Essays Toward A Principled Economics
Mose Durst Ph.D.
3. A Virtuous Company
The ideal of a Principled Economics is that an economic system must create material wealth and also contribute to the well-being of individuals, families, and the social common good. An economic system can accomplish this goal if individuals within the system are guided by classical religious and ethical principles. Since the person is the source of wealth creation, and the classical religions have offered the most profound analysis of the nature, purpose and value of the person, religion and economics are intimately related. Classical religious values provide the norms for a healthy culture and thus for a healthy, productive economic system.
The characteristics of a principled person are ones that reflect the classical virtues: faithful, hopeful, loving, prudent, just, temperate and courageous. The ordering of one's soul is the basis for the ordering of a society. A principled society and a Principled economic system would be one guided by classical religious and ethical principles. It would promote the wellbeing of the person in relationship to others and to the environment, as well as the production of goods and services. Genuine love for the good of the other would be the basis of human relationship. Unprincipled activity would involve self-interest narrowly understood, un-guided by any sense of classical ethics. Corruption, exploitation of workers, and destruction of the environment are some of the consequences of such activity. The virtuous person and the virtuous society should be the goal of economic activity (as well as all other activity), in conjunction with the creation of wealth.
Since the goal of the Principled Economics Institute is to identify and promote ethical, virtuous economic activity, we undertook the following study of a small business which we identified as exhibiting principled characteristics. Our interest was in the purpose, motivation, and values guiding the various actors in this enterprise, rather than simply a study of business activity. Since a major purpose of the Principled Economics Institute is to help companies develop an ethical, virtuous, principled corporate culture, we are interested in the kind of person and society shaped by companies. From the motivation and purpose of the owner-founder, to the leadership qualities, the ultimate beliefs as they bear upon the business, the core values which follow from these beliefs, and the impact on the family and the larger society, we examined Brooks Motor Cars, Inc. (BMC) in Oakland, California.
Brooks Motor Cars
"The decor of the office is nicer than my home," exclaims a visitor to Brooks Motor Cars. "Why, he has even framed his business license with elegant taste." If one has had the experience of bringing a damaged automobile to the local auto repair shop, searching in vain among the debris of used tires, hoses, and metal fenders for human help, a pleasant surprise awaits the visitor to Brooks Motor Cars. The fragrant offices resemble more a museum than a business. Bright posters of classical sports cars are beautifully framed on the walls, and one is immediately drawn to them as the anguish of a damaged car is somewhat forgotten. A warm smile and greeting from the attractive lady behind the desk follows. She explains that Mr. Brooks will be out momentarily, offers a soft drink or coffee, and points to one of the handsome couches on the thickly carpeted floor in the waiting area.
"Great auto collision repair people are artistic," says James Brooks, or James as he is known to all the employees, speaking with the passion of an art curator. As one moves from the offices to the work area, there seems to be a continuity of order, light, cleanliness, color harmony, and neatness. Although there must be almost twenty cars in the work area, all in various stages of repair, one has a sense of visiting an exhibition in a museum. James explains how important it is for everything in the work environment to be "aesthetically pleasing."
Gebon Prevost, who has worked for Brooks Motor Cars for nine years of its ten-year existence, feels great pride in the appearance of the work area: "If you care about the place you work and keep it clean, it is the same way you are going to treat their vehicles," he says of the relationship between care of the environment and comfort of the customer. Each of the employees proudly reports how they receive compliments daily on the "beauty" of the workplace. "A clean environment is a healthy environment," says George Pita, who has become a master painter in his nine years at Brooks Motor Cars. "I think James wants to make the customer feel good about leaving his car."
James explains to what lengths he has gone in designing the work area to conceal unsightly pipes, hoses, and wires. There is not a piece of paper, a nut, or a bolt lying aimlessly on the floor. The bathrooms off the shop floor are as neat and clean as those of a four star hotel - and they contain fresh shampoo, soap, and a bright shower. In an upper storage area, hundreds of fenders, grills, and doors are lined up neatly like postage stamps in an album for future repairs.
