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Ralph Ketner shares business acumen

Ralph W. Ketner, a native of Salisbury, N.C. and founder of Food Lion, spoke to McColl School students and business leaders from across the region during a recent program at Queens.

He shared insights from his distinguished career in the retail industry and the innovations he created to help the company grow to become a leader among grocers. Queens that evening also announced the naming of the auditorium in the Sykes Learning Center in Mr. Ketner's honor, in recognition of his generous gift of $1 million to support the university.

Mr. Ketner co-founded Food Town (now Food Lion) in 1957, and within 10 years the company had grown to seven stores with annual sales of $5 million. In 1968, Ketner made the unprecedented decision to drastically reduce 3,000 prices, a successful move that won customers for Food Lion and revolutionized the industry. When Ketner retired from the company in 1991, sales had increased to $7.2 billion.

Over the years, Ketner has received numerous awards and recognitions. Two of those he said he most values are his 1990 National Entrepreneur of the Year Award and inclusion in the 2002 "One of 50 Visionaries in the U.S. Supermarket Industry." In addition, two business schools have been named in his honor: the Ralph W. Ketner School of Business at Catawba College, and the Ketner School of Business at Trine University in Angola, Indiana. He was inducted to the Carolinas Entrepreneur Hall of Fame at the McColl School of Business in 2010.

In the early days of his career, Mr. Ketner said, he was hungry to learn and the drive to be a leader grew stronger every year. He studied the ins and outs of the grocery business by working in his father's butcher shop and grocery store in Salisbury, a small town north of Charlotte. He also worked for his older brother, Glenn, at his grocery store in Kannapolis.

Ketner graduated from high school in Rowan County and attended Tri-State College in Angola, Indiana. He later served in the Army and was stationed in Africa and Italy during World War II. After his brother Glenn sold his grocery stores in 1956, Ralph Ketner, Brown Ketner and Wilson Smith raised enough capital to open their own grocery store, Food Town, in Salisbury, N.C. in 1957.

In the first decade, Food Town grew to seven stores and had annual sales of $5 million in 1967. In order to increase his profit, Ketner - who served as the chairman and CEO - came up with the "lowest food prices in North Carolina" strategy, increasing sales to $8.5 million in 1968, $15 million in 1969 and $22 million in 1970. By 1983, the grocery store chain's annual sales hit $1 billion, and shortly thereafter, a Belgian supermarket chain, Delhaize, bought controlling interest in Food Town and renamed it Food Lion. Ketner retired from the company in April 1991. 

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