Business and religion: divine enterprise

28 February 2020

Eve Poole considers the stories of Christian entrepreneurs whose business practices were shaped by their faith


Henry John Heinz (1844-1919), standing in a wagon, visiting his workers in a field. A pioneer in labour relations, he provided benefits including free dental- and health-care, concerts and lectures, and weekend retreats

Henry John Heinz (1844-1919), standing in a wagon, visiting his workers in a field. A pioneer in labour relations, he provided benefits including free...

LEADERSHIP books have been around for centuries. They used to be written largely for monarchs, and there were so many of them that the genre had its own name: principum specula, or “mirrors for princes”. They graced the bookshelves of the world’s biggest libraries, and all kinds of people wrote them, largely to curry favour or to make political points.

As is still the case today, most were either exhortations towards virtue or hagiographies of the great and the good. So it seems a rather obvious point to make that when we look for help and advice, we tend to search for lessons from the lives of role-models. This means that, in airport and station bookshops, where leaders in transit are a captive market, most of the leadership books are biographies.

Within this genre we tend to prefer autobiographies, believing that we will learn first-hand about the subjects’ thought-processes, values, and decisions, hoping that we can transfer these to our own particular sphere.

In reading mirrors for princes, we are seeking recipes for success; so it is particularly reassuring for Christians to read leadership books about other Christians who attribute their success to their faith. Formally and theologically, they should, in any case; so I confess to a level of both scepticism and cynicism about such books. The whole genre runs the risk of serving more to comfort believers than to teach them anything useful about good leadership. But, every so often, I find a book that is both comforting and useful. Two recent books provide concrete examples of where Christian faith actually helped.

IN IN GOD’S COMPANY, Peter Lupson tells the stories of seven exceptional leaders who, during the 19th and 20th centuries, founded world-leading business empires in the face of continual setbacks and adversity. Covering such household names as Heinz, Colgate, and Kraft, Lupson takes us through each life in turn, showing where, supported by participation in their worshipping communities, they drew the courage, strength, and wisdom to turn difficulties and disasters into opportunities and triumphs, through their deep-seated Christian faith.

He argues that it was this core belief that inspired their business ethics and practices, and earned each of them a reputation for integrity, quality, and a conspicuous care for their customers and employees.

A Voice to be Heard, by Richard Higginson and Kina Robertshaw, draws on interviews with 50 contemporary UK Christian entrepreneurs, some of whom have built consumer brands such as Gary Grant’s toyshop The Entertainer, but many of whom work in the less public business-to-business market, such as Matthew Kimpton-Smith in engineering, or David Ball in construction. While out of the limelight, they, too, have built successful businesses rooted in their Christian faith.

Among the themes that Higginson and Robertshaw draw out in their studies of Christian entrepreneurs is a zeal to embody Christian values in a business context, and to use this as an act of witness for mission, particularly through the provision of world-enhancing goods and services, and through charitable giving. Like Lupson, they remark on the above-industry-standard care for employees and stakeholders, and their ethical scruples.

They also discuss their entrepreneurs’ use of the disciplines of prayer and fasting, particularly in times of trial. Interestingly, few of the entrepreneurs interviewed seem to have been embraced by their worshipping communities, which is perhaps a reflection of the UK context, given that many of Lupson’s leaders lived in the United States. But it is a reproach that, on this evidence at least, so few UK churches seem to be equipped to nurture business leaders in a way that seems to be more normal in the US.

Both books are written with the stated aim of showing the reader how the Christian faith inspired these leaders, and how it might inspire us, too. A Voice to Be Heard is also written to claim the right of Christian entrepreneurs to be more visible and supported within the Church, because of the crucial part that they play in seeking to build the Kingdom in the workplace.

WHAT lessons can be drawn from the stories that these books tell about Christian leadership? For me, it comes down to the three classic theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

The virtue of faith is most present in the stories of extraordinary risk-taking. A readiness to bet the farm lies at the heart of the genus and expansion of many business start-ups. Anthony Rossi was so convinced that having a cargo ship would solve his transportation problems that he borrowed $50 million to buy one, thus achieving the technological breakthrough in the transportation of fresh juice that made Tropicana the world’s largest orange-juice company.

