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Roger E. Stangeland, 74; Built Vons Into Region's Largest Grocery Chain

March 04, 2004|Melinda Fulmer | Times Staff Writer

Roger E. Stangeland, former chairman of Vons under whose leadership the supermarket chain became the largest in Southern California in the late 1980s and early '90s, died Friday of heart failure at Methodist Hospital in Arcadia. He was 74.

Stangeland joined Vons as chairman and chief executive in 1984, and the following year led a leveraged buyout to acquire the chain from its parent, Household Merchandising.

The deal was one of the largest in the grocery business at the time and one of the most successful, analysts say, allowing the chain to make major acquisitions in the late 1980s, such as the Pantry chain and Southern California Safeway stores. It also gave Stangeland the cash necessary to open new grocery formats, such as Pavilions and the Latino-oriented Tianguis.

"Roger was never afraid to take risks when it involved innovation," said Dick Goodspeed, former president of the Lucky grocery chain who worked for Stangeland as Vons chief operating officer in the mid-1990s. "His idea was to put more romance in the shopping trip for the customer," he said.

Stangeland retired from his position as chief executive of Vons in 1994 and did a brief stint as chairman of New Jersey-based Grand Union, before getting out of the grocery business. However, he continued to serve on the Vons board until it was bought by Safeway Inc. in 1997, and he served as chairman of the Food Marketing Institute, the supermarket industry's leading trade group.

Stangeland was born Oct. 4, 1929, in Chicago into a family of meat cutters. His father and grandfather owned butcher shops in the Scandinavian section of Chicago known as Andersonville, where Stangeland helped out as a child.

"I boned out hamburger meat from the time I was old enough to hold a knife," he once told a reporter.

He graduated with honors from St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wis., before graduating from the University of Illinois and marrying his childhood sweetheart, Lilah.

An avid hunter and angler, Stangeland started his career in the sporting-goods business, opening his own shop in Wauconda, Ill.

From there, he joined wholesaler Coast to Coast stores in Minneapolis, as head of its sporting-goods department, rising to president in 1972. He was promoted to group vice president of its Chicago-based parent company, Household Merchandising, in 1978.

Stangeland took on oversight of Vons Grocery Co. in Los Angeles when he became executive vice president at Household in 1982. He moved to San Marino two years later to head the chain.

Competitors remember Stangeland as a modest, thoughtful man, with a droll sense of humor.

"He was so quiet and unassuming," recalled Jack Brown, chairman and chief executive of Stater Bros. Markets. "He didn't say a lot, but when he spoke, he spoke with wisdom."

While at Vons, Stangeland preferred to let President William Davila, a former produce clerk, serve as company spokesman in its advertising, because, as he told the Wall Street Journal in 1987, "he is good at it, and I am not."

But those who knew him say he was widely admired by employees and rivals alike, both for his leadership skills and his generosity.

"He wanted to make sure that the people who worked for him and with him were well taken care of," Goodspeed said.

Stangeland threw large barbecues and dinner parties for his friends, employees and rivals, where he did much of the cooking himself.

In recent years, Stangeland and his wife assisted their children in acquiring or developing businesses of their own, including Quality Drug Corp., which owns the Via Lido Drugs store in Newport Beach, Indianhead Mountain Ski Resort in Ironwood, Mich., and New Twist, a chain of gift stores in Eugene, Ore.

Stangeland had served on the boards of the Boy Scouts of America and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and was a member of the Board of Fellows of Claremont Graduate School.

He and Lilah had been active in charity work, fundraising for Methodist Hospital and the Pasadena Playhouse, where Stangeland had served as a director, as well as St. John's Northwestern Military Academy, a college prep school he remembered fondly.

In addition to his wife, Stangeland is survived by his daughter, Cyndi, sons Brett and Brad, and four grandchildren.

Memorial services will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Wauconda Federated Church in Wauconda, Ill., and at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wis.

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