor’s lifetime of work in the food industry.

In a statement provided to MNB, legendary food retailer Feargal Quinn recalled his friend and colleague, describing him as “perhaps the leading shaker and mover of the Retail Food business worldwide in the past half century.

“Mike,” Quinn wrote, “a native of Iowa, served his nation with honour in World War II in the Far East. Upon his return to civilian life, he became involved in advertising, and spent some time in Brazil but was soon to accept the task of running The Supermarket Institute in the United States. That was where he found his vocation and relished the challenges of the fledging business that was to be his life work. In fact the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s asked him to go to India to advise on food distribution there. He accepted the duty immediately and often looked back on that task with the knowledge of a job well done.

“When in 1977 the opportunity arose to create a new Food Marketing Institute with the merger of SMI and NAFC, it was Mike O’Connor, with SMI Chairman Bob Wegman, who toured the United States and convinced the trade of the wisdom of the move. Thus was the birth of FMI.

“With the establishment of FMI, Mike became the mentor and guide to many of the world’s retailers from Japan to New Zealand, and that included Ireland. Some 20 years ago I accepted Mike’s invitation to visit 15 American retailers in 10 days. Together with my son Eamonn, we travelled across the USA and met those 15 retailers. With Mike as our mentor we learned so much about the ideas and innovations of those talented merchants. They were willing to share those secrets with Mike because they too had learned from him. Mike’s guidance and advice was invaluable. This was just one of the many trips in which I shared the O’Connor wisdom. I discovered that Mike had organised similar experiences for retailers from all around the world, so great was his knowledge and commitment.

“He counselled both Coca Cola and Andersen Consulting and was instrumental in establishing the Coca-Cola Research Group and the Andersen Store of the Year 2000 back in those earlier years. A good friend of the late Dr. Peter Drucker, Mike never tired of reminding the trade that the successful companies were those whose aim was something other than profit, but that profit came from satisfying the customer.

“His enthusiasm was infectious and he is in the thoughts of friends and admirers around the world him at this time.”

In the official FMI statement, it was noted that for 17 years, O’Connor contributed articles to the prestigious journal International Trends in Food Retailing. He served as an instructor at the Food Industry Management Program at the Graduate School of the University of Southern California; Cornell University; and the Peter F. Drucker Graduate Management Center at the Claremont Graduate University.

O’Connor was predeceased by his wife, the former Mary Elizabeth Magner, in 1987. Together they had four children, and six grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for today at 3 pm (CST), at the Christ Church, 784
Sheridan Road, Winnetka, Illinois. In lieu of flowers, donations will be accepted in his name by the Claremont Graduate University, designated to the Peter F. Drucker Graduate Management Center, 165 East 10th Street, Claremont, CA 91711.
KC's View:
We did not know O’Connor well, but respected him for what was clearly a relentless curiosity and strong-minded intellect about the workings and underpinnings.