Ketner looking for all original Food Town investors
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Food Lion co-founder and Chairman Emeritus Ralph Ketner is trying to re-create history.
He’d love to have in his hands a list of the 125 original investors in Food Town, which became today’s Salisbury-based Food Lion grocery chain.
That complete list of original investors — many of them local people who became millionaires, thanks to the company’s growth — has faded into corporate oblivion over the years.
The 91-year-old Ralph Ketner fears that all the original investors, except him, may be dead, but he would love to hear from their relatives or friends.
“I can remember 25 to 30,” Ketner says, “but there were 122,” not counting the three founders.
Ketner will be the speaker March 1 for Catawba College’s 9th Distinguished CEO Lecture Series, and he’s hoping any original investors out there, or their surviving family members, can attend.
He’s asking that these people contact Angelia Bates at 704-637-4405, or asbates@ catawba.edu, if they are interested in hearing his talk.
The event, open to the public, will be held at Keppel Auditorium and is expected to draw several hundred people.
Ralph Ketner, his brother Brown Ketner and their friend Wilson Smith opened the first Food Town store in Salisbury Dec. 12, 1957.
From their own funds, the trio could put up only half of the $125,000 they needed to start their business. To raise the rest, they paged through the Salisbury telephone book, writing down names of people they knew to approach about investing in their venture. Ralph Ketner was 37 at the time.
The Ketner brothers and Smith successfully raised the additional $62,500 from all walks of life: teachers, railroaders, bankers, doctors, salesmen, housewives, attorneys, druggists, mill workers, merchants and mailmen.
Some people paid as little as $50 for five shares, or as much as $2,000 for 200 shares of Food Town stock.
Ketner says 139 people initially said yes to buying stock, but 17 of those folks backed out, leaving the 122 investors other than himself, Smith and Brown Ketner.
Ketner recalls that the late Julian Robertson Sr. bought the most shares — other than the founders — with his $2,000 investment. Many years later, Robertson confessed to Ketner that he made his investment thinking that Wilson “Bill” Smith, the man who pitched the opportunity to him over the telephone, was really the Bill Smith he knew from Security Bank and Trust Co.
The Food Town/Food Lion story is filled with various tales of investors who loyally stuck with the company as it struggled in its first decade and others who sold their stock before Food Town sales took off with Ketner’s low-price strategy.
Each original investor, if he had held his stock until the end of 1991, would have become a millionaire, thanks to the stock’s splitting 12,960 for 1. As of Dec. 31, 1991, an original $10 share was worth $353,160.
In its heyday, Food Lion outperformed Walmart 12 to 1 and Warren Buffett 5 to 1.
In 1999 Microsoft founder Bill Gates was labeled entrepreneur of the millenium by Entrepreneur magazine because $10,000 of original Microsoft stock had grown in value to $4.8 million.
Ketner, the magazine’s 1990 Entrepreneur of the Year, quickly reminded the story’s author that an original investment of $10,000 in Food Town was worth $355 million — 73 times Microsoft’s growth in stock value.
“It’s an unbelievable story here in Salisbury,” Ketner says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.