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My decision to give away ownership of Hobby Lobby: I chose God

Patagonia’s founder recently made news when he gave away the ownership in his company to allow the mission and purpose to remain intact. His decision, while rare, reflects the decision of other business owners like Alan Barnhart of Barnhart Crane.

I experienced a similar decision-making process with my ownership of Hobby Lobby; I chose God.

The thought process reflects a basic competition of ideas that I think every business leader should reflect upon. What is the true source of your success? 

In the mid-1980s I went through a period where I’d grown proud thinking that I had the Midas touch – and I nearly lost the business. God had to show me that He was the one who granted success. The Bible says in Deuteronomy 8.18 that it’s God who gives us the power to make wealth.

PATAGONIA’S BILLIONAIRE FOUNDER PUTS HIS MONEY WHERE HIS MOUTH IS

In that vein, I’d encourage every leader to consider their source of truth. What is the basis upon which they make decisions? Is it just themselves, or even a leadership team? 

For me, my source of truth has always been prayer and the Bible. I truly believe that if leaders pray and seek truth from the Bible that their businesses will be revolutionized. 

For instance, the Bible talks about giving a tithe or 10%. In fact, tithing is one of those areas where God specifically challenges us to give and see if he won’t throw open the windows of blessing (Malachi 3:10). Can you imagine what would happen if every top leader in business became a tither? There would be literally billions available for good work around the world.

Another simple idea – the book of Proverbs in the Bible has 31 chapters – read a chapter a day to get wisdom beyond yourself.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is to ask the question of whether you are an owner or a steward – a manager of what you’ve been entrusted with. 

MY LATE WIFE KIM TAUGHT ME HOW TO HONOR OUR LOVED ONES BY FOCUSING ON SOMETHING THAT WILL OUTLAST US

As an owner, there are certain rights and responsibilities, including the right to sell the company and keep the profits for yourself and your family. As our company grew, that idea began to bother me more and more. Well-meaning attorneys and accountants advised me to simply pass ownership down to my children and grandchildren. It didn’t seem fair to me that I might change or even ruin the future of grandchildren who had not even been born yet.

As I considered my path, I realized that all my success had come from God. My wife, Barbara, and I had started this business with a $600 loan and I don’t think anyone would have bet on us to become successful. 

But from the very beginning our purpose was to honor God in all that we did. We worked hard and God gave the results. As we were blessed by God, we saw it as a great privilege to give back. We’ve been able to provide hope through supporting ministries and planting churches all over the world.

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That bigger mission and purpose helped me realize that I was just a steward, a manager of what God had entrusted me. God was the true owner of my business.

That stewardship gave me a greater responsibility. I wasn’t supposed to take the profits of the business and use them for myself. I also had a responsibility to the employees that God had put in my charge. This is why our company pays a minimum wage of $18.50 per hour, why we close on Sunday (which had been our most profitable day of business), and why we close by 8 p.m. every day. 

More importantly, I was responsible for the mission and purpose of what I’d been given. When I realized that I was just a steward, it was easy to give away my ownership.

I think every CEO and business leader should consider whether they are owners or stewards. Consider the idea of where your success comes from. I’ve seen many a business with the greatest of ideas not make it, and yet others with the simplest of ideas thrive. I believe that God is the one who grants success, and with it the responsibility to be a good manager. 

Best of all, when I made the decision to give away my ownership, similar to Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, it allowed us to sustain our mission and purpose. It gives me a bigger purpose than just making money. Like Chouinard said, “Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we’re ‘going purpose.’”

In Europe and other parts of the world there are businesses that have been in existence for more than 200 years. We tend to not think like that in the United States. It’s made me think more and more about the idea of building a business to last 200 years – a business that would continue to honor God, reward employees with meaningful work and compensation, and be great contributors to hope and healing around the world. 

The responsibility to steward that kind of culture is powerful. Truly, that is noble work.

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