NORTH TONAWANDA, N.Y. (AP) — Supermarket owner Frank Budwey is giving away the store — and his employees couldn't be happier.
Budwey, 66, surprised his full-time workers with the news he is bringing them on as partners as he begins to ease into retirement. He said Friday he hopes the move will ensure that the 90-year-old market begun by his grandmother makes it to 100 and beyond.
He broke the news to his employees Thursday night at a mandatory meeting.
"They didn't know whether the store was closing, being sold or what," Budwey said. "When I told them they were going to become my partners, they were shocked."
For now, the 33 full-time employees will split 45 percent of ownership shares and Budwey will retain the majority and continue at the helm. When he retires in 10 years, Budwey will divide his shares among selected employees.
"Frank's giving us the ball. We've just got to run with it now," said Jerry Dumais, who supervises the same meat department where his father worked years ago.
"After my father passed away, Frank called me and said, 'Do you want a job?' I turned 16, and I've been working here ever since, almost 30 years," Dumais said. "That's saying a lot for Frank. He takes care of his employees."
The new partners will receive profits in proportion to how much stock they hold. If they leave the store, the company will buy back the stock.
"That way, I feel stronger that the store will succeed, that there's no nonworking shareholders," Budwey said, stopping Friday to greet longtime customers by name and ask about their families. "I really want it to go on."
In the produce department, Budwey called over assistant store manager Patti Edwards, explaining how he'd hired her as a teenager 37 years ago because the store softball team he still coaches needed a shortstop.
"He's done wonders for me," said Edwards, who described a stronger sense of security now that she has a share of what will relaunch as a new corporation.
"I can actually retire here," she said.
Budwey, who got married April 25, said his new bride and two daughters support the succession plan, though advisers like his lawyer and accountant were at first taken aback.
"They said, 'Wait a minute. You've got to get money for it. What are you doing here?'" he said. But "my one daughter told me, 'Thank God, Dad. Now we don't have to worry about the store.'"
To further strengthen its place in the competitive grocery business, Budwey said he will spend $1 million on improvements, including new dairy and produce cases, a new register system and fresh decor.
"It's family oriented," said assistant office manager Amanda Hoffert, who was hired 12 years ago when she was 16. "I feel like I'm part of the family."
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