Food Lion pioneer, leader Tom Smith dies

Published 2:05 pm Friday, June 2, 2023

SALISBURY — Tom Smith, the former CEO and leader of Food Lion, has died today after a long battle with a terminal illness and a brief time in hospice.

Ronnie Smith, a long friend and 50-year co-worker, said Tom Smith was “a pioneer and a legend. He was instrumental in leading Food Town, now known as Food Lion, becoming one of the largest, most successful food store chains in the country.”

Tom Smith started his career with Food Town as a bagger while in high school and stayed on through college, working as a store manager for a year while taking night classes. He graduated from Catawba College in 1964 with a degree in business administration and spent more than six years with Del Monte Sales Co. before returning to the Food Lion fold in 1970 as a buyer in the corporate office.

He moved up the ranks, eventually becoming the successor to Ralph Ketner when he decided to step down in 1981. In 1986, he took over as chief executive officer.

From 1981 until his retirement at the age of 57 in 1999, he took the company into tremendous growth, with more than 1,000 stores and more than 100,000 employees. When he ended his 29 years with the company, Smith said it was time for a change.

“After almost 30 years of dedication and hard work, it is time to retire and give the company a new management team to lead it into the next millennium,” Smith said at the time in a prepared statement. “I can think of no better time to make these changes than the present, as Food Lion is in excellent shape, financially and operationally.”

“A lot of people think we are brothers,” said Ronnie Smith, “and that would have been great, but we are actually not related. Our offices were next to each other, and we worked together for many years, but Tom deserves so much of the credit for the success of the company, and he deserves recognition for all that he has done for Salisbury and for Rowan County through the years. This is a huge loss for Salisbury, for Rowan County, for the state and for the country.”

Smith was not just a company man, but as Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander explains, a man who “preferred to be out of the limelight, but who did so much for his community and for those who needed it the most.” He served in numerous leadership positions during his lifetime as well, including as chairman of the board of trustees of Catawba College until 2009 and as a member of the board of governors of the Children’s Miracle Network. Smith was a member of the President’s Advisory Committee and the 1998 Hurricane Cabinet for the American Red Cross and a member of the North Carolina Business Council of Management and Development, which advises North Carolina’s governor on a variety of issues, including economic development and education. He was also on the board of directors for the United Way.

“I have known him and his wife, Martha, for many years, decades,” said Alexander. “Personally I have loved talking with them about their many travels, and I will miss their long-standing commitment to the community.”

Alexander said Smith’s leadership is part of the tremendous legacy he leaves behind.

“This is a deep loss for the community, but having said that, he has created a legacy that is enormous,” she said. “His quiet commitment to helping the most vulnerable, which we still see ongoing at Food Lion, and his desire to preserve history, which we see in the Depot that bears his name, and the economic impact he has had on generations.”

“I was just thinking about one of the latest projects he was involved in,” said Alexander. “It involved selling of the last part of the land adjacent to Forest Glen, which has been an important but challenging project. His patience and professionalism were not only beneficial in making everything work, but indicative of his life.”

Tom and Martha Smith have been sponsors at Pops at the Post for many years, and Alexander says she hopes to recognize Tom and his contributions at this year’s event this weekend.

“From the seeds he has planted, the harvest is great,” said Alexander. “It’s like planting the tree but never getting to enjoy the shade. The investment is a leap of faith, and that sums up his life.”

The family is working with Summersett Funeral Home but arrangements are pending.