CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When Ralph Ketner helped launch Food Lion in 1957, he and his co-founders tracked down their first 125 investors in the Salisbury phone book.
That small group invested $50, $100 apiece. An original $50 investment became $1 million over time.
On Tuesday, the man who made fortunes for his hometown was honored at Queens University of Charlotte for sharing his wealth.
He donated $1 million to help pay for an upgrade at a campus auditorium that bears his name. The rest will go to the Levine Center, a health and wellness center on campus.
Ketner, whose ties to Queens are recent, displayed his homespun humor at the event.
He mentioned being inducted into the Carolinas Entrepreneur Hall of Fame at Queens last year with Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and Family Dollar Stores Inc. founder Leon Levine.
"That," Ketner, 91, said with a laugh, "is some high cotton for a boy who grew up with nothing, selling newspapers and almanacs."
He told the Observer in an interview before his talk that he donated to the university because of his "tremendous respect for Queens and the job they're doing educating young people."
Ketner didn't put any constraints on the money to Queens, a private, coed, Presbyterian-affiliated university with 2,700 undergraduate and graduate students.
"I have the faith that they will put it to good use," he said.
President Pamela Davies recalled his speech at the Hall of Fame dinner.
"That evening he was the most charming, delightful, smart and creative person, so we asked him to come back to speak at the college, and he did," Davies said.
Ketner was named national Entrepreneur of the Year in 1990, an award Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates won 20 years later. "Of course," Ketner said with a smile, "Food Lion stock outperformed Microsoft stock 73 to 1.
"That's the smartest thing I've ever done," he said. "Now I'll tell you the dumbest thing: Bill Gates is a billionaire, and I ain't nowhere near a billionaire."
He called himself, brother Brown Ketner and Wilson "Bill" Smith the "original telemarketers in 1957."
"We spent three days and nights going through the Salisbury phone book, from A to Z," he said.
Most invested small amounts, but how about a $1,000 investment? Ketner has that number at the ready: an eye-popping $34,992,000.
"So we have a lot of people even to this day asking, 'Why didn't you call me? Why didn't you call me?' "
Then again, the payoff took some time. The first 10 years were "mean" - "survival's always tough," he said - and the company was on the verge of bankruptcy with seven stores.
That's when he had his brainstorm - "lowest food prices in North Carolina" - which actually got its start in a Charlotte motel room in 1968.
He brought six months' worth of invoices and a small adding machine and holed up for several days. He emerged with the plan that revolutionized an industry: slashing prices on the gamble that higher sales volume would cancel out razor-thin profit margins. Sales skyrocketed, from $5 million to $7.2 billion in 25 years.
Ketner retired as chairman in 1991, and Food Lion is now part of the Belgium-based Delhaize Group. It doesn't break out sales for individual chains, but Delhaize reported year-end 2010 sales of $18.8 billion. Food Lion now has 1,176 stores in 11 states.
Since Ketner retired, Food Lion's growth has slowed and the company has faced slipping market share and increased pressure from the economy and competitors such as Wal-Mart. Food Lion has gone back to basics, bidding for shoppers with a heavily promoted lower pricing initiative.
That should please the man who ran the company by "putting customers first, employees second, shareholders third, and CEOs last," he said.