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Marketing 101

“He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty” (Proverbs 28:19).

Most of us tend to relegate God to purely religious and spiritual matters, but the truth is He is immensely practical. Just consider the things that He has made, and how they work, and it won’t take long to conclude that He is all about making things work.

Here’s the thing: God is concerned about business, and He has a lot to say about it in the Bible. There are principles, rules, regulations, and outright commands pertaining to human enterprise which, if one follows, a person can be assured of success.

I have been a student of God’s word for a very long time. From the 1980’s until now I have come to understand and apply—to some degree—what I have learned from Scripture. For example, from 1982 to 1986 I was part of what was called “The King’s Club.” This consisted of around 40 men from 6-7 different churches who came together once a month to study God’s word as it related to business. Not only was my current company birthed from this group, but during this period I caught a vision of how the kingdom of God could be furthered through business. I learned biblical principles of management, finance, marketing and other key facets of running an organization God’s way. All of which helped shape my perspective to this day.

I began to see the Bible in a different way. I came to understand there is a lot of helpful information that would aid me in conducting my business—which, by the way, I believe God gave me.

For example, I remember one year where, from Isaiah 28 I came up with a marketing plan that seemed to fit perfectly the kinds of work T. L. Hart, Inc. was after at the time. Another year I received instruction on how to pay my employees. Yet in another instance, this one fairly dramatic, I learned to base my plans on the will of God, not my own intentions.

Here, in this passage from the book of Proverbs, I learn an important lesson: if you want sales, then you need to work your customers.

Of course, without sales you don’t have a business, and without customers there are no sales. This is obvious. But many companies and business owners approach the market like the movie Field of Dreams — build it and they will come. They sit by the phone and hope it rings. Yet things don’t typically work that way. No farmer would ever approach his work that way; he would not sit back and stare at his land and expect it to produce anything without his working it. No, the land has to plowed, tilled, planted, fertilized, weeded, and so forth. If he follows protocol, he can be assured a crop.

So it is with companies—the land has to be worked. I think this is the simplest and most practical thing any owner can do, not only to get his business up and running, but to keep it going and growing.

This principle proved true again for me in 2010. Up to that point we had had a rough go of it, having lost about 2/3’s of our revenue over a period of eight years. We were now properly sized for the market and most of our problems behind us. I hired my son-in-law (who is amazing at sales and people skills) to come in and help us get back on our feet. I handed him our customer list from the past 10-12 years and had him start making calls. I also sent him to various community events, like those put on by the local Chamber of Commerce. Initially the results were barely seen; Jason ended up moving on to take on a role as a financial services provider. The fruit however started coming shortly thereafter. To this day we are doing business on a regular basis with several of the firms he contacted at the time.

By the way, these customers had been clients in the past; it was Jason’s efforts in making contact with them that brought them back. It was his ‘working the land’ that brought results.

As for me, I believe God wants me to grow T. L. Hart, Inc. While others my age (I’m 65) have or are retiring, I have been instructed to grow the company. While I have understood this principle in the past, and whereas I have long held that my current and past customers are my market and represent my best shot at ongoing growth, I have not consistently employed what I know. I have groped for answers as to how to promote my business when all the while the answer is under my nose. I am to work the land God has given me—the hundreds and thousands of people and entities that my firm has served since 1977.

“He who works his land will have plenty of food.” The person who works his customers (in a good way) will have plenty of sales. If you are a new start up, then you need to find them and work them. If you’ve been around a while like I have, you need to look them up and get in touch with them. Check and see if they’ve any needs you can meet.

Why Profit?

My friend and mentor of twenty years, the late Jim Russell, used to say, “You must make a profit every single month.”  I would, out of respect for him, nod in hearty agreement; but in my mind I was saying, “Yeah, but…..”

Jim was in the forms business, primarily serving the medical industry; me, I was in the painting business.  RBF, Inc., Jim’s business, had a steady flow of revenues–and profits, regardless of what time of year it was.  T. L. Hart, Inc., on the contrary, had little business in the dead of winter.  

Jim passed away in 2005, but his words never did pass away.  If it weren’t for the profit we did make in the years leading up to the ‘Great Recession’ we would have never made it.  As it is, we lost all of it, then nearly twice as much–not to mention or 10,000 square foot offie/warehouse building and another property we owned.  Moral of story?  You need profit to sustain your company during difficult times.

These days I have made it my aim that, if it is within my power to do so, T. L. Hart, Inc. will make at least a dollar of profit every single month.  To do that we faced some major downsizing at the beginning of 2010, and since then the firm has been wonderfully profitable every year.  Because of this, it is well-positioned to weather the current storm we are in: the COVD-19 crisis.  

Profit is essential for any business of any size, and at least some of should be retained (or saved).  This is true for small companies like mine, large companies most definitely, and smaller, 1-man shops.  A certain portion of your post-expense income (including your pay) should be set aside not only for difficult times, but for the occasions when a payment does not come through, or you need to make a major purchase.  Doing so will both put and keep you positioned for whatever might come next–and God knows what that might be.  

A Rude but Welcomed Awakening

I’ll not forget an experience I had late Spring 1990. We were in our 6th year as a company, having enjoyed five straight years of rapid growth and profitability. I had added personnel and our firm was working all over the state of Michigan. However, it was May and we had lost a considerable amount of money the first four months of the year. T. L. Hart, Inc. was in trouble.

I had had a goal of becoming one of mid-Michigan’s best and largest painting contractors. And we were well on our way. Our list of reputable customers was growing and, as for me, I was active in the area’s trade association and had worked my way to the top as president. Working with this association and the state, I had developed an apprenticeship program to train new painters. All of this was in jeopardy because of the losses. Not only was what I had built at risk, but so was my family. We had sold our house in town—and couldn’t get a loan approved for the new house we wanted because of the financials.

