HARRISBURG, Pa. — Alex Grass, who opened a small health and beauty aids store in Scranton, Pa., in 1962 and built it into Rite Aid Corp., now the nation’s third-largest drug chain, died late last month. He was 82.
Grass, who became a philanthropist in his later years, died from respiratory failure at his home here. He had been battling lung cancer for a decade.
Born in Scranton on August 3, 1927, Grass grew up in a family that struggled financially during the Depression.
After graduating from the University of Florida Law School in 1949, he married Lois Lehrman and took a job in her family’s grocery distribution business.
Grass launched Rack Rite Distributors in 1958, renting and stocking racks of nongrocery items for grocery stores, as a subsidiary of Lehrman & Sons.
Later, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that manufacturers could not require retailers to charge minimum prices for products, Grass saw an opportunity to start a discount store and, in 1962, opened Rite Rack’s first retail operation, the Thrif D Discount Center in Scranton.
The 1,700-square-foot store sold health and beauty aids, inexpensive housewares and stationery and recorded more than $250,000 in sales in its first year, far exceeding expectations.
By 1965 Thrif D had 21 outlets, and added a pharmacy in their 22nd store, which was renamed Rite Aid. By 1968 Thrif D had grown to 50 stores and several more pharmacies. Two years later it began trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Grass ran Rite Aid as chairman and chief executive officer until 1995.
His successor, his son Martin, pursued a strategy of rapid expansion and acquisition, and was convicted of two counts of conspiracy in 2004 for a complex accounting, real estate and backdated-documents scheme that led Rite Aid to erase $1.6 billion in earnings from its financial statements.
Rite Aid was eventually bought by a group of investors and has begun to rebuild itself.
After leaving Rite Aid, Grass pursued other business interests, including the Fleer/SkyBox sports trading card company that he and another son, Roger, bought in 1999. The business was closed and sold off in 2005.
He also began giving back to the communities and institutions that had been instrumental to his success.
His philanthropic legacy includes a $14.5 million medical building named after him at PinnacleHealth’s Harrisburg Hospital and $1.5 million he gave to establish the Alex Grass School of Business Leadership at Harrisburg Area Community College.
He also contributed $1.5 million to the University of Florida to establish a chair for its Center for Jewish Studies and construct a new law school building.
“I didn’t think this business would be anywhere near this successful,” Grass told the Harrisburg Patriot-News in 1995. “But apparently our method of operation was superior to a lot of the other competition.”