Kimpton-Smith took a huge risk hiring his competitors’ staff en masse when they were made redundant, in a downturn that was also crippling his own business. And, for Grant, launching a chain of toyshops that do not open on Sundays, or sell either Harry Potter toys or Hallowe’en stock, is certainly risky in the retail sector.

iSTOCKA vintage engraving of a Victorian satirical cartoon, “Public Charity”

All but one of the 50 entrepreneurs interviewed by Robertshaw described themselves as natural risk-takers. As one of them put it: “I am a risk-taker. The difference in being a Christian may be that you trust in God knowing that he will catch us and care for us. If he’s calling us to something, and we feel called, then we shouldn’t say no.”

And, when they fell — as they all did, many times — they illustrated the virtue of hope. As Romans 5.3-5 puts it: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

In the secular resilience literature, recovery from setbacks is one of the defining characteristics of success in life, and nowhere more publicly so than in business. Whether the setback was Thomas Cook facing his first bankruptcy only a few years after start-up, the collapse of Henry Heinz’s first sauce company, or the Mitchell Group car dealership losing the Mitsubishi account because they would not trade on a Sunday, each of the leaders profiled had got back up, dusted themselves off, and tried again, learning valuable lessons and developing stronger businesses as a result.

It may be that all entrepreneurs by definition are optimists, but a belief in God’s providence seems to animate these Christian business narratives in a particularly conscious way. Many of those interviewed in A Voice To Be Heard volunteered a strong sense of “God’s plan”, which had enabled them to keep their eyes fixed firmly on the horizon, in spite of the rocky terrain.

Many non-religious business leaders also exhibit this relentless focus, perhaps fuelled more by ambition than a Christian faith, but a notable characteristic of the leaders in these books is their commitment to the balancing virtue of charity. It would be a fantasy, I think, to assume that no one was ever hurt by them in passing, but a habit of treating people well seems to be a hallmark of their general practice.

Sometimes, their charity is expressed through tithing and philanthropy, as epitomised by the many stories of generous donations to charitable causes, and the building of hospitals and schools, as undertaken by Heinz, Hartley, Cook, and Colgate. Often, charity is focused on their employees, as in the subsidised communities built for workers at Hartley’s Village, in Liverpool, or the Cadbury’s community in Bournville.

Many of the companies profiled also offer generous benefits or profit-sharing to staff, or provide employment for the vulnerable: Cook and Timpson famously employ ex-offenders. And, sometimes, charity is expressed through the aims of the business itself. Natasha Rufus Isaacs set up Beulah, making luxury fashion items, to provide a livelihood for Indian women who had been sex-trafficked; and Andrew Tanswell founded ToughStuff to bring solar-powered products to those in East Africa without access to electricity.

SO, IF we are to read lessons into the lives of these Christian business leaders, one way is to audit our own practices against the theological virtues. In faith, are we taking enough risks? In hope, are we rolling with the punches, and, in charity are we treating people well? Given the sobering challenge of A Voice to Be Heard, what are we doing in our church communities to nurture and pray for those engaged in business?

We are a Church that finds it easy to sing about the harvest, and to pray for those who work in government, education, and the health service, but we have always wrestled with the world of business. Perhaps, for some, it has become conflated with old arguments about serving Mammon, because of the profit motive. But, in a world where we are now much more aware of the power of business to drive global change, for good and ill, a naïve refusal to engage with this world is as unsustainable as some of the practices that our indifference lets flourish.

Perhaps our next challenge is to find somewhere in our liturgy and practice for formal acknowledgement of the Christian business person, because one of the best ways to transform the daily lives of many of the world’s population is to convert businesses into salt and light, as these Christian leaders have tried hard to do.

Dr Eve Poole is the author of Buying God: Consumerism and theology (SCM Press) and is the Third Church Estates Commissioner.

In God’s Company by Peter Lupson is published by DayOne Publications at £8.

A Voice to be Heard by Richard Higginson and Kina Robertshaw is published by IVP at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).

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