Ralph Ketner, the co-founder of Food Lion, a grocery chain with 11,000 stores and 63,000 employees passed away this weekend, 95 years after his birth in 1920. I was privileged to meet him five years ago, shortly after I founded Happiness 1st Institute.
He came to speak at an organization I belonged to and entertained us with stories of how he grew Food Lion for an entire hour. He stood at the front of the room, about ten feet from my seat in the second row, without seeming to tire despite being 90-years-old. He was smart and funny. Food Lion experienced rapid expansion after Mr. Ketner spent days locked in a hotel room with a calculator to find a way to sell groceries at a lower price than his competitors.
The story that stands out the most was after he implemented the new, lower price strategy, selling many staples at cost, a competing grocer (Winn Dixie) began advertising that they offered the best overall prices. Mr. Ketner countered by saying Food Lion sold groceries, not overalls.
It seems that men make bad investment decisions when they need a lawnmower.
Years ago, when I lived in Idaho, one of my neighbors told me about being a mailman in Seattle and continually delivering certified letters for lawsuits to this man who was running a business out of his garage. He told me that one day the man asked him to invest in the company he was running out of his garage. He declined because he had seen how many people were suing him and besides, he told me, “I needed a new lawnmower. I figured I’d buy something useful with the little money I had.” The man who asked him to invest was Bill Gates.
Mr. Ketner told a similar story that morning about a man who was tired of pushing a mower around his two-acre backyard. He bought Food Lion’s stock when it was still a new company hoping he could make enough money to buy a riding lawn mower. After he’d earned several thousand in profit on the stock he sold it and bought the lawn mower. The stock he sold would be worth more than $3 million dollars today.
He told a heartwarming story about raising money for a capital improvement for Catawba College after he retired. An 81-year-old widow was confused that Mr. Ketner had asked to see her about contributing money for capital improvements to the college. She lived in a tiny brick home and believed her husband had loaned Mr. Ketner $50. when he started the grocery chain. I wish I could have seen her face when he told her that it wasn’t a loan and the stock was worth $2.5 million dollars. Catawba College now has a dormitory with her name, Zeda Barger, because she donated about 30% of her shares.
The best part of the meeting was yet to come. Mr. Ketner stayed around after his talk freely sharing his time with the group in one-on-one conversations. I made no move to take my turn because I was learning something from every conversation he had. I wanted to share with him my plans and vision for Happiness 1st Institute without feeling rushed. He listened with rapt interest as I explained all the benefits of happiness to individuals and businesses. I spoke excitedly about how I planned to bring this information to businesses and help them benefit from increases in employee happiness by offering training programs that lead to skills based happiness which is much more stable than happiness that is based on one’s circumstances.
I’d already met with other businessmen and some of the older ones had been so dismissive about happiness being anything more than a fluffy, feel-good emotion that they hadn’t listened long enough to learn about the science that demonstrates happiness increases cognitive abilities, making the same employee smarter than they are when they aren’t happy. They didn’t learn that happiness improves the ability to negotiate and be creative or that it improves immune function and leads to naturally healthier choices about food and exercise.
Mr. Ketner restored my confidence that there would be some business leaders who were ready to learn about the benefits of happiness. He asked me where I saw the business going and I talked about wanting it to be national. Then Mr. Ketner changed my life. He said, “I think you should take it international. What you’ve described is too important to limit it to one country.”
Coming from a man who co-founded Food Lion, taking the grocery chain from a single new store in a sleepy southern town to a company that made 87 of the original investors into millionaires, his advice felt like he’d handed me a stack of gold coins. It changed my thinking and helped me realize that I’d been thinking too small. Sometimes just a slight brush with a great thinker can change the course of your life as Mr. Ketner’s advice to me did five years ago.
The world focuses too much on the negative.
If you let them, the news and some people will convince you that these are the worst of times and that people just aren’t good anymore. To counter that I am always on the lookout for examples of good people. I am also a big fan of Ellen Langer’s work on aging and how what we think about aging impacts how we age. Because what we think about aging is influenced by both the media and personal experiences, I am always excited when I find examples of aging that represent it in its best light.
In Mr. Ketner, I found two treasured examples—of a good man and of defying aging stereotypes.
Thank you Mr. Ketner for what you did for me and so many others, for your inspiration that will continue even though you are no longer walking among us. Rest in peace, Mr. Ketner.
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