Documentary pays tribute to leadership lessons taught by Ralph Ketner

Published 12:10 am Friday, August 28, 2015

SALISBURY — At one point in a new 50-minute video telling the business success story of Ralph Ketner, co-founder of the Salisbury-based Food Lion grocery chain, Ketner looks at his interviewer and drops one of his famous nuggets of wisdom.

It’s about the art of striking a good deal.

“The buyer has got to be a better salesman than the salesman calling on him,” Ketner says.

“Lessons in Leadership,” produced through a partnership between Food Lion and Catawba College, documents fully the business life and philosophy of Ketner, who once presided over the fastest-growing grocery company in America.

But the documentary also will serve as a teaching tool for high school and college students in the near future.

On Sept. 21, a day after Ketner’s 95th birthday, the documentary in DVD form and a curriculum of five lesson plans developed around it will be distributed to all the high schools in North Carolina. The lesson plans were written by two Rowan County teachers.

A good-sized crowd at Catawba College’s Keppel Auditorium watched the premiere of the documentary Thursday night. On camera, a long list of people reflected on Ketner’s impact on business and, through his and Food Lion’s success, what it all meant to the community.

In another nugget, Ketner said, “It’s not what you earn, it’s what you give. You can’t give it, until you earn it.”

The evening ended with several standing ovations for Ketner. Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson and Greg Edds, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, read a joint proclamation making today “Food Lion Day” in Salisbury and Rowan County.

And Gov. Pat McCrory, a 1978 graduate of Catawba College, sent word and the framed evidence for it that he had just named Ketner the recipient of the Order of the Long Life Pine, the state’s highest civilian honor.

After all the tributes and accolades paid to him, in the documentary and after its showing, Ketner said, “One thing I learned is, quit while you’re ahead.”

Micophone in hand, he paid tribute to his late Food Town partners and co-founders, brother Brown Ketner and Wilson “Bill” Smith. He also tipped his hat to his late brother Glenn Ketner Sr., who like their father was a savvy businessman and grocer himself.

Ralph has always called Glenn the “smart Ketner.”

Ralph Ketner said the Lord blessed him with a talent for figures — his mind for numbers is marveled at throughout the documentary — but in the weeks leading up to Thursday night he also wished he had been given a talent for words to express his appreciation to everyone.

“The Lord has used me,” he said.

Before the documentary was shown in the auditorium, a reception was held in the Robertson College Community Center nearby.

Asked then what he thought of all the attention, Ketner said, “I’m still trying to figure out why.”

Joining Ketner in the audience for the premiere were several family members, including son Robert Ketner and daughter Linda Ketner. Both play a prominent role in the documentary.

Meg Ham, president of Food Lion, described Ketner as an icon, leader and friend. Ketner, who retired from Food Lion in 1991, still participates in some of the company functions such as when store managers of the year gather at Food Lion’s Founders’ Hall and Food Lion employees have their annual picnic.

Ham herself has lunch with Ketner on occasion. She said he shows up with a letter detailing all the items he wants to discuss before the lunch is over. Ketner’s loyalty to Food Lion, which started out as a lone Food Town store in 1957, has not wavered.

“Never will he set foot in another store,” Ham said.

Greg Finchum, Food Lion’s senior vice president of retail operations, also has a prominent role in the documentary.

Besides Ketner himself, others interviewed in the video include Hap Roberts, Brien Lewis, Fred Stanback, Beth Newlands Campbell, Dr. Eric Hake, Mona Lisa Wallace and Kyna Grubb.

Ketner’s contributions to Rowan Helping Ministries served as the catalyst for the Food Lion Feeds program now providing assistance to the needy throughout the Southeast.

Joey Popp, a 1977 alumnus of Catawba College, served as the documentary’s narrator and Thursday night’s emcee.

Lewis, president of Catawba College, said the school has a saying these days that “We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.” No shoulders are larger than Ketner’s, he said.

Cheryl Knorr Foster, a 1993 graduate of Catawba College, produced the video through her company, Open Road Media Productions of Florence, S.C. She said the documentary, which took more than a year to pull together, honors “a phenomenal man.”

“It was such an incredible project to be part of,” Foster said at the reception.

The idea for the video started with Pam Thompson, associate professor of business and information systems at Catawba College.

At Ketner’s 93rd birthday, Thompson was sitting next to Linda Ketner, and they both talked about the need for some kind of lasting video of  her father’s story, his entrepreneurial legacy.

Thompson contacted Foster, “who took my outline and just ran with it.”  She also reached out to Food Lion, to see if the company would be interested in underwriting the project.

Thompson credits Christy Phillips-Brown, director of external communications for Delhaize America, with embracing the concept and making sure it happened.

“She deserves a lot of credit,” Thompson said. “She believed in it. … Food Lion underwrote this. They believed in it. Food Lion just did a heck of a job.”

Thompson said the documentary is a story about entrepreneurship, leadership and business told from the perspective of Ketner, who was an orphan at age 11 and a product of the Great Depression.

Foster came to her early on and said Ketner’s story would take considerably more time than they thought.

“When I pitched it,’ Thompson said, “I said 15 minutes.”

Thompson has an office next to Ketner, who serves as executive-in-residence at the college in the School of Business building named for him. He still goes to work every day, meeting students and people with investment ideas. He also serves on the college’s board of trustees.

“He’s like a rock star,” Thompson said before the video’s premiere.

Lewis said Ketner’s presence on campus is a constant source of inspiration, and he works magic with his boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. On the college board, Lewis said, Ketner keeps the trustees and staff on track and on their toes, especially on budgetary matters.

Throughout the video, the people interviewed talk about Ketner’s work ethic, character, tenacity, creativity, deal-making, risk-taking, competitiveness and vision. In 1968, he famously bet Food Town’s future on his low-price concept, which would become known as LFPINC, Lowest Food Prices in North Carolina.

Within four years, Food Town’s business increased by 740 percent. Sales reached $1 billion a year by 1983. Combined with the low-price concept, Ketner built into the company a hyper-efficient warehouse and distribution system and incorporated all manner of concepts, such as centralized buying, which are standard practice today.

In its glory days, Food Town/Food Lion was doubling its earnings every 2.6 years. Ketner noted in the video how in just a 22-year span, Food Town/Food Lion stores went from average annual sales of $717,000 to $7 million.

Campbell, the former president of Food Lion, said one of Ketner’s lessons was realizing early the importance of recycling and controlling costs. which she described as good business, no matter what business you’re in.

Ketner said customers came first, followed by employees and shareholders. Linda Ketner said her father’s company set up a good profit-sharing program for employees to which Food Lion deposited 20 percent of its earnings before taxes.

The documentary also lays out the impact Food Lion money — and Ketner’s own philanthropy — had on the community as a whole. Ketner gives $10,000 annually to the state to be awarded to government employees who come up with the best cost-saving ideas.

Over time, Ketner said, his small contributions have led to more than $38 million in savings for N.C. taxpayers.

Ketner displayed some marketing savvy in his career and never was shy about calling out a competitor. Once when A&P boasted in an advertisement that it had the lowest “overall prices,” Ketner immediately answered in his own ad that A&P might have the lowest prices on overalls, but his store had the lowest food prices.

Not bad for a rock star.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.