Elizabeth Cook: Meet Food Lion’s new Ralph Ketner

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 18, 2014

Ralph Ketner says the best way to “buy local” is to shop at Food Lion.
Would you expect the Food Lion co-founder to say anything else?
But there is something new about Ketner these days — the star treatment he’s getting from Food Lion President Beth Newlands Campbell.
It’s a smart and gracious move for someone trying to return the company to its glory days — the days when Food Lion first branched out from North Carolina and made millionaires out of ordinary people.
Those heady days were long gone by the time Newlands Campbell was named president in late 2012 and came here to turn the company around.
She looked at the research and talked to a lot of people. When you’re thinking about where a company should go, she says, it’s good to know how it started.
So she put 2 and 2 together and realized “a big part of Food Lion’s history is living right down the street.” She called Ketner and asked him to help her understand the company. Since then, they have talked a lot. And when Ketner’s turn to be in charge of a Rotary Club program came up last week, instead of rehashing how Food Lion got started, he asked Newlands Campbell to come tell the new Food Lion story.
Her talk was a refreshing mix of old and new, getting back to basics and planning Food Lion 2.0. And she capped it off by paying special tribute to Ketner.

Newlands Campbell said she knew Food Lion employees were a little wary when she came on board.
“All the management books you read say you gotta think outside the box,” Newlands Campbell said. “People thought I was going to take the company some place incredibly different.
“What I came to realize very quickly is, for me, it was about thinking inside the box.”
That meant getting back to the basics, she says — run better stores, treat people well, pay them better and “have the customer at the center of everything we do.”
The company launched a multi-year re-investment in the foundational parts of the business.
“It’s the stuff that you have to do, or you’re not going to shop there,” she said. “When you shop, you want clean bathrooms. You want the shopping carts to work. You want the parking lot to be lit. It’s not a rocket science. But if you don’t do it, you’re going to drive people away.”
It also meant getting right on price, she said.
“We got our mojo back. We got back in the game.”
But that was just the end of the beginning, in Newlands Campbell parlance.
The next part is defining what makes Food Lion different, and Newlands Campbell went back to the brand Ketner made famous — Lowest Food Prices in North Carolina. LFPINC.
“In its day, that went viral,” she says. It was on bumper stickers and shirts and coloring books.
Building on the legacy of low prices and great locations, Newlands Campbell and her team have focused on ease — making it easy to navigate the stores and get in and out of them, and easy to figure out what’s for dinner.
The other crucial words for Food Lion are “fresh and affordable,” with emphasis on “and.” The last piece is letting shoppers know they can count on Food Lion every day.
“For me, that’s what takes us from a supermarket and a transactional brand to growing loyalty.”
The next big step is changing the products on the shelves. “We’re changing over 50 percent of our assortment,” she said.
Comparable store sales are up over 6 percent this year compared to last year, and the company has had six consecutive quarters of volume growth.
“There’s more customers buying more stuff at cheaper prices. … People are proud again to work for Food Lion.”
She asked for “questions, comments, advice, tips on a hair dresser.”
• Could she make “8 items or less” mean 8 items or less? (Look for “About 8 items” in a store near you.)
• Is the hunger problem a result of poverty or unemployment? How do you choose whom to help? (Work with agencies who do that well, like Rowan Helping Ministries.)
• Could she make it mandatory for the company’s senior leaders to live in Rowan? (“Can you build a lake?” she replied. When someone said Rowan has a lake, she said some families choose where to live based on education, some on where spouses work, etc. )

At the end, she surprised Ketner with what looked like an award, and read the inscription:
“On behalf of our 63,000 associates, we thank you for your leadership and service to Food Lion and to the Salisbury community for more than 50 years. We are proud to continue your legacy of low prices, convenient locations and always putting the customer first.”
Dr. Pam Thompson, dean of Catawba’s Ketner School of Business, announced that Food Lion was underwriting the production of a video about Ketner “so that your legacy and brilliant business lessons may live on for many years to come.”
Ketner beamed and Rotarians went away happy. Best talk Ralph ever gave.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.