Lessons from Christian entrepreneurs
Andy Peck reflects on a recent conversation between Christian business leaders as they discussed together the effects of Covid-19.
Back in 2015 the Jubilee Centre conducted research into how Christians in business embedded a Christian ethos at the heart of their organisations and how they maintained that ethos through challenging times to create resilient companies. This was published as The Resilient Business.
No doubt that there were mild storms in 2015, but we have been facing a tsunami for a few months now through the coronavirus pandemic, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicting the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. The Jubilee Centre re-assembled seven of the eight business directors* who contributed to the Resilient Business report to see how they are faring during these days. Here are four principles gleaned from the discussion.
There was a universal recognition that holding one’s spiritual nerve was vital during this season. ‘It’s one thing to profess certain values when times are good, but when they are bad, do you still pay your suppliers and treat people fairly?’ was how Simon Lawson put it. This is the time for leaders to step forward, holding firm to their values and communicating them clearly. It means listening to the needs of employees, suppliers and customers, responding with compassion and allaying their fears, wherever possible. ‘People need to know that you are still there, looking out for them and not running away to your bolt hole,’ said Lawson.
Safeguarding people’s health while protecting jobs and ensuring the survival of the business is a delicate balancing act that requires complex decision-making about stakeholders and their competing interests. ‘Resilient Christian leadership is about continuity of values, allowing them to surface and then incarnating them in decisions about supporting staff, protecting the more vulnerable ones and thinking about their wellbeing,’ said Shirley Jenner, one of the original report authors. ’The big picture is about how to make those decisions, weighing up the costs and benefits but then acting relationally.’
David Ball suggested: ‘It’s emerging that resilient businesses are those whose leaders show their faith by how they lead, guide and support. Ideally they are aiming to be like Jesus, acting as a shepherd to the people and caring for them in times of challenge such as these.’
Phil Schluter, whose family business was acquired by and is now part of a multinational trading group, said they had experienced a 90% drop in demand for their speciality coffees for cafes and restaurants overnight when lockdown began. Some businesses might have left suppliers in the lurch, blaming Covid-19, but Schluter said: ‘We have spent years and years around the world trying to convince farmers to grow good quality coffee so that they can get a good price and now that we face this crisis, we will be honouring our contracts.’
For a bank like C Hoare & Co, this means acting on their mission statement to be good bankers and good citizens. Alexander Hoare explains: ‘We have kept open and are working 100%, which is a huge reassurance to customers and staff. All customers asking for an interest holiday are getting one. Those asking for a Covid loan are getting them, as long as it is sensible, which is a great help to them, and will be for us too when they are repaid.’
It’s a truism that if values are not embodied by the leaders, they are unlikely to be retained within the rest of the company. We will know what our values truly are when they come under the most pressure and for some companies, this is could be the ultimate test. Peter Hubbard put it like this: ‘Is there something in our organisational values and culture that is worth fighting for? In other words, if we were to disappear, would the world be a poorer place physically, spiritually, economically or financially?’
None of the business leaders believed that God was insulating them from the harsh economic realities of the pandemic. Alexander Hoare was already facing the challenge of lending money at record low interest rates, and with Covid-19, they now face the inevitable prospect of bad debts. The bank needs to make substantial provision for companies failing over the next two to three years, especially hotels and businesses in the tourism sector. Peter Hubbard of Birmingham based Anthony Collins Solicitors was anticipating up to 30% drop in business over the year.
But faced with these challenges, there was an awareness that if leaders are diligent in building godly values into their firms, these not only add resilience for adverse times but also help those leaders trust God in the storm. There were encouraging signs of God’s faithfulness – opportunities opening up to be a blessing to a discouraged CEO; of real conversations with senior managers who voiced concern over the Christian ethos adopted; of chances to encourage employees to serve the NHS and support charitable enterprises connected to the business, of sharing faith on a staff away day.
Ram Gidoomal, Chair of Traidcraft, spoke of the best quarter ever for the Fairtrade company, buoyed by a warehouse full of toilet rolls! They swiftly pivoted from selling to businesses to customers directly as churches and shops were shut. Shortly before the crisis Traidcraft was in dire financial straits, but Ram followed a prompting to renew an old business contact, who ended up providing an unsecured £300,000 loan interest free for six months, that helped save the business.
