From the heart

Judy Downie is a nurse by training, and it shows.


The co-owner of three local IHOP restaurants and a sign store cares about her employees and treats them like family. Whether giving employees a second chance in life or providing them with a home or transportation, she is known as a businesswoman who is concerned about her workers' well-being.

"IHOP is known for giving opportunities. When you're loyal to the business, they're loyal to you," said Darrell Addison, the general manager at the IHOP in south Augusta.

Dr. Downie said that she doesn't mind helping others because she has overcome so many obstacles herself. She has conquered poverty, a rare form of kidney cancer and a career start later in life.

She didn't get into business until five years ago, when her husband, W.G. Downie, wanted to expand his IHOP franchises in the area and needed her assistance.

He became a franchise owner in 1977, but it was in his blood a lot earlier.

"He started out at 11 years old as a busboy at IHOP in Miami. His mother was an IHOP waitress," Dr. Downie said.

Workers put a milk carton on the floor so he could reach the sink. He did such a good job that they asked him to come back. He had worked his way up to regional coordinator before becoming a franchise owner.

Though his first store on Walton Way closed, the next one, on Washington Road at National Hills, opened in 1979. The Downies have since opened one on Washington Road in Evans in 2006 and on Peach Orchard Road in south Augusta this summer.

Dr. Downie, who spent the past few years of her previous career teaching nursing at the university level, said she enjoys being a business owner.

"There's always new growth and change when you're an entrepreneur," she said.

Debra Clark, the franchise business consultant for IHOP, describes Dr. Downie as energetic and organized.

"She's efficient with everything that she's doing. She treats everybody like family. They go beyond the call of duty there," Ms. Clark said.

IHOP's corporate office has written many articles on Dr. Downie's unique management style.

"She just brings in a whole different side of personality to the business. She's very personable and genuine with her people. It's a very good program," Ms. Clark said.

A farm life

Judy Downie grew up in rural Kentucky on a 5-acre farm in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In her corporate office in Evans is a photograph of her standing in front of the two-room house where she was reared. It hangs next to her Ph.D. diploma from the Medical College of Georgia as a reminder of how far she has come.

"We were very poor people," Dr. Downie said.

She lived with her parents, Sallie and Lindza Webb, and her grandparents, Elizabeth and Charles Buster, whom she affectionately called "Big Mom" and "Daddy Pa" during her childhood.

To earn a living, her grandfather was a tenant farmer. The Buster family lived in a small house on the owner's property and farmed the land. After harvest, they had to move on to the next farm.

Years later, her grandfather was finally able to buy some land and built a two-room house for his family. He constructed the house himself and added rooms in later years, she said.

She was the oldest of four siblings. Her mother had twins, Tommy and Charlotte, who were both mentally and physically disabled. She had a sister, Amy, who was also ill throughout their upbringing. Today, only Tommy is still alive.

Her grandparents had many animals on their farm, including cows, pigs and chickens, which became Dr. Downie's playmates because her brother and sisters were unable to play. Among her favorite animals was a pet cow named Susan.

Dr. Downie recalls watching her mother care for her siblings with love and patience. During the day, her mother worked at a nursing home, which inspired the future restaurant owner to enter the nursing field.

"I wanted to be able to help people. She was always very patient with people who were sick," Dr. Downie said about her mother.

Her father worked at a cabinet factory.

Her mother, who didn't have many educational opportunities, always urged her to get as much education as possible.

"She said that's something no one can ever take away," Dr. Downie said.

After high school in 1964, she married her high school sweetheart, Emmett Childers.

He was drafted in the Vietnam War. She followed her husband to Germany, where the first of her two daughters, Debbie and Dawn, was born.

She didn't have the chance to attend college until years later. At age 28, she put herself through community college to earn her associate's degree in nursing.

She and her husband later divorced, and she followed her mother's advice to continue her education.

