10-28-02 Gannett News Service: Cookie factory deal: job for a lifetime

Cookie factory deal: job for a lifetime

Productivity jumps at plant on owner's promise

By Vic Kolenc
Gannett News Service

DEMING, Texas - Joseph Semprevivo doesn't want to just sell more cookies from his cookie factory here. He also wants to bring back an old concept: job security.

Mr. Semprevivo, part-owner and chief executive officer of Joseph's Lite Cookies, which produces 1 million bite-size, sugar-free and fat-free cookies each weekday, offers his 24 employees lifetime employment.

The message he sends to employees - whom he prefers to call "team members" - is this: "As long as I have a company, you have a job. I will never bring in a piece of machinery to replace you."

The lifetime employment offer, just one of the benefits received by the workers, is "done through a handshake," he said.

It's not a new concept for the company, said Mr. Semprevivo, 30, who founded the company along with his now-retired parents in 1986. But it's one he's trying to publicize more in light of recent corporate scandals and layoffs by large corporations.

"I want to change the corporate culture as much as I can," Mr. Semprevivo said. "If a small company can do it, any company can do it. Big business needs to start coming along and playing the game, care about team members and the quality of their products. ... People want to know there are companies like mine. There are a lot of companies like mine that don't get publicity."

Joseph's Lite Cookies, popular with diabetics and others who prefer sugar- or fat-free foods, are sold in all 50 states and 18 countries at 54,000 stores, including Albertson's, Wal-Mart and Kmart.

Mathias Velasco, 30, who has worked at Joseph's for 11 years, nine of those as shipping and receiving manager, said the offer of lifetime employment and other benefits the company offers has made a difference in the way people look at their jobs.

"I think when someone comes to the point that they realize they are at a place that will take care of them, they tend to work to not jeopardize that," Mr. Velasco said. "Personally, I think to get the best out of employees, you need to offer employees some type of stability or goal."

Frank Hoy, director of the Centers For Entrepreneurial Development at the University of Texas at El Paso and former dean of UTEP's College of Business, said Mr. Semprevivo's philosophy is "a good thing." But promises of lifetime employment are difficult for companies to keep in today's global economy, he said.

"We're in a much more volatile economic environment than back in the '50s and '60s when it was common for someone to work 20 years to 30 years for a company and then retire," Mr. Hoy said. "It's hard (today) to say you can keep things in one place and everyone has a job forever.

"I think all companies would like to provide guaranteed lifetime employment. But if you have to cut payroll to be competitive and got to move from labor-intensive to capital-intensive - replacing people with machines to be competitive. ... If the company doesn't exist because you're not competitive, then there's no lifetime employment," Mr. Hoy said.

Joseph's Lite Cookies might be operating in more of a "sheltered industry," Mr. Hoy said, where a promise of lifetime employment might be easier to keep.

Mr. Semprevivo said productivity in the plant has increased "300 percent in the last four years," which he largely attributes to his philosophy of treating workers with respect, adding good fringe benefits, and focusing on product quality and new machinery.

"Job security is important as well as (other) benefits. I think you'll see a lot of people beat down the doors to get here" in the future, said Paul Surette, 51, production line manager at Joseph's, where he has worked for a year.

Yet Joseph's still has problems finding employees, even with the lifetime employment offer, other fringe benefits such as health insurance and a 401(k), production bonuses, and a base wage that averages $8 an hour for production workers and more for management positions, Mr. Semprevivo said.

"A lot of team members move out of town, so that's a big reason for turnover," Mr. Semprevivo said. Some people find out they don't like factory work, and the company wants dedicated employees, he said. But, he estimated, "80 percent of the team has been here at least two years."

The company moved to its 48,000-square-foot plant in Deming's industrial park eight years ago. Mr. Semprevivo expects to double the plant's production in coming months, which would mean the plant would produce 2 million cookies a day. It will add five to seven employees, he said. Mr. Semprevivo won't divulge revenues, except to say it has "multimillion dollars in sales annually."