The Chamber introduced the BIG Thinker Award in 2005, the year the Chamber was recognized as Georgia’s first “entrepreneur-friendly” community by Governor Perdue. The BIG Thinker is designed to recognize those entrepreneurs in the Valdosta-Lowndes community whose ideas, innovations and business savvy go above and beyond the norm. This year’s award was presented to Hugh & Judith Hathcock, owners of Fresh Beginnings/ELEAD1ONE.
“We’re really excited about receiving this award,” said Jennifer Powell, Chief Administrator for Fresh Beginnings, Inc./eLEAD1ONE. “It’s a testament to a great company and a great concept.”
The Hathcocks founded Fresh Beginnings 25 years ago to provide chocolate chip cookies for auto dealers to send to customers as thank-you gifts. They created a unique recipe for a fresh, soft and moist cookie that would ship nationwide and arrive as if it had just come out of the oven. Cookies are baked in Valdosta and shipped out the same day.
“Now we cater to all types of businesses with a full line of gourmet treats,” Powell said. “For example, we’ve provided cookies for local businesses to give to employees on their birthdays, for Trump Towers grand opening in Las Vegas, and for Ann Taylor stores’ customer appreciation campaign.”
The company later diversified into the technology field, to meet the needs of the auto industry, offering software development and support services for dealers to manage customer relationships. Called eLEAD1ONE, the business also operates a call center that enables auto dealers to connect with customers and generate revenue opportunities.
“We serve auto dealers across the U.S. and in Canada. For example, we make calls to auto-dealer customers who have positive equity in their cars to get them back into the showroom to trade up to a new car without changing their payments,” Powell said.
Largest privately owned employer in Lowndes County
With 700+ employees in Valdosta, Fresh Beginnings/eLEAD1ONE is the county’s largest privately owned employer. A planned expansion to the eLEAD1ONE call center will add another 200 employees. The company operates out of a 78,000 square foot facility located on a 10-acre site in Valdosta as well as a facility in Destin, Fla.
“Business is very strong for us. Autos weathered the recession better than luxury items, and recently the market has gotten more active,” Powell said.
While business did slow down for Fresh Beginnings/eLEAD1ONE during the recession, the company continued to grow.
“We became more cost conscious and streamlined some of our processes. But on the technology side, we were still busy helping our customers make the most of the money that they did have to spend,” Powell said.
Providing employment opportunities and community support
According to Powell, Fresh Beginnings/eLEAD1ONE is one of the few companies that bring new money into Lowndes County. Most of the customers it serves are not in the Valdosta area so its revenues help expand the local economy.
“We believe we have a great opportunity to provide more employment for Lowndes County. And when we hire more people – like we are planning to do with our current expansion – then those employees spend their earnings in local restaurants and stores,” Powell said.
Fresh Beginnings works with local schools like Valdosta State University and Wiregrass Georgia Technical College to provide flexible schedules to accommodate student-employees in addition to providing employment for graduates. They also accommodate temporary workers, many from Moody AFB, by quickly ramping up their training programs.
“We’re also very cognizant of being a good community supporter. We want to stay here and be productive here and we need employees to do that,” Powell said.
“We try to stay on top of what’s going on in the community and support those efforts.”
The company has provided cookies for the Moody AFB “Cookies for Troops” program, held fundraising contests among its employees for the Second Harvest “Feed the Hungry” campaign and supported the Red Cross following natural disasters.
“We think Valdosta is a great place to live and work, and we want to help meet local needs,” Powell said.