She earned her bachelor's degree in nursing from Bellarmine College in Louisville, Ky., and a master's degree in nursing from the University of Louisville.

Bedside manner

During her nursing career, Dr. Downie specialized in acute care and critical care nursing.

"I took care of many families who lost loved ones in ICU," she said of intensive care units.

She recalls many nights when she sat beside patients in critical care units and worked "diligently all night long to keep them from dying."

"They were very unstable. It felt really good when they did well and survived," she added.

Dr. Downie excelled in nursing and earned the National Award for Critical Care Nurses.

During her master's studies, Dr. Downie faced a health challenge of her own. She learned that she had a rare form of cancer in a kidney. If the cancer spreads outside the kidney, there isn't much chance of survival, she said.

"They did the surgery, and I survived. I don't know another person who had renal cell cancer who has lived as long as I have. I felt like the good Lord left me here for a reason, and I promised that I would do everything I could to help other people," she said.

After earning her master's degree, she moved to Tallahassee, Fla., to work at Tallahassee Regional Medical Center and teach nursing at Florida State University. She moved to Augusta 15 years ago to pursue her doctorate in nursing research at the Medical College of Georgia.

Throughout her career, she lectured around the world to present her research, and she always took her mother with her to give her a chance to see the world.

In Augusta, Dr. Downie worked at the Augusta Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers for three years and at University Hospital as a clinical specialist, in which she educated staff on neuroscience topics for almost seven years.

She worked closely with Marilyn Bowcutt, the vice president of patient care at University Hospital. Ms. Bowcutt said Dr. Downie was passionate about education and wanted to "help others grow and develop in the field."

"She enjoys teaching and publishing because of how she can influence and impact others," she said.

Dr. Downie's commitment to service has followed her into the restaurant business, Ms. Bowcutt added.

"She wants to make sure that people who come to her business receive outstanding service and they're completely satisfied with what they're receiving," she said.

Dr. Downie met her current husband, W.G. Downie, at a Christian singles dance in Augusta in 2002. They shared many of the same interests, including riding motorcycles, and were married in 2004.

When IHOP's corporate office expressed interest in expanding its presence in the Augusta area. Mr. Downie needed his wife's help to pursue the project.

"We decided that it was probably in our best interest for me to switch over to the business world," Dr. Downie said.

She semiretired from nursing but maintains her nursing licenses.

She completed the training to become an IHOP franchise owner. Because she took business and management courses throughout her nursing studies, she was prepared for the transition.

The expansion didn't come easy. The Downies had to win a court battle with a grocery store chain in order to open the Evans store in 2006 and nearly lost the property in south Augusta to another restaurant chain.

"We had looked at this piece of property, but Ruby Tuesday purchased it before we could," Dr. Downie said.

Ruby Tuesday hadn't built its restaurant after two years. She didn't want to give up on the property and told her broker to call Ruby Tuesday to see whether they still wanted the land.

"They had put it on the market that day. I just think it was the good Lord who sort of put it over here on the side for us," she said.

The Peach Orchard Road restaurant, which opened in July of this year, broke corporate sales records.

"The first week of sales, we broke the record of sales for IHOP for the continental United States. We had the highest sales for the first week of opening for a new store," she said.

IHOP's corporate office was so impressed with her husband's redesign of the kitchen, which made it more user-friendly, that it has implemented some of his ideas at other stores.

That same day, the family's other business, Copy Center Plus, opened on Wrightsboro Road, two blocks east of Augusta Mall.

Mr. Downie started Copy Center Plus in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1986. His son, Rob Downie, served as the manager. Dr. Downie said she urged her husband to move the store to Augusta so he could watch his grandchildren grow up.

Her daughters had already relocated to Augusta. He took her advice and moved the store and its employees to Augusta.

Pancake palace

Judy Downie believes that she and her husband are a perfect team.

"I did a lot of public speaking and research, and I was very people-oriented. He's very business-minded, so we complemented each other in that respect," she said.