When James Brooks established his business ten years ago, he was driven by a vision. He traveled throughout forty of the United States and realized there was "a lack of high-quality automotive repair facilities." In his native Australia, he was apprenticed in the automotive repair trade for five years, and he has been dismayed at how little serious training is offered to Americans who work in this profession. James speaks of "trade" and "profession" as one would imagine a medieval cathedral-builder would speak of the art of stone masonry. His words convey a desire to do something well for a significant purpose.
More than a "collision repair facility," a phrase which he prefers to "body shop," James believes that "every relationship has value": with employees, customers, suppliers, and everyone with whom he comes in contact. His responsibility, then, is to draw out the full value of such relationships. "Accidents are never planned," he explains in reference to his customers. "If I can reach out and absorb [the pain of this unfortunate situation, ... then I am providing an incredible service." James' motivation and purpose in all that he does is "the art of caring for people. It gives me value in my life, in my relationships at home... and with my children."
James realized in his vision of the business that if he performed high quality service on vehicles, and also expressed profound sensitivity and care for people, he would succeed. As one looks at the repairs on automobiles at BMC and talks to those who have been touched by James, one indeed finds that he has been able to provide quality service and extraordinary human sensitivity. When James is asked what personal need is fulfilled by his business, he replies: "It is the heart of trying to be complete." The word "heart" was used many times by those describing BMC, meaning the full giving not only of one's unique professional capabilities, but of one's caring, loving self.
As James speaks and walks about the shop floor, it is clear that every act, from picking up a piece of scrap paper to complimenting George Pita as "the best car painter in America," has meaning and value for him. One gets the feeling that James is an abbot in a Zen center rather than the entrepreneur of a successful collision repair business. All of his actions seem deliberate, sincere, serious, although touched with an infectious good humor.
James' professional ambition is serious, for he seeks nothing less than "to raise up the standard of the industry." He has in fact been vice president and president of the East Bay Auto Body Association. He takes great pride when meetings are held at BMC, for he believes others can learn from his example. Of special joy, he explains, is the choice of BMC for study by students attending professional schools of auto repair, such as the Hayward Regional Occupation program. He is not looking to hold his light under a bushel, for fear his competition will diminish him. Rather, he is only too happy to offer freely the value he creates: "If you got a good thing going, you should try to share it," says James. If the standard of the industry is raised, he believes everyone will benefit.
The Heart and Ideals of a Business
Although James, now 45 years old, is considering selling his business and moving back to Australia, he states frankly that he would not sell to someone interested primarily in money. To sell to such a person would be like selling one's heart or one's ideals. Everyone we interviewed acknowledged that "heart" and "ideals" were central to understanding James and what he has created. Rose Sachs, who is the owner of a computer company that is up-grading the system at BMC, says that James "puts his heart into what he does... He has values... He wants whatever he does to be the best." He wants to do things thoroughly, and "I think that's great."
Larry Schaeffer, Rose Sachs' partner, believes "what motivates James is inner fulfillment... It's one thing to do a job, its another thing to find bliss in doing your job." Breck Harris, who worked as a consultant for James ten years ago and who has become a good friend, observes: "I've looked at James' business as a primary example of the expression of the heart." For James, every act is motivated by an ideal: "Every moment is a precious moment to use wisely and to gain from it."
When one speaks about ideals to James, he makes a direct connection between his ultimate beliefs (his religion or spirituality) and the workplace: "Religion is waking up and breathing .... I am dealing with people; I have to serve them ... I am challenged to open my heart to people. I exercise my spirituality in leaving something decent after each act. Business, spirituality, and religion come together for me in the moment."
James explains how most people start a business by considering only the external components: Since they want to make a living, they may buy tools, put up a sign to identify the business, and wait for customers to buy a service or product. In this way, he goes on, they may make a living, rather than living and working purposefully for a significant ideal. For James, identifying the most profound dimensions of human nature, motivation, and creativity - through thoughtful reflection on religious ideals -- is the necessary internal basis for the external acts of busy-ness.
