Food Lion Co-Founder Ralph Ketner, the keynote speaker at Catawba's ninth Distinguished CEO Lecture Series on March 1, likened himself to the turtle atop a fence post.
"That turtle knows he didn't get there by himself – he had help. I'm only standing here today because of the help I have from the original investors in Food Town," the 91-year-old Ketner quipped. He recognized the sons of his two co-founders – Jeff Ketner, the son of the late Brown Ketner, and Ronald "Ronnie" Smith, son the late Wilson "Bill" Smith, and he recognized the original investors in Food Town, some of whom attended his lecture, by asking them to stand.
Ketner contended that although Food Town (now Food Lion) had outperformed Microsoft 73 to 1, he and his co-founders were never billionaires like Microsoft's Bill Gates. "I'd like to think that rather than being dumb, we (the Food Town co-founders) had integrity. It never entered our minds to take stock options. We always put our customers first, our employees second, our shareholders third, and our officers last."
He shared that before he entered into the Food Town venture with his co-founders in 1956, he had had 10 jobs in three years, joking, "I found nine things that I didn't want to do."
The Food Town founders needed money to launch their venture and got it by going through the local telephone book and calling more than 250 people – 139 of whom said yes they would invest, with 17 of those backing out. "We were the original telemarketers," Ketner noted.
The first store opened Dec. 12, 1957 with an unpaved parking lot. A second Food Town story opened in December 1958. These milestones, Ketner said, were the luck that happened "when preparation meets opportunity."
The first 10 years were difficult ones for Ketner and his co-founders."I refer to those years as 10 years of trial and error when we opened 16 stores and closed nine."
To win customers and to survive, Ketner partnered with a local gasoline station to sell gas to Food Town customers at costs, and with a local pharmacy to fill prescriptions for Food town customers at costs. All of these ideas were just that – ideas, that brought customers into the stores, but failed to keep them there long term. "The key to it was low prices," Ketner shared.
By reducing prices on 3,000 items and cutting prices drastically, in just over seven years, "we started to earn business rather than to buy it," he explained. Ketner's "five fast pennies, rather than one slow nickel" concept was born, as was "LFPINC," lowest food prices in N.C.
In 1974, the Belgian grocery store chain, Delhaize, bought into Food Town. In 1976, Ketner said, they bought a little more.
The company's name changed as the company was poised to expand into Tennessee where there was already a small grocery concern operating under that name. In typical Ketner fashion, he conjured how to change the name without spending too much money.
"I thought to myself, I can buy two letters for each of the store's signs and change the name of the whole company," he said, and he did, with Food Town evolving to Food Lion with an investment in only two letters.
After Ketner concluded his remarks, Ronnie Smith, the son of one of Ketner's co-founders Wilson "Bill" Smith stood to pay homage to the entrepreneur who helped change the landscape of American groceries and build the wealth of his hometown, Salisbury.
"On behalf of Rowan County, Salisbury and the State of North Carolina, and on behalf of the thousands of individuals who work for Food Lion and the hundreds of thousands of Food Lion customers, I personally want to thank you for what you have done," Ronnie Smith said."The world is a better place because of you. You're like a second father to me and I'm very proud to say this."
PHOTOS: CEO Lecture Series Featuring Ralph Ketner
VIDEO: Ralph W. Ketner, CEO Lecture Speaker
CEO Lecture Series