Completing A Circle

A father can hope. But he never knows if his son will follow in his footsteps until it actually happens. And now that’s where I sit.

Justin returned to Michigan in June, sprightly and eager to step into the role created expressly for him of Vice-President of my family company. And when he did, I stepped back, leaning on my hands to watch my son whom I remember in so many incarnations, behave as the man I dreamed he would become.

My son is preparing to take over my company so that one day, I will sail in the sun and marvel at all the possibilities. But first, we will work together, filling in the nuances of detail that vary between personalities. He brings characteristics that I lack and I bring a lifetime of experience and insight that he is too young yet to own. For a while, we will be like the team we once were when he was small and I was a new father, both of us delighting in his leaps in rain puddles after a storm.

96903-justin.jim-smJustin is the eldest of my three boys and the most like his late grandfather. My father, Sid Hiller, had his hands in everything. His favorite days were spent in the stores, touching products, positioning muffins into veritable sculptures, adjusting and securing and overseeing until every single item and display met his satisfaction. I see my father in my son – his genuine interest in the details, a visible joy in immersing himself in every step of this company. Justin is as much a part of the process as any other person in the company. As was my father. And so the circle closes.

Where I am right now, it’s a glorious place to be. I came into the grocery business after nearly 20 years of practicing law. Finding the perfect food products for shoppers was my father’s dream and he built this business to a certain point, guided by vision and very specific goals.

And then I stepped in, careful not to trample on the dreams of the man I revered but infusing my perspective, philosophy and approach to the tasks at hand. In time, my father handed the reins to me – though he never stopped greeting customers, shaking hands, rearranging fruit.

Like chess, I am strategic in business, deliberate, applying careful thought and whole attention. I concern myself with macro as much as micro – answering shopper emails at 3 a.m. and then at dawn welcoming each of my departmental experts to run his own fiefdom. I have truly gathered eagles.

Every businessman has his way. It is a path and a perspective merged, a way of doing things built over time and inspired by that individual’s personality. The way I approach the grocery business is 180 degrees different from my father and probably from the way my son will run it. And it’s all good.

We are a unique family, the Hillers. The men in my family have always had a passion for unusual and bizarre foods – we search out new flavors, seeking to share experiences and discover the world through food. It is over and about food that we connect, that we lead, that we set pace.

One spring many years ago, with the Passover holiday approaching, we sold whitefish for $3.99 per pound. A woman approached my father and said, “Why is your whitefish so expensive? At Farmer Jack, it costs $2.99 a pound.”

“So go there and buy it,” my father said.

“They’re out of it,” the shopper replied.

“Well, when we’re out of it, I only charge $1.99 a pound,” my father retorted.

In so many ways, my son reminds me of my father. Justin loves the buzz and draw of the stores, he loves the organic part of the action. He follows the shoppers’ pace, the employees’ drive, the amalgam of talents and tastes.

The similarities between Justin and my father are uncanny. Justin is exactly the same size and demeanor of my father and like his grandfather, my son cuts a wide swath with a compelling presence and authoritative glance. There is a gravitational pull when Justin walks into a room; he is easy to be around but clearly confident. He is physical in every step: fingers touching texture and grain of every item we sell. It’s as if he takes each detail into himself through all five senses, making the business part of his being. And it is readily apparent that he loves this business to the core of his being.

I’ve watched him walk through our stores. He saunters and glides along the aisles, whisking into back rooms, his glance skirting roof lines and shelf tops for misplaced miscellany. He is authoritatively collegial, establishing his position with firm kindness but an easy-to-see mastery over the littlest and most important details. People like to talk to him, they warm to him but are cautious in his presence. I think he likes that – the mystery, the uncertainty, knowing he could lower the boom but is selective in choosing when. That is how he leads. In his hands, my company will walk the line with ease.

In time, I will proudly hand my mantle to a new generation, although I feel as if I am handing the task BACK to someone who already knows it well. Every generation exists beyond its ending – my father may have died in 2005, but he remains here – in memory and in my son. I have not felt so close to my father in a long, long time.

It is the responsibility of one generation to pave the path for the next so that they can walk a less arduous route, reaching farther into the jungle that is life. Every night now, Justin and I pour glasses of red wine and sit outside, discussing the details of our shared days. I listen more than I speak, as my son reveals how my company appears to him, taking in his assessment of people I have known well and long. He is astute beyond his years. And in some ways, he is exactly his age.

Things are not easy and the future is far from clear in these tough times. But I feel a sort of satisfaction about where we’re headed now that Justin’s here. We have more talent at the helm of this company than ever before and at least I know that all the stops will be pulled during the march ahead.

