Mendoza School of Business

Mixing faith and business

Published: May 8, 2005 / Author: Keith Times

Banker Kevin Botma knew his job was “on the bubble” two years ago when mighty MB Financial bought out South Holland Trust & Savings Bank, his long-time employer.

Other folks knew too and started calling the 47-year-old father-of-two with advice, job leads and tips. One call in particular stuck with him.

It came from the friend of a former pastor, who asked if he had ever heard of Atlantic Stewardship Bank, a New Jersey bank that tithes 10 percent of its profits to Christian organizations.

“The stewardship thing just hit me, just from knowing this area and our customers,” Botma said.

“It was the tradition of South Holland Bank and how it supported all those organizations. It just hit a nerve. That’s how it all started.”

Last year, Botma and a cadre of former South Holland Bank execs opened Providence Bank in leased quarters at 530 E. 162nd St. , literally in the shadow of MB Financial’s local headquarters branch.

Soon, they will haul files, computers and bank assets one block east to a new headquarters branch at 630 E. 162nd. They also will take something else, a commitment to tithe 10 percent of bank profits to “civic, nonprofit and Christian organizations.”

That commitment is contained on the “stewardship” page of the bank’s Web site, with a quote from scripture to back it up.

“If you read our bios, you’ll see where our board is made up of a group of Christian men and it rings true to the beliefs and values of this group,” said Steven Van Drunen, 41, Providence Bank president, also a former South Holland Bank exec.

It also puts Providence Bank solidly in the camp of businesses that are not afraid to wear their religion on their sleeve and incorporate that in their business plan.

“There is no question in my mind that it’s an emerging trend,” said Tim Morgan, a deputy managing editor at Christianity Today magazine. “And one that’s still in many ways trying to figure itself out.”

Like so many other trends, Morgan believes this is another one brought to us by the baby boomers. It’s based on the notion that business should be just in its means as well as its outcomes.

There are several examples on the national level of company owners putting their ethical or religious beliefs to work in the work place. In the secular sphere, Vermont ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s has received attention with its ethical stands on treatment of its own workers, the environment and world peace.

Other companies such as Hobby Lobby and SeviceMaster have a long history of fashioning work place and business practices in accord with Christian values.

Hobby Lobby, a leading seller of crafts materials, is closed on Sunday. The first tenet of ServiceMaster’s corporate objectives is: “To honor God in all we do.”

Faith-based companies often will differ in how prominently they trumpet their religiosity, but it definitely leaks over to the marketing side, according to Morgan. In the case of businesses like Providence Bank, it can be a way of creating a niche in a crowded marketplace.

“It’s classic affinity marketing,” Morgan said. “Which is finding some point of affinity to Christian or biblical values. It works for people if we share values.”

However, a business could go too far.

“If I say we are really the bank for certain Baptist people and fundamentalists in Northwest Indiana and no one else, that would be a turn-off,” Morgan said.

A business owner or executives of a faith-based company always have to keep in mind we live in a society of many faiths and beliefs, according to Georges Enderle, a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame.

“On one hand, I think each company has to develop its own identity and that can take account of the religious aspect,” Enderle said. “And on the other hand, they have to respect the religious freedom of each employee. They have to strike that balance.”

There has been litigation on both sides of that issue, with employees suing for their right to carry on religious practices in the work place and employees suing employers for forcing religious beliefs on them.

Enderle and others say the recent slew of corporate scandals at Enron, MCI and other companies have businesses looking for ethical models. Religion can provide one.

Companies that are going to implement a business plan along religious lines have to be up front with investors, shareholders and customers about that fact, Enderle said.

Providence Bank’s Van Drunen said the tithing of profits is based on the Christian idea of stewardship. It appears to be seen as positive by investors in South Holland , once known as “the community of churches.”

The bank raised $15 million in just a little more than 30 days once its prospectus hit the streets. Since opening its doors four months ago, assets have grown steadily to $40 million.

The tithing hasn’t happened yet, because Providence Bank has yet to turn a profit. The bank projects that will happen in two to three years. But the bank is supporting community causes.

The bank will open its second branch across the border in Indiana , in fast-developing St. John, on a main east-west commuter corridor between the two states. It plans to open a third branch in Munster in 2006.

So far, Van Drunen thinks the bank has struck the right balance between its founders’ Christian beliefs and the need to serve a broad customer base.

“What people are sensitive to is the hawking of that kind of concept,” Van Drunen said. “We look at it as a foundation or undertone to what we do.”

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Required reading:

People who mix faith and business are attracting more attention these days. Many say corporate scandals like the Enron accounting debacle have sparked an interest in business plans that take into account more than just boosting the bottom line. Here are some recent books:

“Faith and Fortune, The Quiet Revolution to Reform American Business,” by Marc Gunther, 2004, Crown Business.
Gunther, a senior writer at Fortune Magazine, strives to be both realistic and inspiring in this book on an emerging business model that places its faith in the goodness of people. Gunther profiles some of the usual suspects like Ben & Jerry’s and Tom’s of Maine . But he also writes about how Fortune 500 bulwarks like Ford, Citigroup and DuPont are seeking to serve both shareholders and the common good.

“Evangelical Christian Executives,” Lewis D. Solomon, 2004, Transaction Publishers.
This book uses the current crisis in corporate leadership and governance as its starting point and moves on to profile companies led by evangelical business executives. It also traces how some of these corporations have transitioned from religious-based models of leadership to a more “secular, spiritual orientation.”


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