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Ingles' supermarkets founder Bob Ingle dies

12:24 PM, Mar 7, 2011   |    comments
Robert P. "Bob" Ingle
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By Carol Motsinger and James Shea, Asheville Citizen-Times 

ASHEVILLE - A visionary and pillar of the Western North Carolina community died Sunday.

Robert P. "Bob" Ingle, founder and CEO of Ingles Markets, was 77.

Ingle, fresh out of college, took out a mortgage on his mother's house in 1963 and founded the grocery store chain on Hendersonville Road. The store did $8,500 in sales its first week and grew into a multibillion-dollar powerhouse with more than 200 locations in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

Based in Black Mountain, Ingles Markets is one of the largest employers in WNC.

"He's a leader," MANNA FoodBank Executive Director Kitty Schaller said. "I think it's a great loss for Western North Carolina. Few people and companies have made such an impact."

Getting his start

Ingle was a third-generation grocer.

In 1929, his father started a grocery store on Hendersonville Road, and Ingle spent a large amount of his free time at the market as a child. "From the time I was about 4 years old," he had said.

He graduated in 1952 from Lee Edwards High School in Asheville and joined the Army, seeing action in Korea. At age 20, he was discharged and registered at Asheville-Buncombe Junior College.

In 1956, his father's grocery was sold. Deciding to finish his college studies, Ingle moved to Florida, where he attended the University of Miami. He briefly worked for Kraft Cheese after graduation, but returned home in 1961 to get the family back into the grocery business.

Ingle, his wife and a handful of workers staffed his first store, according to the Ingles website. Other grocery chains like Winn-Dixie, A&P and Colonial controlling 93 percent of the area's food sales.

But Ingle was an aggressive businessman. He cut prices, extended store hours to include Sundays and holidays, advertised specials, expanded the supermarket, set up mass merchandise displays, offered games, stamps and other promotional items and generally, ran what he called "a circus" in order to get people in the door, the chain's website states.

A regional force

Ingle saw an opportunity in serving smaller towns and rural communities, which became the focus of expansions into the Southeast region. Ingles Markets moved into South Carolina in 1971.

The supermarket chain was an innovator in the industry. It was one of the first chains to be open 24 hours a day.

"Ingles was not just another big-box retailer," said Kelly Miller, executive vice president and executive director of Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I think he really was trying to provide good services and good products at an affordable price."

The recent announcement about plans to expand the Black Mountain distribution center demonstrated his continued commitment to adding jobs and opportunity in WNC.

"It's that forward thinking," Miller said.

Ingle also was generous with his employees. He offered his workers a profit-sharing plan and had a self-insured medical plan. He told the Citizen-Times that he wanted to offer his employees more than just a paycheck.

Ingle took the company public in 1987.

Betty Huskins, president of Ridgetop Associates in Linville Falls and a longtime economic development professional, called Ingle "a visionary for the region."

"He was an amazing competitor and brought and kept a lot of jobs here in Western North Carolina, and he will be sorely missed," she said. "He certainly has built a legacy."

Giving to local community

In 1982, Ingles Markets purchased Milkco, a milk processing facility. The facility was about to be shutdown, "potentially depriving area dairy farmers of a local market for bulk milk."

Besides benefiting local dairy producers, the purchase was a good business decision. According to Ingles, Milkco is now a wholly owned subsidiary and provides the chain with dairy products, fruit juices and bottled waters. It also sells two-thirds of its products to other retailers, wholesalers and food service distributors.

In recent years, Ingle moved the company into buying local food, seeking to promote the region's farmers and reacting to the public's demand for locally produced food. The company worked with Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Product and other food groups and promoted local farms inside the stores.

"He has taken an interest in buying local," said Bill Haynes of Flat Rock-based Blackbird Farms, which sells products to Ingles Markets.

"I think the intention was to always keeping one step ahead of what the consumers would want," Miller said, referring to the move to feature more local and organic products in response to consumer interest.

The company's involvement with MANNA FoodBank began in the 1980s. The relationship was strengthened in the 1990s when Ingles and MANNA started the Giving Tree, which collects food and money for MANNA at Christmastime.

"Mr. Ingle himself took a complete interest in the Ingles Giving Tree," Schaller said

Each year, Schaller and her staff made an appointment with Ingle; the chain's founder required MANNA to pitch the campaign to him directly annually.

Ingle would listen to the pitch and decide if the campaign would happen again, Schaller said.

"He drove a tough bargain, but he was fair," she said, noted that one year she recalled Ingle saying, "It wouldn't be Christmas without Ingles Giving Tree."

The company also had an impact on numerous other agencies throughout the region.

Ingles Markets made a $250,000 pledge to Pack Place in downtown Asheville and donated money to Meals on Wheels. Eliada Home for Children received food, and the company sponsored basketball leagues at the YMCA.

The man

Ingle was a private man in recent years. He worked with a close-knit group of top employees. Most of his contacts with the media were in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Work was his focus.

In a 1977 Citizen-Times interview, Ingle said he did not have any hobbies: "No, I don't need anything like that. I don't play golf. This is a way of life with me. I'll never get tired of it. I'm where I want to be."

He was, however, an avid aviator. Ingle flew himself to Ingles Markets throughout the Southeast and scouted potential building sites for new stores.

"I like to travel and get to know the towns," he said in a 1987 interview. "I like to go to the store openings and meet people and let them know we are genuine people."

Ingle served on numerous boards, including as a trustee at the Aston Park Hospital.

Ingle and his wife, Laura, had four children: Laura Lynn, Sheree Ann, Robert Jr. and Maria.

Morris Funeral Home on Merrimon Avenue is handling arrangements, which are pending.

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