October 22nd, 2015
Thomas Demakes believes in family and hard work. As the patriarch of the Demakes family, he’s raised his three sons with one important, underlying lesson:
“If you’re going to work, be good at it and take pride in it,” Demakes said. “I don’t care if you sweep the streets, just be the best street sweeper around. There’s a lot of pride in a job well done.”
Demakes, 73, is the CEO of Old Neighborhood Foods, and he says he’s been working for the company since the age of five. He sits at his desk in a tie and collared shirt, answering phone calls and making quick decisions over the phone. His appearance belies his subtle sense of humor, as with a hint of laughter in his voice, he reminisces about growing up around the family business.
“Even at age four, I was working. My father would often work on the weekends at the plant, and I would help by sweeping or making boxes, and I would earn a nickel.”
By the time Demakes was 18, he had started working in his family’s retail store and became a truck driver, covering vacation time for the plant employees. He would work on his school breaks, and he said, “Unlike my friends who got to relax, I never did.”
“I did every job: from smoking and cooking, to working in the kitchen stuffing sausages, to burning the trash.”
And if he could pick just one job to go back to?
“Burning the trash. The plant had an incinerator and I loved throwing the boxes into the fire and closing the door and seeing the smoke going up the stack.”
After he went to college and the army (Demakes is a Vietnam Veteran), he came back and told his father he didn’t want to work for the family business.
Demakes said, ‘My father nodded his head and said,’Yup, that sounds good.’ All I know is a came back from Vietnam on a Friday, and on Monday I started work.”
Thirty years later, after buying out family members, Demakes owned the entire company. He brought on his three sons, and even attended business school with them.
“I said, ‘Look, we have this business. I’ve saved up enough money, and I don’t need to work that much anymore, but if you want to take it over and work hard, I’ll work with you.'”
He said he’s tried to replicate his life experience for his boys.
“My kids worked in the warehouse, or the kitchen, and I did soak up their time, but it was part of my exit strategy.”
He chuckles, “But the way it looks, I’ll be here for a while longer.”
He’s worked at the plant full-time for 50 years, and before that, part-time for 20 years. He feels a great responsibility in merging the old with the new and has no problem letting his staff or children know what’s on his mind.
“I’ve done every job, and I’ve seen the industry change and the food business change. I’ve acquired a lot of on-the-job training. A lot of the older people who have been here 30 years are retiring, and now we’re bringing in younger people.”
He says it’s his job to train the younger people, because there’s a huge gap between someone who has been at the plant for 30 years and the new people he’s hiring.
“They have skills we don’t have, but they don’t have the on-the-job training and practical experience, so we have to blend the two,” said Demakes. “Hopefully, my success will be defined by how well I was able to pass the baton on to the next generation.”