The first woman to lead a large commercial organization in Holland

Dena Muller was the first woman to lead a large business organization in Holland.

His mother, Martha Vandenberg, was born in 1860. She married Iete Muller in 1878. Together they had nine children, including Dena, born in 1884 – plus Margaret, Martha, Cornelius, Reendert and John.

After:The Foresight of the Walshes and the Brooks

After:Cornelius De Roo was destined to be a miller

The couple owned a successful farm in Illinois. As a young teenager, Cornelius decided he wanted to become a minister in the Reformed Church of America. So he emigrated to Holland to attend Hope College Academy and then Hope College.

While at Hope College, he learned that the Standard Milling Company (then known as the Walsh-DeRoo Mill), located at River and Seventh Street, had gone bankrupt. Convinced that this was a financial opportunity for his father, he persuaded Iete to sell his farm and buy the abandoned property, which Iete did in 1907.

It was the same year that Cornelius graduated from Hope College, and the family built their Queen Anne-style home at 232 W. 16th St. – which still stands today.

Shortly after taking over the mill, Iete observed that farmers who brought their grain to the mill visited other merchants in Holland to buy processed foods and groceries. So in 1909 he renamed his Standard Grocer and Milling Company and expanded his product line to include not only poultry feed, but also groceries, candies and cereals – which he mixed at the mill.

In 1910, the year Cornelius graduated from Western Seminary, Standard Grocery employed four men and one woman. This ratio has remained constant; what was going to change was who was running the company.

Iete’s next step was to expand into the wholesale grocery business. In 1920, the year of his death, and a year after his wife’s death, Standard Grocery served 100 bakers, grocers and restaurants.

When electric refrigerators began to replace coolers, Standard Grocery became the grocery and frozen food wholesaler for thousands of IGA family grocery stores in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.

After his death, the Holland City Directory listed the house at 232 W. 16th St. in Dena’s name — but the business did not. In 1921, the directory listed Edward Dimnent, then president of Hope College, as president of Standard Grocery. He also named CJ Lokker, owner of Notier-Lokker Creamery, as vice president.

It listed Dena as secretary and Cornelius as treasurer, with Margaret as auditor and Reendert as salesman. At the time, lenders and outside investors considered a company’s management to be more credible if a company had prestigious men in the highest positions of authority.

This was significant for Standard Grocery, because – in 1924 – it raised $125,000 in a stock issue to open a second warehouse. This expansion was fortuitous as Standard later became a supplier for IGA (International Grocers Alliance).

Then, when electric refrigerators began to replace coolers, Standard Grocery became the grocery and frozen food wholesaler for thousands of IGA family grocery stores in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana that , by partnering with IGA, could increase their purchasing power and thus better compete with emerging grocery chains.

But in all but title, it was Dena who ran the business.

His sister, Martha, had other plans. In 1928, after attending Hope College and the University of Wisconsin, she married Howard Miller, manager of the Herman Miller Clock Company.

Phil Miller's Dena Muller

In the 1940s, the Holland-Zeeland City Directory listed Reendert as company president, Cornelius as vice-president, and John as treasurer. But the locals knew better. It was Dena who ran the business, and she was smart and tough.

In 1945, Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters union attempted to organize both Standard Grocery and Holland Motor Express, then located on River Avenue and Sixth Street. So in 1947, when Standard Grocery purchased a 7.5-acre parcel of land at 516 E. 16th St. of the Van Raalte estate to establish a new distribution center, Dena built the facility in secret and dug a trench around the property to keep picketers at bay.

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Dena also arranged for HME truckers to meet Standard truckers in offsite parking lots to avoid attention from the Teamsters. It took courage and a loyal workforce because at that time the Teamsters controlled the trucking world and could have ruined his business.

Dena retired in 1951.

In 1959 Standard Grocery was purchased by Progressive Grocery of Vassar, Michigan. In 1963, the Sixteenth Street Distribution Center became the headquarters of Holland Transplanter.

Dena Muller died in 1976.

Information for this story comes from “Holland, Michigan” by Robert Swierenga and interviews with Phil Miller, son of Howard and Martha Muller Miller.

— Community columnist Steve VanderVeen is a resident of the Netherlands. Contact him via start-upacademeinc.com.

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