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A Family That Earns and Learns Together

A Massachusetts father and three sons studied for their MBAs at night while running a meat business by day

By Sally Abrahms | August 6, 2012

As soon as the professor in the Suffolk University Master’s of Business Administration course took roll call in September 2007, the cat was out of the bag:
 
Thomas Demakes? Here.

Elias Demakes? Here.

Timothy Demakes? Here.

Andrew Demakes? Here.
 
Not that patriarch Tom, 69, and his three thirtysomething sons, who graduated this May from the Boston school's five-year night MBA program, were trying to keep their kinship under wraps.  
 
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MBAs for the Family

Tom thought an MBA would help the Demakes clan get better at running their fourth-generation meat manufacturing business, Old Neighborhood Foods in Lynn, Mass. (The family also owns Thin ‘N Trim, a sister company that sells low-fat, low-sodium deli foods, chicken sausage and chicken hot dogs.)
 
And yet, being in the same classroom with Dad “could be embarrassing,” recalls Elias, a sales manager like his brothers. “My father says what he wants when he wants, and there were times I’d start to sink under my chair!”
 
But other students in the class were envious, telling the Demakes sons they'd love to get a degree with members of their own families.
 
Make that degrees.
 
A History of Enrolling Together

The four Demakes men have previously taken a real estate appraiser’s degree program as well as one in commercial real estate.
 
Why the focus on real estate if meat is their bread and butter, so to speak?
 
Tom insisted that the “kids,” as he calls them, work for someone else before joining Old Neighborhood Foods, and they all chose real estate, commercial and residential. (Tom also owns investment property.)
 
Although his sons grew up working at his plant every summer, Tom didn’t want to pressure them into coming into the business, the way his dad did in 1967 when Tom returned from Vietnam. Timothy and Andrew joined Old Neighborhood Foods around the time they started the MBA program; Elias began there two years ago.
 
The businesses currently bring in annual sales of nearly $100 million. They have 375 employees at two locations, supplying more than 100 products to supermarket chains, hospitals, restaurants and sandwich shops.
 
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Tom led the charge for the gang to get their latest degree, paid for by their company. He has long insisted that they continue learning every chance they can. “My father is the consummate professor,” says Elias. “You can’t just hang out and relax!”           
 
Business School vs. Real Life
 
Tom, who graduated from William & Mary, was intrigued by the Suffolk MBA program because he wanted to know what business school taught these days and how the curriculum related to real-world experience.
 
His conclusion about the instruction: “Some is a little idealistic, some is spot-on.”
 
Tom also wanted an MBA so he’d stay in step with the current business environment and his employees.
 
“I have a lot of younger people working here," he says. "By going to school with hundreds of men and women like my kids, I got a sense of how they think and what is important to them.”
 
Not in the Curriculum

The Demakes took the same entrepreneurial and branding courses, sat in the same classrooms, were often on the same teams and worked on papers together. In one marketing class, they met an advertising CEO who wound up redesigning their websites. 
 
One subject not in the curriculum: complaining.
 
Although the brothers sometimes found it tough to juggle full-time work and academics, they knew they couldn’t grouse to their dad about it.
 
Andrew says that while they were taking one or two classes a week, “we traveled a lot and sometimes we were tired. We would do whining and moaning on our own. But with my father, it’s not much of an option.”
 
How Their MBAs Helped

Ideas picked up in the MBA classes led the Demakes clan to rethink ways to sell current products and come up with new ones.
 
For instance, they previously sold shaved steak only to sandwich shops, restaurants and food service institutions. Now they’re offering it in supermarkets, too. “Business school reinforces ways to grow business and extend your brand,” says Elias.
 
The Demakeses say that getting their Suffolk MBA together deepened their bonds with one another.
 
“Business school has given me a chance to know my sons better and for them to know me better,” says Tom.
 
Marill Demakes, Tom’s wife of 35 years, is fiercely proud of her husband and their kids.
 
“When have you ever heard of a father and three sons going to grad school together?” she asks. “It’s very inspiring.”
 
Another Degree Ahead?

Now, with their freshly minted MBAs, Tom is floating a new idea: Why don't he and his sons all go to law school?
 
Elias is intrigued. “Being able to represent my own company would be quite a feat and an asset to our business,” he says. “But I’m not sure my father will be able to get my brothers on board!”
 
If history is any guide, the four of them may soon be sitting in another classroom.