Rose Sachs comments on how James "has shared his religious values with us, which I appreciate a lot; and, I've learned a lot from it, too." He has done this not in dogmatic ways, but "with a sense that this has really helped me and inspired me. Larry and I have decided that we want to incorporate these things in our own lives." Rose believes that all religions want to help people live their lives with good values, and she believes most religious values can be actualized in the workplace. "I am here on this earth to enlighten [by which she means "to help"] others." Such is the motivating principle which guides her business.
Larry believes that "We are all working missionaries, teaching other people." Therefore we should be aware of what we are doing and what we are teaching. Breck Harris observes how James' ethic of giving and caring influenced him powerfully. "I think we would be a better society if we could channel our religious values into business. Unfortunately, I have seen too many businesses that have lost their heart ... James inspired me to reach deeper within myself to make a contribution to others."
Although James does not talk "about" religion in the workplace, it is not uncommon for him to invite friends, colleagues, and even employees to his home to discuss his religious beliefs. James and his wife are devout people and take seriously the Judeo-Christian basis of Western culture. We participated in a Saturday dialogue in his home, where about twelve guests discussed, in a pleasant, informal way, the significance of religious ideals to work, family, and community. Although almost everyone had been hurt by the hypocrisy of religious people, the guests emphasized the importance of understanding and practicing religious principles.
Caring, fairness, honesty, commitment, cooperation, quality, consistency, diligence, sincerity, and respect are the core values that are practiced in the workplace at BMC. "James is more of a friend than a boss," explains David Woods, who has been with BMC for almost three years. The ideal of friendship as a guiding principle of relationship is an insightful description of seeking the true good of the other, rather than merely use or pleasure from relationship.
In a business, as in other areas of life, mistakes can easily test the smooth waters of idealism and harmony. At BMC, however, mistakes are treated as learning experiences, and no employee we spoke with ever experienced anger or resentment from James because of mistakes. "I don't allow emotions or resentments to interfere with business," James explains. "If we made a mistake," David Woods says, "Let's fix it and get the job done right ... There area no hard feelings if there is a problem." Gebon Prevost emphasizes how honesty is more important than hiding mistakes, and there is always the goal of learning from mistakes, rather than fearing retribution.
Open communication, cooperation, and teamwork are as hard to achieve in a church as in a business, and the challenge of practicing these principles is as great in the one institution as in the other; for the obstacles of human pride, arrogance, ignorance, anger, and the fundamental failure to listen to another human being all contribute to breakdown. James certainly speaks of the ideals of teamwork and cooperation, and his employees take his words seriously. People help each other here, explains Gebon Prevost. "Definitely a team work effort" is the way David Woods describes the process of repairing automobiles. "This is a great working environment," says George Pita.
Darrell Ashley, who owns and operates a cleaning service that has BMC as one of its clients, has been cleaning the offices of BMC for three years. "James is very honest and up front," says Darrell. "We have a trusting relationship, and he is very fair. In addition, James pays his bills on time." Breck Harris also emphasizes that James has "an ethic of being fair to other people, and of giving quality relationship." The employees we spoke with acknowledged that they were also being treated fairly in receiving additional compensation as the business became more successful. Bill Foxworthy, a vendor who has been selling parts to BMC for five years, explains that James not only pays his bills on time, but "he treats others as if he were in their situation."
In order to ensure quality work, James has tried to teach his employees all of the expertise that he has learned throughout his life in the industry. "I was always pushing somebody to develop their techniques and abilities, ... yet not pushing them too far." Although James gives employees "lots of room" for them to be responsible for their own work, he has taken much time to share his knowledge and skills with each one. David Woods feels he grows each day on the job, for "every car you work on is a different challenge." "You have to use your head a lot," says Gebon Prevost in describing the difficulties of working on each automobile. If something goes wrong, however, people are encouraged to reach out to each other for help.
