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NEW YORK — Ronald L. Ziegler, indelibly marked as Richard Nixon’s press secretary during Watergate, and who emerged from the scandal to remain in Washington circles as a consultant and lobbyist and later to head the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, is being remembered by retailers this week with appreciation.
Ziegler died Monday at his home in Coronado, Calif. He also lived in Alexandria, Va.
The cause was a heart attack, said a family friend. He was 63.
While much has been made this week of Ziegler’s role as Nixon’s spokesman, he also made a strong impact at the end of his career as president and chief executive officer of the NACDS, which he built into a mass market powerhouse.
All the talk about Nixon is understandable, since the link is inescapable. Even during his 11 years at NACDS, Ziegler’s political past and loyalty to Nixon hovered. After giving opening remarks at the NACDS Annual meeting in April 1994, he quickly left to be at Nixon’s side when the former president suffered a stroke that led to his death. Associates also recalled Ziegler’s distress in 1998 with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, rekindling memories of Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
“I think he got more upset about it than Clinton did,” recalled Alan Levin, president of Happy Harry’s. “It was sad that he could not leave it behind.”
But there was much more to life. Ziegler came to NACDS in 1988, taking over for Robert Bolger, who had been at the association for more than 26 years. It was a precipitous time for NACDS, which needed to make a transition from an organization of small and midsized drugstore chains into an association fit to accommodate the larger powerhouses formed via rampant industry consolidation.
Ziegler took the architecture established by Bolger and helped build the association’s Marketplace Meeting into one of the largest and most profitable in the business. He also helped elevate the level of speakers and events at the already prestigious annual meeting. Industry executives said he understood the need to extend membership beyond drugstore chains and to supermarkets and mass merchants who were adding drug prescription counters.
Chain executives recall Ziegler as being a quick study on the drugstore business. “I’ve worked with some of the best in drugstore retailing,” said Gerald Heller, president and chief executive officer of May’s Drug Stores Inc. in Tulsa, Okla., and a two-time chairman of NACDS, while Ziegler was at the helm. “I truly felt he had one of the best minds in the business. He was a great listener and always tried to make everything better than the year before.”
Heller recalled a ski trip with Ziegler. “As we were approaching the end of the chairlift, he asked me a business question….All I was trying to do was survive my way down the mountain. He was always thinking about improvements.”
Ziegler’s political celebrity brought attention to NACDS. “Many people were appreciative just to get the chance to sit down and talk with him,” added Heller. Despite his sometimes-controversial ties to the Nixon administration, Ziegler helped make NACDS more powerful on Capitol Hill.
He was also concerned with the details. Heller recalls doing a site selection for an annual meeting spot in Hawaii where Ziegler asked so many questions that he even questioned how fast bellmen could move luggage for NACDS arriving attendees.
Ziegler fixated on even the smallest of things, like the timing for dinner plates to be set down and picked up. And he was loathe to have an empty seat at a table, admonishing NACDS staffers that having an empty seat next to you ruins the evening. A few NACDS employees said his perfectionist ways made him a “tough taskmaster,” but that they learned a great deal from observing him. “He never asked anything of us, he wouldn’t do himself,” said one former staffer. “He wanted it to be a first-class organization.”
Levin of Happy Harry’s enjoyed discussing politics with Ziegler. Over lunch in August, Ziegler was pushing Levin, who has latent ambitions to run for governor in Delaware. “He wanted to do a lot of things, we talked for a couple of hours.” Over the years, “we did talk about Watergate and the accusations.”
“He was a builder — he built and shaped many things at NACDS,” said Mark Griffin, president and chief executive officer at Lewis Drugs in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the current NACDS chairman. “He hired so many great people who are still there today. So many positive things happened when Ron was there.”
And the Watergate discussions may come full circle. Bob Woodward, who with Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate break-in and pursued the unfolding scandal, is scheduled to speak at the NACDS annual meeting in April in Palm Beach. Woodward could not be reached for comment.
Under Ziegler, NACDS quadrupled in staff size and went from one building to a multibuilding complex and still was very bottom-line driven. In his early years at NACDS, employees were required to work a half day on Saturday, but along with that, he elevated the salary scale.
Ziegler announced his plans to retire in 1999. A two-year search led to the hiring of Craig Fuller, the current president and ceo. “All of us at NACDS are saddened by the death of Ron Ziegler,” said Fuller in a statement. “He and I were fortunate in sharing a passion for government and politics at an early age, something we talked about a great deal as I followed him into NACDS. I know from him directly that he found the challenges and opportunities here to be both fulfilling and rewarding. His contributions will always be valued and remembered. His friendship will most certainly be missed.”
Ziegler is survived by his wife, Nancy; mother, Ruby Ziegler; two daughters, Cindy Charas of New Canaan, Conn., and Laurie Albright of Denver; three grandchildren and a sister, Anita Macadam. A memorial service has been planned for Feb. 22 at 10 a.m. at Christ Church in Alexandria, Va. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to Christ Episcopal Church, 118 N. Washington Street, Alexandria, Va. 22314, or Coronado Hospital Foundation, 250 Prospect Place, Coronado, Calif. 92118.