Michael Wright, a Minnesota football star in the 1950s and 1960s who built Supervalu Inc. in the 1980s and 1990s into the nation’s largest grocery wholesaler, died Monday at his home in Wayzata.
Wright, who was 81, died of complications from pneumonia.
He grew up in Minneapolis and was an All-America high school athlete in football and basketball at St. Thomas Military Academy. He continued to play both sports at the University of Minnesota, became captain of the football team in 1959 and remained a prominent backer of Gophers sports all through his life.
In the 1960s, he was drafted by teams in the NFL, AFL and Canadian Football League and decided to take the highest offer, an $11,000 salary from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, which was coached by another Gophers alumnus, Bud Grant.
“Mike was drafted by Green Bay and I stole him for the Blue Bombers. [Vince] Lombardi never forgave me for that,” Grant said in an interview Wednesday. “He was as tough as a tiger, big as an elephant. He was an extremely competitive guy and if you wanted to fight, he’d fight.”
John Michels, who played and coached for the Blue Bombers and later became the longest-serving assistant coach of the Minnesota Vikings, once called Wright the second-best lineman he ever coached after Ron Yary, a Hall of Famer who spent most of his pro career with the Vikings. Michels called Wright “mean as a snake.”
The Blue Bombers won four CFL championships under Grant, including in 1961 and 1962 when Wright played on the team. “After he won the championships, he achieved what he wanted so he became a businessman,” Grant said.
While playing pro football, Wright also attended law school at the U on an ROTC scholarship. He graduated in 1963. After a stint in the Army to fulfill his ROTC commitment, Wright joined the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney. Among his clients was Supervalu, which hired him as chief executive in 1981.
He remained in that job until 2000 and oversaw an acquisition spree that built Supervalu to $20 billion in annual revenue. It was the nation’s largest food distributor at that time and the 10th-largest retail grocer, with Cub Foods as its flagship.
In 1994, Wright provided a glimpse of what it was like to be a chief executive in a comment to the Star Tribune about the sudden retirement of longtime Dayton’s CEO Ken Macke. “I don’t blame him for leaving,” Wright said. “These are not easy jobs. The pressures are enormous and it’s open season on the CEO year-round.”
Wright spent two more years as the company’s chairman before retiring in 2002.
John Hooley, former executive vice president at Supervalu, recalled Wright’s role in the company’s 1992 acquisition of Wetterau Inc., the deal that lifted Supervalu above the wholesale industry’s then-leader Fleming Cos.
“They were a St. Louis wholesaler with the Save-A-Lot stores, but Wetterau wanted to cut Save-A-Lot from the deal. It was a showdown until the last minute and it became one of our best acquisitions,” Hooley said. “He was a brilliant guy.”
Wright’s son Adam, a Minneapolis businessman, described his father as someone who fostered personal relationships with many employees. “He ate in the company dining room with all the other employees,” he said.
“Mike was a friend to everyone at Supervalu,” said Alan Stone of Minnetonka, a former food distributor and owner of a Red Owl in St. Louis Park. “He was such a gentleman.”
Services will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.