Sometime early Saturday afternoon, Ken Lee will walk out of the Kroger store in Rincon and head to his pickup. The next time he passes through its doors, he’ll be a customer, and not its manager.
Lee is retiring Saturday, ending 46 years of working and 36 years with Kroger. The longtime manager of the Rincon Kroger is anticipating some time off, though he expects to devote more time to his role as mayor of Rincon.
Lee wrestled with the decision for a long time but is now very much at ease with the prospect of retirement.
“It’s a funny feeling, making that decision,” he said. “The process of coming to that decision is kind of challenging and scary, too. And I’ve heard that from many people, too, who have retired, that when you work all your life the realization that you’re not going to be working any more … you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before. During this process, there have been some apprehension and questions. But when I did all my homework and knew what I wanted to do, I felt comfortable it. I’m excited about it.”
Lee has been with Kroger for 36 years, starting on Jan. 3, 1978, and has been in Rincon since October 1993. The first dollar from the building housing the Kroger he has supervised, opened on Aug 17, 2000, is still on his office wall.
Retired but still busy
Leaving his career behind won’t completely clear Lee’s calendar. Just this week, he’s presided over a Rincon City Council regular meeting, been a part of a Coastal Regional Commission board meeting, was in an Effingham County Board of Health meeting and has had two more special called city council meetings as they interview candidates for city positions.
“I’ll be plenty busy,” he said.
Balancing his work commitments and his obligations as Rincon mayor has been a challenge, Lee acknowledged.
“I still will be busy, but not quite as busy as I have been, thankfully,” Lee said.
The company has been supportive of his public service, Lee pointed out, and it’s part of the philosophy for stores and store managers to be immersed in the community. As an indication of that, many store managers in smaller towns and cities have been referred to, throughout the company, as the mayor of whatever city they are in.
So when Lee was introduced at company meetings and functions, it would be prefaced that he really was the mayor of Rincon.
“Ken has consistently demonstrated his passion for and commitment to our associates, our customers and our local communities,” officials with Kroger’s Atlanta division said. “We thank Ken for his many years of dedicated service and wish he and his family the best in retirement.”
Lee also said that as his livelihood, he would not do anything to put himself or Kroger in an untenable position.
“Before I ever ran for office, I made sure,” Lee said. “I was not going to do anything to take away my responsibility to Kroger. It’s been difficult sometimes to try to balance the two, and it’s caused a lot more work for me. But I was able to do it, and Kroger was very supportive of me in allowing me to do that. They recognized I was doing something beneficial for the community I live in.
“However, I look forward to not having to balance that anymore.”
In the last few years, Rincon has undertaken several major projects, from the widening of Fort Howard Road to the Macomber Park expansion to new water and sewer lines in parts of the city. There also have been lengthy and sometimes difficult deliberations over such topics as local option sales tax proceeds and fire service.
Retiring from Kroger will give Lee more time to be more hands-on with the city’s affairs.
“I will be able to give more time to the city, and I really want to do that,” he said. “I’ve gotten great satisfaction from what we’ve been able to accomplish, and I see so many things I do want to do and up to this time, I haven’t had the time I would like to have to be able to do it. I like forward to being able to accomplish more.”
Nights and weekends
Lee began working part-time in April 1968 bagging groceries, as a way to make money while going to school. “And that was all that I intended it to be and expected it to be,” he said.
Instead, it developed into a career of 46 years.
“It just doesn’t seem that long since I was that 16-year-old kid. It doesn’t seem possible that 46 years have passed and I’ve been doing this that long,” Lee said.
The store he’s run for two decades is now open from 5 a.m.-1 a.m. every day, and the four-hour interlude only means there are no customers. There remains work to be done while shoppers aren’t in the aisles.
“It’s become a 24-hour operation,” Lee said. “If I’m out at the golf course, someone will want to come up to me to talk to me, they’ll start by saying, ‘I hate to bother you when you’re off,’ and I say, ‘I’m not ever off, so fire away,’ and that’s the approach you have to take. You’ve got to be accessible. People always knew where I am, and they knew they could find me at Kroger. It’s hard for me to run and hide,” Lee joked.
The hours Lee has been at the store haven’t been just Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There have been late nights and a lot of weekends, working to midnight one day and getting up to be back at 7 a.m. Working on weekends hasn’t bothered Lee very much.
“It came to the point where I was working most Sundays,” he said. “It’s always been long hours. That’s something I’ve always accepted. Now as a 24-hour operation, our schedules are really mixed up.”
Valentine’s Day is also a big day for the store, so Lee plotted his retirement date based on the end of Kroger’s fiscal year in January and finding a good time. With no big holiday between Valentine’s Day and Easter, Lee figured getting the store through a potential taking of inventory in January and Valentine’s Day was a good time to exit the working life.
He started the process about 18 months ago and when he made his decision on his retirement date — the calendar on his wall has Feb. 15 circled with “R-DAY” written next to it and in all capital letters “FINISH STRONG!” underneath — the Saturday after Valentine’s Day seemed fitting.
“From the very beginning, I’ve worked on Saturdays,” he said. “I’m going to go out just like I came in.”
Lee said he’s prided himself on knowing the names of as many customers as possible, and it’s the relationships he’s built through the years that he’ll miss on a daily basis.
“I’ve developed a lot of relationships with our customers and with people I’ve worked with over the years, and that makes me feel real good,” he said.