Challenges in the Workplace
From the numerous articles on stress in the workplace, and from the previous experience of employees at BMC, the qualities of working relationship found at BMC are still not the norm. From the classic book by Studs Terkel, Working, published in 1972, to the recent study of stress by the International Labor Organization of the United Nations, stress seems to be the norm in most workplaces. Terkel, for example, records one of hundreds of similar stories:
A receptionist relates how "Until recently I'd cry in the morning. I didn't want to get up. I'd dread Fridays because Monday was always looming over me. Another five days ahead of me. There never seemed to be any end to it. Why am I doing this? Yet I dread looking for other jobs. I don't like filling out forms and taking typing tests. I remember on applications I'd put down, 'I'd like to deal with the public.' (Laughs) Well, I don't want to deal with the public any more."1
James realized in his travels throughout the United States that there were no apprenticeship programs that could teach workers the things he had been taught. He observed how the typical body shop was very sloppy. David Woods explained that not only had he been in body shops that were filthy, but the language corresponded to the external environment. "On other jobs I had, I would literally hide from the boss." Gebon Prevost's experience was that "other places do [works for the money ... We want to do a good job." Larry Schaeffer's observations about many work environments lead him to conclude: "That's the sad part of America .... It's a chore to go to work." From George Pita's previous experience, we hear how there were many problems on the shop floor: "People not communicating, drinking."
Breck Harris, who offered the observation that "many businesses... have lost their heart," feels that "For too many businesses the bottom line (profit and loss) has become the top line." He means by this that noble purpose, value, and ideals are no longer the motivating force for business activity. He points to the danger of money obscuring any nobler purpose in relating to others. David Woods sums up what he has experienced in workplaces outside of BMC: "In our society there is a lot of selfishness going around. It's unfortunate."
Central to creating a successful business with high ethical standards is leadership. The qualities found at BMC are the fruits of vision, commitment, knowledge, hard work and many other traits embodied in a leader. Certainly, we may all have leadership qualities, but these qualities must be developed in relation to someone who already embodies them. The driving force behind BMC is clearly James Brooks.
James began the business with a vision of a quality auto collision shop that would be of great service to others. We may all have visions of something great, but James had a serious commitment to the vision based on knowledge, and he had the desire and ability to work hard to make the vision substantial. In classical moral terms, he had a knowledge of something good, a desire for that good, and the willingness to do the good. The knowledge, desire, and practice is what James, as the leader, seeks to teach to those around him, so that they, too, can develop their leadership qualities.
"You have to keep pushing yourself to grow and become well educated," says James. Knowledge is central to his leadership ability, and all the employees we spoke with acknowledge that they had learned many things from James' expertise. "Create a standard people can look up to," James explains, and people will start looking up and acting with greater competence and value. Good quality, hard work, honesty, and commitment to bring those values to people and things comes with practice. So, at BMC they practice, practice, practice at what they believe is good.
It is obvious to anyone who observes James even for one day that he cares deeply for people and about quality automotive repairs. He works at honest, sincere, and serious relationships. David Woods remarks how James "sees employees as being human." He elaborates on James' ability to listen to others and to understand from their point of view. Gebon Prevost admires James' knowledge, interest, and commitment to the business and its employees. "The main thing [James exhibits in his leadership] is to communicate with...[his] people, understand them," adds George Pita. Further, James always encourages employees to improve upon their skills. Finally, "The customer is always right" is the motto that sets the ideal for relationship with customers. If the customer complains that something is wrong with the repair, his word is normally accepted graciously, and the further correction is made. Longterm relationship with customers, suppliers, and employees is the standard established by James' leadership vision.
Influences of Family
When James is asked about those influences in his life that shaped his behavior, without hesitation he speaks of his family. His father and mother, he explains, were both highly motivated and successful people who were able also to maintain the closeness of a loving family. His mother, for example, in the small town where James grew up, worked for a while at a gas station, pumping gas. During the intervals when there were no cars, she thought she could occupy her time with a productive activity. So, she bought used furniture at auctions and began to sell the furniture at the gas station. The sale of furniture was so successful, that she eventually took over the gas station and turned it into a used furniture store. That store was so successful that she took over the car dealership in the local town and transformed it into a larger furniture store. "Mom and Dad were highly motivated," James comments, "they would never give up ... But, in spite of being very busy, they put the family first."