When they married, they built a Victorian-style house in Evans. They call it their "pancake palace."

At home, her husband has set up an elaborate computer system to track progress at the restaurants. He awakens at 1 or 2 a.m. to begin his workday, and the couple meets at 8 a.m. for their daily business session.

Afterward, Dr. Downie makes her rounds at the restaurants. She tries to visit each store every day.

"On the weekends, I'm on the floors at whatever restaurant is the busiest. Right now, it's the store in south Augusta," she said.

Their days are often hectic because IHOP restaurants are open 24 hours a day.

Many customers greet her with a hug. She feels it is her obligation to provide "a good, clean family restaurant where they can have a good meal."

She is also loyal to her employees. For their hard work, IHOP managers have the privilege of living in homes purchased by the company, for which they pay subsidized rent.

"For our key people who stay with us and are loyal, we'll sometimes buy cars and finance them for them if they can't get them on their own," she said.

When Mr. Downie opened Copy Center Plus, the Downies moved its six employees to Augusta and provided homes for them. All of the houses are within walking distance of the stores.

Dr. Downie also believes in giving second chances.

"We work with the transitional center and give training to people who are coming out of prison," she said.

"We try to help people who want to help themselves and make a change in their life."

Several people on her management track are recovering alcoholics. She wants to support their efforts to overcome their addictions.

Helping employees is a big investment for the Downies.

She said it costs $10,000 to fully train an IHOP cook.

"They have an opportunity to have a good profession for the rest of their lives," she said.

Mr. Addison, the general manager at the restaurant in south Augusta, moved to Augusta to start a new life.

"I call it fate, really," he said about meeting Dr. Downie.

"Like a lot of our people, I came here to start over. I met the owner, who gave me an interview personally, and opened up heart to heart."

Mr. Addison said Dr. Downie believed in him, and as time progressed, opportunities presented themselves, which he eagerly embraced.

He started out washing dishes and doing general maintenance, and he worked his way up to the general manager position.

Mr. Addison calls Dr. Downie "a motherly figure."

"She becomes personally involved, to the extent that she cares. It's more like being part of a family than just a regular j-o-b," he said.

Evelyn Wilkinson said she is amazed by Dr. Downie's "superb" managerial skills. They met in the spring while on a 10-day church trip to Israel.

"I admire her greatly for overcoming so many health problems and being the manager that she is. She seems to be able to manage five or six different things at the same time," she said.

She is particularly impressed by Dr. Downie's relationships with her employees.

"She's very caring and considerate of each one of them. She knows their backgrounds and families," she added.

New chances

Judy Downie acknowledges that some childhood dreams never die. She always wanted a horse as a little girl. Today, she is taking horseback riding lessons.

"They would never let me ride a horse, so I would ride the goat," she said jokingly. "My dream is to someday have my own horse. ... I'm trying to do the things that I never had a chance to do."

Dr. Downie strives to make time for two additional hobbies -- flower gardening and art.

She said she loves to draw.

She hopes that her accomplishments might inspire others to reach for their goals.

"You have to have a vision and a dream," she said.

Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or


BORN: Nov. 6, 1946, in Coral Ridge, Ky.

TITLE: Co-owner of three local IHOP restaurants, Copy Center Plus and Homes 2 Cash

EDUCATION: Bellarmine College, bachelor of science in nursing; University of Louisville, master's degree in nursing; Medical College of Georgia, Ph.D. in nursing research

FAMILY: Husband, W.G. Downie; daughters, Debbie and Dawn; stepsons Rob and Cody, and five grandchildren

CIVIC/EXTRACURRICULAR: Downtown Augusta Rotary Club, Wesley United Methodist Church, National Restaurant Association, Women in Food Service, MCG Alumni Nursing Association, Acute Care Nurse Practitioners Association, Critical Care Nurses Association and The Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau Honor International

HOBBIES: Gardening, drawing, reading, horse riding, motorcycle riding



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