“I haven't changed.”
That’s how Ralph Ketner characterizes himself, and when the waitress at College Barbecue Drive-in in Salisbury, N.C., calls him by name, you realize it’s true.
The millionaire co-founder of the Food Lion grocery store chain has remained loyal to his North Carolina roots and the practice of price cutting to found one of history’s fastest-growing grocery chains. In the process, he overcame the death of both parents by age 11, attended Tri-State College (now Trine University) by age 16, and used his mathematics genius and unique perspective to launch a Southeast company with a stock growth history surpassing that of Microsoft in 1992.
Now 87, his mental math calculations still boggle the mind, and the robust spring in his step and smile on a nearly lineless face speak to a life well lived and a conscience free of regret. Retired from the Food Lion board, he occupies a third-floor office as executive-in-residence at the Catawba College Ralph W. Ketner School of Business. One of Trine University ’s most famous alumni, he stands uniquely positioned as a model for students entering the new entrepreneurship major in Trine’s own Ralph W. Ketner School of Business this fall.
Anybody unable to think outside the box need not apply, according to Ketner. “If you’re the type that doesn’t look for a better or different way, you’re not an entrepreneur,” he says over a barbecue plate, washed down with Cheerwine, a regional cherry-and-cola concoction, at the drive-in down Statesville Boulevard from his office.
He bases that on a lifetime driven by quick thinking. Pneumonia took his mother’s life, and nearly his own, when he was 5. His father, who had built up a small group of butcher shops by then, died of acute appendicitis six years later.
Growing up during the Depression, he rapidly learned you make your own way, and made money as a boy by selling newspapers and ice cream. As a young man, he worked in the grocery store business for his brother, Glenn, who sold 25 Ketner-Milner stores to Winn-Dixie in 1957. Ralph, his brother, Brown, and partner Wilson Smith then gambled on opening their first store, Food Town, in Glenn’s Salisbury shopping center.
“We had no money. We said, ‘If we call people for money on the phone, they might think it’s one of the smart Ketners,’” he said in a humorous spin on the store’s history. The partners called everyone in the phone book, from A to Z, selling stock at $10 a share to raise the money. Of those original stockholders, 125 are now millionaires through the venture, as noted in a Fortune magazine article. The original shares have now split 19,440 for one.
A math whiz from boyhood, Ketner used the skill and his food store experience to launch the store based on a theory. “You need to earn business, not buy it,” he said. “I sat down with a stack of invoices to reduce the cost on 3,000 items.”
The idea was to reduce profit while increasing sales enough to take the hit. He cut gross profit from 22 to 16 percent, figuring he needed a 50 percent sales increase to avoid bankruptcy. “LFPINC” (lowest food prices in North Carolina), a term soon despised by the competition, was coined, and store growth skyrocketed. The Belgian Delhaize Group now owns the 1,300-store chain, one of the country’s largest.
Ketner’s years at Tri-State College grounded him in two interests—accounting and business law—but the teenager chose TSC for less than lofty reasons, as he tells it. He wanted to get away from home, and it was the farthest college sending him a catalog.I learned from my father, "Never charge the customer more than necessary. Make a living - not a killing."
Even then he didn’t miss its reputation as one of the country’s best engineering colleges. Three other features also attracted him: Students lived in private homes, they started in their majors the day they arrived, and a new curriculum every three months allowed them to come and go from short-term jobs.
His TSC accounting teacher, Professor Herring, commanded his respect because “he was an auditor, and knew whether I was right or wrong,” he said. Out of a lifelong fear of public speaking, Ralph sometimes cut class, “if I thought the professor was going to call on me to read,” he said. Because of the phobia he later mastered, he dropped that course five times, and for want of $500, missed earning his TSC degree.
But in 1982, appearing as Trine’s commencement speaker, he was granted a B.S. in business administration. “The board of trustees had decided my 43 years of business experience exceeded the six months I needed to graduate,” he said in his autobiography, Five Fast Pennies. As he relates in the book, he told then-Trine University president Carl Elliott “‘You’ve ruined my talk…. I tell everybody that I didn’t finish college. Now I’ve got to tell them that I did.’
‘Well,’ the president said, ‘Tell them it took you 43 years to do six months work.’”
He penned the book, a touchstone for youths with business aspirations, “to encourage our young people to dream, and dream BIG,” he says on the inside cover. Despite the hardships and obstacles of his boyhood, he used his unique perspective and attitude to gain the upper hand.
That attitude should manifest itself in all entrepreneurs. “You look for what’s wrong. You need an entirely new mentality. I look at what the last guy did,” he advised.
Those blessed with success owe the world a debt of gratitude. “I’ve given 40-50 percent of my wealth away, and I don’t regret a bit of it,” he said. “You made me rich,” he said of the original 125 investors. “If you didn’t give, we wouldn’t be off the ground.”
Neither would shelters for homeless people and abused children, an education wing at the National 4-H Center, Livingstone College, a black college devastated by Hurricane Hugo, and schools of business at Trine University and Catawba College, in just a short list of those benefiting from Ketner’s benevolence.
Loving your work should be paramount. During his early work life, “I found nine things I don’t like to do. All my life I’ve looked to see if I can do it better. I say don’t go by the book, write the book. And don’t go into business for somebody else,” he said. “My hobby was work.”
There’s no secret to success, and in his book, Ketner bases it on the series of four-letter words he created for his Trine commencement speech: home work, hard work, team work, Good Lord, good luck, and good idea. “Apply these principles and you’ll be successful. What’s so secretive about that?” he said.