It won’t be a surprise that as we are faithful in prayer, witness and working the Jesus way, God will turn up and add his blessing to our labours.
There was reference made to the saying: ‘If you want to make God laugh, show him your plans!’ and a general sense that we are in the territory of the Psalmist, reeling from what is going on around us. These leaders are leaning into the God who knows the future and seeking wisdom from him as they navigate uncertainties. Some found the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude especially relevant now and many are finding a new depth in their walk with God as they aim to navigate unchartered waters.
Schluter explained how experience and prayer need to be kept in tension: ‘We have to make wise decisions and draw on the experience we have every day, but at the same time we can pray for discernment to make decisions beyond our ability to foresee the future – and these may be the very ones which carry us through in the end.’
Matthew Kimpton-Smith shared how the way he prays for his business changed following a cardiac arrest which took him away from work for the best part of a year: ‘What God has been teaching me is that prayer is the ability to talk to this amazing creator God, who is off the scale in terms of our understanding. My prayer used to be asking God to do what I thought he should. I wasn’t lifting situations to God, and trusting God to get on with it, because I thought he had given me skills and he needed to do things my way. I have learned that pride had got in the way. This awesome God needs to be in charge, and wants to be. But do I really trust him, with my business, my people, my family, my life, my future?’
The business world can be hostile for the believer but the mood of the group was that it was definitely worth creating opportunities to step out of the comfort zone, especially when times are tough.
Ram Gidoomal gave a pertinent example: ’On one occasion we were considering whether we should pray about a redundancy programme. The Board were hesitant, and concerned about how this might play out but I decided to go ahead and prayed at a management meeting. Afterwards, one woman came up and said “I have never heard prayer like that, it was beautiful!” You just never know how God may use something like that.’
Phil Schluter opted to be counter-cultural in his approach to what was considered a conventional business practice. ‘The [coffee] trading world usually takes the buyer to dinner. We go in the opposite direction and take our African suppliers out to an annual dinner. As it’s my event, I get to say grace and share the gospel as I do so, because I am paying! I have had some amazing responses: one of our Swiss bank managers said he had become a Christian two years earlier, and was looking for a church in Geneva. One of the East Africa Starbucks team came up and said, “I’ve never heard anyone pray in public at a coffee meeting!” On occasions non-Christians come and say they find it inspiring. I believe that even more than ever we need to stand up as Christians and be counted.’
There’s always a need for discernment about when and how to share our faith in ways that are appropriate but the daily reports of Covid-19 deaths, with many knowing people who have died ‘before their time’, are bringing life and death issues to the fore. With a ComRes survey suggesting a quarter of the population have visited an online church service, might we find that people are more receptive to a conversation than they once were? The Jesus who urges us to build our house on the rock, on his word and teaching, is the one who later tells his disciples that without him, they can do nothing (John 15:4). So it’s no surprise that prayer is at the heart of the discussion and a key element for these leaders as they continue to respond with new approaches to the shifting economic climate with imagination and hope.
‘Resilient businesses display consistency and continuity alongside flexibility and adaptability,’ summarised Richard Higginson. ‘We need a fleet-footedness, and an ability to re-invent ourselves under God in these lockdown circumstances.’
No one was blasé about their capacity to keep focusing on Jesus, but there was a quiet confidence in God’s keeping power during these days and that when the tsunami had come, the foundational values of resilient businesses were still very much in place.
* Present were:
David Ball, founder of David Ball Group in the cement industry, now Chair of QMRMC
Matthew Kimpton-Smith, CEO Cygnet Group Ltd, a specialist engineering company
Peter Hubbard, senior partner, Anthony Collins Solicitors
Alexander Hoare, partner and director of C Hoare and Co, Britain’s oldest private bank
Simon Lawson, chairman of Lawsons timber and builders merchant
Phil Schluter, former managing director Schluter SA which is now part of Olam Speciality Coffee
Ram Gidoomal, non executive chair, Traidcraft, a worldwide Fairtrade company
The discussion was chaired by Jonathan Tame, director of The Jubilee Centre, with Rev Dr Richard Higginson of Faith in Business, and Dr Shirley Jenner, lecturer at the University of Manchester and co-author of the 2015 Resilient Business report.