Since the children were interested in motorized go-carts, James' mother and father took a similar interest and built their own go-carts. Not to be out-done by the children, father Brooks built the fastest go-cart in Australia. The larger Brooks' family of uncles, aunts, and cousins, totaling almost forty members, met regularly each month with the grandmother. The centerpiece of this meeting, most moving to James, was her reading aloud of the Bible.
Just as James' family was a significant influence on his values and virtues, so too James, his wife Angela, and their five young boys are a very close-knit unit. As a family with strong religious beliefs, the Brooks' see themselves as a family unit, rather than independent people who have a convenient relationship with each other. As we interviewed Angela and James and asked them questions about the impact of the business on their life, they both stressed the view that one set of principles allows them to work at the relationships of marriage and business: love, care, honesty, long-term quality, commitment, mutual respect, and a deep faith in a loving, principled God.
Challenges To Building A Business
Although Angela acknowledges that James' long hours of work, especially in the early years of building the business, were stressful on their relationship, she explained how their eternal commitment to each other and to building a loving family enabled them to overcome the daily difficulties. When Angela needs help with the children in taking them to the doctor, or at other times, she says James is always supportive and readily will come from work to help her. Of course, given his orderly nature, some notice is most appreciated.
James, too, feels that his wife is not only supportive of his commitment to the business, but she willingly shares in the sacrifices that must be made in building a successful business. If one looks at what James has accomplished over ten years, his management of more than a dozen employees, and the hard work that is demanded if one is to maintain high quality standards, then it is easy to imagine many 10, 12, 14 or more hour work days. Angela explains how she was the only employee when James began the business, as she worked in the office, and there were very long hours with little time for sharing.
James and Angela were under tremendous pressure from the beginning, for James had to persuade the landlord to permit an automotive repair facility in the building. Further, James could not afford the first month's rent and desperately pleaded to pay at the end of the first month. The landlord surprisingly accepted his proposal.
James did pay his rent after the first month, and went on to hire his first employee after six months. At the end of the first year, the business was averaging sales of $25,000 a month. A second employee was hired in the second year, two more in the third year, and with an expansion of the shop area, five more employees in the following year. Sales in the third year reached $60,000 a month and peaked in 1990 at $150,000 a month.
In 1990 James realized it was "risky to maintain such sales volume, for the break-even point was now very high. You can easily grow out of control." He then sought to cut costs rather than to increase sales. With twelve employees and a current monthly sales similar to 1990, he feels he "has a handle on almost everything."
He is still challenged to share with employees the benefits of a successful business. They now have comprehensive medical coverage, a retirement plan, annual bonuses, in addition to the most competitive salaries and the highest standard work environment in the industry.
Office organization is only now coming under control, as a new computer system has replaced a haphazard bookkeeping and filing melange. Only a few weeks ago, the accounts payable files had to be dumped on the floor so the process of reorganizing could be done from scratch. For a perfectionist who expects bills to be paid on time and all regulatory reporting to be kept up to date, more clearly defined standards for office personnel are being worked out.
If James and his family do move to Australia, he feels he has left behind a worthwhile legacy. Not only has he created a business that is admired and imitated by others, but he has helped raise the standard of an industry. In addition, he has trained many people who have developed the skills necessary for them to succeed in their professional careers. Angela hopes they will be remembered as honest, sincere people who lived for a public purpose. Rose Sachs indicates that James "has inspired us to raise our standard of how we want to do business." Breck Harris adds, "James has inspired me to reach deeper within myself to make a contribution to others."
"When I come here, I straighten up a little bit," says Bill Foxworthy. Finally, David Woods recalls the woman who, when she came to pick up her repaired automobile, burst into tears of joy. "That made me feel good. There should be a book written about this place; [it is] a great place to work."
Virtue needs to be identified and promoted, in individuals as well as in institutions. Although BMC may have its shortcomings, as all of us do as individuals, it is an arena of virtue from which we can all learn.
1. Studs Terkel, Working (New York: Avon Books, 1972), p. 59.
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