From bagging groceries to leading one of Forbes magazine’s best companies in America
By CHRISTY MARTIN ’71 MA ’78
Jim Lanning ’80 got a job bagging groceries when he was a teenager barely old enough for a work permit. Lanning worked afternoons and weekends at a small grocery store in the Skyland community only a few miles from his school. By the time he got his high school diploma, the store also had given him an education. He already knew more than most boys his age about long hours and hard work. He also had discovered his affinity for the retail environment, and so he stayed on.
Lanning, winner of WCU’s 2009 Professional Achievement Award, is now the president and chief operating officer of that supermarket chain, Ingles Markets Inc., the Asheville-based company ranked by Forbes as one of the 400 Best Big Companies in America.
“We’re proud to see our president, Jim Lanning, receive WCU’s Professional Achievement Award,” said Robert P. Ingle, founder and CEO of the supermarket chain. “Jim truly grew up in our business, working day and night while completing his education at WCU. His leadership has provided our company with the growth and direction needed to succeed in today’s market.”
Lanning oversees operations in 202 stores, many of them three times larger than the one where he started work in 1975. In almost 40 years with Ingles, he has held key roles at every level of management in several states. He has watched the stores grow from 30,000-square-foot buildings providing basic staples, meats and produce to giant one-stop shopping centers with gourmet groceries, organic foods, pharmacies, card and book sections, bakeries, floral departments, media centers, delicatessens, coffee bars, self-checkouts and fuel centers. Ingles, employing 19,000 people, has supermarkets in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama. Annual sales top $3.5 billion.
“It’s wonderful to have such a strong leader for a boss,” said Cindi Brooks, Ingles vice president for human resources, who has worked with Lanning for many years. “Jim is caring, extremely hard-working, inspiring and a pleasure to work with.”
Employees in the six states where Ingles has stores admire and respect Lanning, an Asheville native, who regularly makes store visits during his long work week. He makes time to talk with them and is interested in hearing not only about their sales performance but also their personal lives.
“Getting to know the employees and their families was a tradition started and cultivated by our founder, who has always encouraged his store managers to know and appreciate what’s going on in their employees’ lives,” said Lanning. “And for me, when I’m in the stores, I’m amazed when I talk to employees at how often I hear about WCU – someone has a child there, or is going to school there, or a family member has just graduated.”
Lanning has never worked for any company but Ingles. Two years after he got that bagboy job, he was promoted to stock clerk. He was grocery manager by the time he graduated from high school. Others his age with a steady job and opportunities for advancement might have decided to forego college. “But for my mother and father, who have been part of everything in my life, there was never a question of if I would go to college. I was definitely going to college. It was just a matter of where,” he said.
He kept working at Ingles, enrolled at WCU and, taking advantage of as many night classes and extension offerings as he could, managed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in less than four years. After he graduated, Lanning kept moving up at Ingles. He was continually challenged to take on larger stores, and he showed results. In addition to Asheville, he held Ingles positions in Gaffney, Sumter and Moonville, S.C.; and in Winder and Hull, Ga., outside Athens, where he was a district manager responsible for northeastern Georgia. In 2003, Robert Ingle named him president and he returned to Asheville, where he lives with his wife Melody and their son and daughter.
He provides support for pressing needs in Ingles’ hometown communities and helped organize the company’s “Tools for Schools” program, which has donated more than $7.9 million in educational equipment to schools. Lanning also is involved with his company’s donation program to food banks to help fight hunger among children and families in the communities where Ingles stores are located.
His career advice for young people entering the job market? “These may be tough times economically, but there are always opportunities for people who are willing to start small and work their way up,” Lanning said. “They need to be flexible and willing to accept a position that may be a step or two below what they may have envisioned for themselves. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and if that’s where they want to be, getting a good education and being willing to work will get them there.”