Alumni profile

Just two years out of college, Sam Wornom co-founded The Pantry chain of convenience stores and grew it into nearly 500 locations. In the second act of a stellar business career, he’s again proving he can spot business opportunities that satisfy consumer appetite.

Stocking the Pantry

By Steve Tuttle

Sam Wornom III ’65 keeps a heavy winter coat handy in his office at Imperial Freezer Services, a sprawling building that sits off U.S. 1 in Sanford, about 30 miles south of Raleigh. He throws it on to give visitors a tour of the 125,000-square-foot facility, which essentially is a giant icebox. “We store food items for several companies until they need it,” he explains. Food products move in and out of the plant through 16 truck bays and two railroad bays. “About 60 percent of what goes through here is bound for overseas, mostly poultry products,” he adds. That product is stored in a section of the warehouse that remains in perpetual deep freeze, kept at a constant 10 below zero. “You don’t want to go back there,” he deadpans.

Wornom co-founded Imperial in 1995. It’s one of several enterprises he’s started since 1987 when he sold The Pantry chain of convenience stores at the tender age of 45. “I’m really not active in the management here,” Wornom says about Imperial. “I’ve done this business like most companies I get involved with now. I can spot a business opportunity and negotiate a deal but then I turn over the actual running of the business to people who are good at that, people who are smarter than me.”

Wornom, a Lambda Chi brother, was just two years out of East Carolina then he opened the first Pantry store, but he knew the mercantile trade. As part of a business class project, he helped open a new concept for Garner-Wynne-Manning, a Greenville wholesale supplier of notions, over-the-counter drugs and sundries. Garner-Wynne opened a Big Value Discount Store in downtown Greenville, and Wornom started working there part-time. After graduation he took a full-time job managing a Big Value store in Tarboro and then moved to Sanford when Garner-Wynne opened a store there. But Wornom wanted to go into business for himself, and he needed a partner. At a Sanford Jaycees meeting he met the perfect one in Truby Proctor, whose family owned Lee-Moore Oil Co. in Sanford. Wornom knew how to stock and operate a store that stayed open late and sold a few common household products; Proctor knew the oil and gasoline delivery business and their partnership began. “In most small towns back then, you couldn’t buy a quart of milk or get gas after five o’clock. We thought we could make money serving that need.”

Then he pauses in reflection. “Actually, I don’t believe I have ever had an original idea. I didn’t even have the idea of starting the Pantry. Truby and I together came up with the concept.”

Gas and groceries

Those two elements—gas and a grab bag of groceries—create what we know today as the convenience store. It was a formula Wornom and Proctor repeated again and again in other stores they opened in central North Carolina, always on the main drag of small towns that had at least 750 homes within a couple of miles. With each new store they refined the concept until they had the process down cold, using profits from existing stores to pay for opening new ones.

Wornom and Proctor were able to add additional stores through the help of two dairies who were losing shelf space in the big chain supermarkets. The handful of Pantry stores swelled to dozens, then hundreds, across the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana.

Wornom branched out into other businesses. He became associated with another Sanford-based business, Trion Inc., a manufacturer of commercial, industrial and residential indoor air products. He bought into the Mack Stores chain, which also was headquartered in Sanford, when its owners retired. Now occupied with other interests, Wornom needed someone to take over management of the young but growing Pantry chain. He turned to an ECU alumnus, Gene Horne Jr. ’64, who had taught school in Maryland after college and tried his hand at running a store. Horne joined the Pantry in 1973 and led it through a period of explosive growth. He remained a top executive of the company after the company was sold to Montrose Capital, an investment firm renowned for its famous shareholders, including Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, and Wayne Rogers, the former Trapper John on the TV series M*A*S*H. The company later went public and rebranded many of the stores under the Kangaroo name. The Pantry remains one of only two Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Raleigh area.

Throughout their careers, both Wornom and Horne kept close ties with East Carolina. Wornom joined the Board of Visitors and was a founding member of the Chancellors’ Society. A member of the Order of the Cupola, he was honored with an Outstanding Alumni award in 1980. He was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 1983 and served there for eight years, serving as chairman from 1990–91. Horne, a Kappa Alpha brother, received the Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award in 1988 and chaired the College of Business Golden Anniversary Campaign.

New horizons, old friends

Roddy Jones ’58 of Raleigh was skeptical at first when Wornom called in 1997 to propose investing in a new bank. Even though he didn’t know much about banking, Jones listened because he valued Wornom’s advice. “I have known Sam for so long I’m embarrassed to say because it makes us look old,” Jones laughs. “He is the type of guy who is analytical about every decision he makes in business, which I think has done well for him over the years. So when he called me about becoming a founding director of Capital Bank I knew it would be a smart move. I’ve been in construction and real estate development my whole life. I knew very little about banking. But I knew Sam and if he said that was a good deal, that’s all I needed to know.” Charles Atkins ’75, president of a real estate development company in Sanford, had the same reaction when Wornom called him about investing in the bank. Capital Bank began in Raleigh and quickly grew into 33 branch offices across North Carolina with $1.6 billion in assets.

Wornom and four other alumni teamed up in 1983 to establish the Pirate Club’s Endowment Fund to provide scholarships for student-athletes.

He invests in other ventures through Nouveau Investments, the financial vehicle he created to manage his business interests. While his business interests have ranged far and wide, he’s remained close to home in other areas of his life. He’s active in Lee County community, where for decades he’s been the force behind the local Boys & Girls Club as well as a National Trustee for the organization. He’s a deacon at Jonesboro Heights Baptist Church. and he helps the local United Way drive and several other civic organizations.

One reason he’s fond of his alma mater is because that’s where he and his wife, Sandy, met as students. She left college early to get married. After raising two daughters she came back to ECU and became a student again, staying in Greenville during the week with a daughter, son-in-law and their first grandchild, going home on weekends. Sandy completed her degree in 1999 in business education.

Nowadays, Sam and Sandy are in town so much that they have a condo here. He’s currently serving on the ECU Foundation and is involved in many other aspects of university life. They rarely miss a football game because those are prime opportunities to spend time with family. In Wornom’s case, family includes children and grandchildren, his old Lambda Chi brothers, Sandy’s old Chi Omega sisters and several other alumni whose business careers and his have intersected over the years.

James Maynard ’65 of Raleigh, founder of the Golden Corral restaurant chain, is one of those old friends. “Sam Wornom is one of the most dedicated Pirates I have known,” he says. “The university has been very fortunate to have Sam’s wisdom and advice for more than 25 years. We need more like Sam.”

Wornom, Jones, Maynard and two other alumni, the late Pat Draughon ’60 and Alvin Hutzler ’65, teamed up in 1983 to establish the Pirate Club’s Endowment Fund to provide scholarships for student-athletes.

Now 68, Wornom remains fit and trim through a strict diet and regular exercise. He looks back and wonders how it all happened so fast. He was just a kid out of Hampton, Va., who came to East Carolina with a group of students from his hometown and ended up enrolling here because a friend did. He picked business as a major because he had to write down something. “I was 17 so I picked business for no real reason other than I felt like it would be interesting,” Wornom says in retrospect. “It seemed to be a good choice. I am very thankful for the blessings and opportunities the Lord has given me.”