Elwyn Dean Werries, former CEO of Oklahoma City grocery distributor Fleming Cos. and former board chairman of Sonic Corp., died Wednesday at a hospice facility. He was 82.
Services for Werries will be 10 a.m. Tuesday at the chapel of Crossings Community Church, 14600 N Portland in Oklahoma City.
Werries is survived by his wife of 50 years, Marjean, and two stepsons, Gary and Greg Storm.
Werries was born in Tescott, Kan., in 1929 and graduated from the University of Kansas in 1952. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Werries joined Fleming in 1955 as a salesman in its Topeka, Kan., office and rose to president in 1978, and chairman and CEO in 1989. He retired from Fleming in 1994.
Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating appointed Werries as secretary of commerce in 1995. Werries also served for 14 years on the board of directors of drive-in restaurant chain Sonic, including a stint as chairman. Upon his retirement from the Sonic board, he served as chairman emeritus.
“Dean was a strong business and civic leader, and a fine person,” said Cliff Hudson, chairman and CEO of Sonic. “We were fortunate to have his 15 years of service to our board and company. He played a pivotal leadership role for us at a time of our CEO transition in 1995 and we were lucky to have someone of his depth and character available to do so. We will miss him.”
Debra Midkiff, of Bethany, spent 15 years at Fleming, including seven years as Werries' assistant. She said Werries oversaw the company during a time of rapid change in the grocery business. Those changes included consolidation and inventory technology improvements such as bar codes.
“He was a very dynamic businessman who came up from nothing,” Midkiff said. “He was the first person to come out of Fleming's management trainee program. It's quite a success story. He had an important role in the grocery industry, not just in the United States, but the world.”
Werries also served as chairman of the National Grocers Association and chairman of the Food Marketing Institute.
During Werries' time at the helm, Fleming became the nation's largest grocery distributor and had tens of thousands of employees. After his retirement, the company moved its headquarters from Oklahoma City to Dallas and later became embroiled in an accounting scandal. Fleming filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003 and reorganized around its convenience store distribution division Core-Mark.
In a 2003 interview with The Oklahoman, Werries said it was hard to watch Fleming's demise.
“We have to move on, but this is a horrible, horrible experience, not just for me but for the other senior people, most of whom left the company after I left the company, who are here in Oklahoma City and have a heart still left at Fleming,” Werries said in the interview. “I used to say ‘I never had a bad day in the grocery business,' but after these parts of the hill started crumbling, there's just been no good news for any of us to take comfort in.”