Ralph Ketner, co-founder of the Food Lion grocery store chain, died May 29. He was 95 years old and had recently been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Ketner’s concept of selling groceries at the lowest prices possible caught on in a big way, spurring the growth of his chain, originally known as Food Town, to fame and fortune as Food Lion, with currently more than 1,000 stores across 10 Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states and 63,000-plus associates. The Salisbury, N.C.-based company is part of Delhaize America, the U.S. division of Brussels-based Delhaize Group.
A Life in Grocery
Born in 1920, Ralph Wright Ketner was one of seven children. His father, Bob, a farmer and butcher, bought a meat market in Salisbury in 1923, moving his family into the bungalow behind it. The store eventually added groceries to the assortment. By 1931, Bob Ketner operated six Ketner’s Cash and Carry stores. He died the next year, however, and his stores were auctioned off. Ralph Ketner’s oldest brother, Glenn, was able to buy one of them, maintaining the family’s connection to the grocery business. Ralph often worked in the family’s stores.
After college, service in the U.S. Army and various jobs, Ketner took a position in his brother’s warehouse, remaining in the grocery business from that time forward. Eventually, he, two of his brothers and a friend raised the money to open their first 15,000-square-foot Food Town store, located in a new shopping center in Salisbury, in 1957. A second location in the town opened within the year, but 10 years on, the business wasn’t doing well. In 1967, however, Ketner, then company president, decided to implement a low-pricing formula that a company in Ohio had adopted. The formula, which Ketner dubbed “The Big Change,” worked, and the business became successful.
In 1974, Ketner negotiated a deal allowing Delhaize to acquire 34 percent of Food Town. Two years later, Delhaize had purchased 51 percent of the company but let Ketner run the grocery store chain. The name change to Food Lion came about because when the chain expanded into Tennessee, there were already some stores named Food Town there.
Active in Retirement
In 1986, Ketner passed the CEO title to Tom Smith in 1986 but remained chairman of the board. Upon his retirement in 1991, he took the title of chairman emeritus. He also turned to philanthropy, donating millions of dollars to a variety of causes, and became executive-in-residence at Catawba College, traveling daily to an office in the eponymous Ketner Hall, where he would welcome students and entrepreneurs in search of free advice. Ketner and his second wife, Anne, had given $3 million to the college to help found the Ketner School of Business.
Ketner declined to seek re-election to the board but remained a shareholder of Food Lion, although he distanced himself from the company, occasionally even criticizing its operations, such as the way it dealt with a 1992 ABC-TV “PrimeTime Live” report about Food Lion’s meat-handling practices.
In recent years, however, Food Lion executives re-established a relationship with Ketner, who then often met with employees at event such as annual picnics.
Services will be held on Sunday, June 5, 2:30 p.m., at Keppel Auditorium on the Catawba College campus, according to the Salisbury Post. Survivors include his daughter, Linda; son, Robert; daughter-in-law, Leslie; four grandchildren; two sisters; and his former wives, Ruth Hope, the mother of his children; and Anne Ketner.