Ralph Ketner is 93 years old, answers his phone on the first ring, and regularly checks into his office at Catabwa College in Salisbury, N.C., where the business school is named in his honor.
The first thing he does each morning is check the stock price for Delhaize Group, the international retailer that today owns the company Ketner co-founded with his brother and a friend 56 years ago, Food Lion.
Mornings have been good for Ralph Ketner lately.
Delhaize stock has rebounded by more than 30% from where it was trading a year ago, when the company closed dozens of unprofitable stores, cut hundreds of jobs and prepared to jettison long-struggling divisions in Georgia and Florida.
The sacrifices, officials said, were necessary to support an ongoing program of price reductions, promotions and service improvements at Food Lion. That effort has the North Carolina-based chain showing new strength in comp-sales growth, and in some ways, more closely resembling the juggernaut envisioned by its founder, famously known for the expression “I’d rather make five fast pennies than one slow nickel.” His 1968 introduction of EDLP — which he called LFPINC for “Lowest Food Prices in North Carolina” — sparked the chain’s growth, made millionaires of its early backers, and eventually, attracted the attention of the Belgian investors that run the company today.
The renewal program at Food Lion, launched in five phases beginning in 2010, addressed what Delhaize officials described as a fundamental deterioration of the brand: Pricing had drifted too high, and volumes decreased as consumers came to view — and shop — the chain as something of a dusty large convenience store. Ketner noticed as much himself, telling me during interviews around his SN Hall of Fame induction in 2010 that the chain had lost its way.
Ketner had no such criticisms when reached by phone (one ring!) in late January. “I wish them the best,” he said. “I’ve met with [new Food Lion president] Beth Newlands Campbell several times and I think she’s doing very well.”
A loyal weekly Food Lion shopper, Ketner admitted he doesn’t shop around enough anymore to note price competitiveness (“The only things I buy at my age are toothbrushes, shaving cream and milk.”) but remarked on the courtesy of the employees and cleanliness at his local Food Lion. Those aspects have also gotten attention as part of the repositioning, which is supported now by advertisements designed to reintroduce the brand as a full-shop experience. As recent performance and at least one happy customer testifies, it appears to be working.
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