Like John Wayne said: “We do exactly what we started out to do.”


Completing A Circle — 10 Comments

  1. What a beautiful entry!! I was deeply moved by your words, and you write so beautifully! Obviously, you are a proud father and an equally proud and grateful son. Thank you for sharing this beautiful essay.

  2. what a wonderful tribute to your father and to your son! one day we will be reading his tribute, to a wonderful man and father, YOU!!!! let’s pray the world stays safe, and we can enjoy hillers and northville for many years to come!!! thanks and god bless!! karen fox

  3. Your father started and maintained a great family business, you have carried it on so well, your son will do just as well because of who his forefathers were and are. That’s why the stores have such great employees – because they are appreciated for being in the trenches every day and know you are there to lead them as need be. Thanks again, Jim, for the wonderful wonderful job you and your staff at the Union Lake store do. Never do I walk into that store that one or more people tell me, hi, how are you, and so on. I could write emails everyday telling you about my visits and how enjoyable grocery shopping has become. Carry on!

  4. This is so beautifully expressed. What a wonderful tribute to both your dad and son. Your dad must beam with pride as he looks down upon his legacy. My son Neil just told his girl friend how your dad used to buy him kosher hot dogs when he worked as a bagger. He loved your dad and will always remember his kindness. Well, that was about seventeen years ago! See, we never know the impressions we leave on others.

  5. What a wonderful essay on a father-son-grandson relationship! Just reading the words makes me feel that the rest of the family has close bonds with each other! I first ran across Hiller’s when it moved into the old Chatham’s Food store in downtown Northville. The downtown area needed a full line grocery store badly at that time after Chatham closed. I took a chance on visiting it and realized this is what makes a great food market!! Even today, when walking down the aisles, I stop to read about the specialty items that are on the shelves along with the staples I look for. One of my favorite spots is right where the British food section is! I am so grateful to be a part of the Hiller’s Group of shopping fans! Thank you Jim for keeping many traditions alive that your father incorporated into his business. Nothing ever stays the same, but with your son taking over future responsibilities, he too will add his mark to an already famous name! Kind regards!

  6. Your father was a wonderful and very compassionate man. I am glad to see that quality has transcended. It is a very proud accomplishment to pass such a wonderful legacy on to your children, as well.
    I know that the Hiller family has been wonderful to their employees thru the years. I would like to thank the entire Hiller family, (which extends to the Hiller work family), for your sense of kindness and compassion shown throughout the past 35 years, to my brother Mark Ward. I could not imagine him having had a better employer. Thanks to all of you, for all you’ve done throughout the years. May God continue to Bless you.

  7. Dear Hiller Family,

    I moved here from Windsor, Ontario and live in the West Bloomfield neighborhood. I started shopping at Hillers on Haggerty road because of freshness and the variety of foods you had. Rabbit meat, lamb lunch meat and so much more. Back home when you went shopping you knew everyone on a first name basis and everything was freshly made or freshly delivered from the farmers. Then you listened to the pleasant conversations between people about the produce, meats and dairy. And the jokes that were told. The people would always come back shopping. I had missed that here. Until I met your father at the grocery store. I had come in with my son at the time 5 years old. We were at the pastery counter my son was so excited with all of the deserts displayed he just couldn’t decide. An older man wearing a hat, a tweed sports coat had approached me and said, your son should try the sugar cookies on the left, they are really good. And you should try the arugula cookies, those are my favorite. I looked at him surprised but happy inside because in this hustle and bustle world, he reminded me of shopping back home. His kindness. Not knowing who he was he called over the counter lady and asked for a sugar cookie and gave it to my son and some arugula cookies for myself to take home. I told him thank you and that he was too kind to do this. And he said nonsense, My name is Mr. Hiller I like to be around in the store and see how things are going and meet the people who shop here. He told me of how he first started into this business. I enjoyed meeting him and listening to his life experiences. So each time we would come shopping we would hope to see him again and once in awhile we were fortunate. Although this was a place of business. He made this place feel personal to me where I could be apart. I like coming to a place recognizing peoples faces and knowing them on a first name basis and asking them how they are doing? Your father was a very special gentleman to me he brought that family feeling into his grocery store. He will surely be missed. My son still remembers his trip to the grocery store.

  8. I love this entry–I go to your stores whenever I possible can.

    PLEASE consider a store in Milford–we are a distance away from any of the others, and the only stores nearby are a little IGA (that sells spoiled meat) and a Krogers (that many people, including myself, don’t like at all).

    Milford has many families that would love to shop at a wholesome, healthy grocer that offers variety and supports Michigan-based products!

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