10 Country:Tommy's Free Lunches - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

10 Country:Tommy's Free Lunches

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 January 29, 2008

Sylvester --- The downturn in the nation's economy, with lay-offs of thousands of people, worries people, especially employees who feel a bit insecure.

The staff of a multi-state insurance and real estate business in Sylvester doesn't have anything to worry about. The business owner values his employees so much that he gives them, among several benefits, free lunches every work day.

Going to the grocery store appeals to some people, while others try to avoid it, but Lowornia Richardson enjoys it. "I do it every day. Every day, five days a week," as she pulls out a shopping cart, places her black pocketbook in the child's seat and opens a grocery list.

She will buy enough groceries to feed a dozen people a high quality, nutritious meal prepared and served at their office, an almost unheard employee perk.

"People really make the business more so than you do individually," says Tommy Bozeman, who realized decades ago that employees can make or break a business.

Some people might think his thinking is upside-down to hire a cook, Lowornia, and feed his employees a free lunch everyday that eats into his profits. "I'd estimate probably $30,000 a year," says Tommy about the cost of the unusual benefit.

He realized, 50 years ago that anyway he cuts it, customer service in his insurance and real estate business provides a competitive advantage that pays for itself. "Our business retention ratio is like 93%, which far exceeds industry standards," says Tommy. One client has stayed with the agency for 45 years.

The daily lunch, plus other employee benefits, helps retain his 12 highly trained staffers in his multi-state business. "We don't have any turnover," says Tommy.

Certainly none to speak of. Check with the employees and you'll find most have stayed in their positions, something virtually unheard of since employees these days change jobs like changing their jeans.

"Forty-two years in June," says Judy Aultman, the office manager.

"Thirty-eight years," says Frank Barbee, who handles the real estate side of the business.

"Off and on for 14 years," says Fran Grimsley, who worked with Tommy, and went to another agency, only to return.

The first cook stayed almost 40 years and remembers how much the staff enjoyed her cooking. "'Oh, Sarah. This is so good' they said. That made me feel good, you know," says 85 year-old Sarah Blake.

The office lunches started for a practical reason. Staff members often lived about an hour away. They didn't have time to dash home for a quick lunch. That was in the mid-70s before the fast food restaurants slowly found Sylvester.

Fast food remains out of the question. Everyday, a little before noon, the smells of a home cooked-type meal wafts through the building, and where the kitchen becomes a profit center.

 "Their personalities, their professionalism, their treatments of clients are the most important part of your business," says Tommy, a second generation appreciator of the people who run the business.

But, how committed is he to the perk? "If there's a downward trend in income, I'll bear any cost of the program before we'd give up the perks that we offer our people," says Tommy.

What about the food's quality? "It's great, other than it's fattening," says Fran with a laugh.

That's quite a change in thinking for many businessmen who expect to clean-up in the marketplace by sacrificing employee benefits, and where a free lunch really exists.

 Besides medical re-imbursement, bonuses, 401Ks, each staff member gets his own covered parking place.


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