I was humiliated and my world was fast falling apart.

One day, laying on the couch and commiserating with myself, God reminded me of a Bible verse I had read before. It was from the book of James, chapter four, verses 13-15:

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’”

There’s a lot to be learned in these three short verses, but my take away that day was this: “if the Lord wills.” That is, whatever I do—in this regard grow the company—it has to be in harmony with God’s will.

Most folks think that God and religion are to be relegated to Sundays and church, but that’s not true. Even a casual reading of the Bible instructs us that God cares about even the most mundane things, like eating and drinking and sleeping—not to mention business, employer/employee relations, profit, and so forth. I had come to understand this through many years of not only reading the Scriptures, but also being part of a Christian businessman’s group which studied such things.

God’s will is paramount to any endeavor, and it is important for the earnest believer to be always putting that ahead of his own aspirations. I think mine had gotten way out ahead of God’s

Life is too short to be messing around with pursuits motivated by pride and personal ambition. In fact, James goes on to cite the reason for his admonishment: “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil” (verse 16).

I’m certain my inward attitude resembled at least to some degree such arrogance. Success, especially quick success, breeds such things. Thank God He interrupted the course of things and interjected His thoughts into the matter. I stood corrected.

If I remember it right, we went on that year to recover the losses and ended the year with a small profit. And I was able to get a mortgage. God is good.

I had a lot more to learn—but I shall save these for another time. What is important, albeit with respect to business, marriage and family, church, and other personal interests, is the will of God. The take-away is this: we ought always to say when considering anything, “If the Lord wills.” Or, “God-willing, we will do this or that.”

Why Core Values are Important

Everyone has principles by which they live. For the business owner it might be financial freedom; for the school teacher, impacting the lives of the next generation; for the Christian, faith. Whether they are aware of it or not, all have values that shape their attitudes and direct their actions. Consciously or unconsciously, they constitute the heart and soul of the person; its who they are.

Companies also have tenets they operate from. Many that have identified them may refer to them as core values. These are the things that make for the culture of a company. They might be written in mission statement on the wall or simply assumed, but these are what makes the firm tick; they constitute its core.

Whether you are an individual or a huge, multinational corporation, it is important to dig deep and find out what these are. Once found, wrap yourself or your company around them and bring everything you do into alignment.

Author Gino Wickman, in his book Traction, provides a wonderful process for determining what your businesses’ core values are. The book is worth the read just for this helpful information. He even provides tools to guide you through the discovery–and yes, it is a process of discovery; what you really believe in your heart may surprise you, good or bad.

Core values can be changed. My mentor for twenty years, the late Jim Russell, once told me, “Terry, your business will take off when you change your thinking about it.” What he meant was, the underlying guiding principles that held my company at bay needed to be altered. What I held to be true about T. L. Hart, Inc. had to change.

I believe it was Michael Gerber in his book, The E-myth, who pointed out that your business is you. In other words, your business is a direct reflection of who you are as a person. I understand that most companies may have more than one person to be considered, but the maxim is the same; who you are–or, who your team is, will be seen in the firm as a whole. This is why you not only need to do some digging yourself, but include other key players in your organization.

I went through the process a few years ago and included some team members. We came up with a list of seven or eight key qualities that we thought best represented our company. I wrote them down, and for a year or so taught them at our monthly staff meetings. After a while, I quizzed the group at to what they were; not one got them right.

I learned what Wickman presents in his book: keep them to a few; no more than seven or eight, but better yet four or five. So we took another look and boiled them down further. I am now confident that our four core values truly represent who I am and what I stand for. There is buy-in from the team, and they are fast becoming corporate culture.

To put this to work your core values need to permeate the entire operation. You hire and fire by them, you make your decisions based on them, and you build your products and services around them. Your core values dictate what you do and how you do it.

In my next article I will tell what my company’s core values are and why, and how I incorporate them into what we do.

God Be Magnified

“Let God be magnified” (Psalm 70:4). That is, allow Him to be as great as He really is in your situation. Taking it a step further, *make Him greater* in your situation.
All of us face things that seem insurmountable. Or we have dreams that seem far off. Or we’ve a word from the Lord that seems impossible. All of which is to say we are thinking these things to be greater in scope than the One who is Great—God.
To magnify is “to make (something) greater; to make (something) seem greater or more important than it is; to make (something) appear larger” (Mirriam Webster). This is precisely what we tend to do when we’ve situations we don’t know how to cope with. We elevate them. In fact, we almost deify them—as if they are sovereign over us. An attitude that almost borders on idolatry.
The word here however is in the context of great need. The Psalmist is under a death threat, there are people seeking his very life. And he, on his part, is “afflicted and needy.” It is in this situation that he says “Let God be magnified.” In other words, “This is what is happening to me, and I am not sure of the outcome—but God, I call out to You! I seek You and am glad in You! I love Your salvation (and I really need it right now)! I recognize You are far greater than my earthly foes! I make you greater than these! I magnify You!”
When I think of magnifying God, I think of a magnifying glass—a lens through which when you look at something it makes it appear bigger. It’s not that God is small and we have to somehow make Him bigger. No, it’s that we see Him small, as if unable to help us or do anything about the challenges we are confronted with. The point is we need to change our glasses. The ones we wear are often of the wrong sort; we need the glasses that make God out to be as large as He really is.
I think of a story Jim Russell told me about the birth of his daughter Amy. It was well before the days of ultrasound, and when the day came for her to be born, she was a down-syndrome baby. What I remember about what Jim told me is that he and his wife Phyllis simply thanked God. The rest is history; thousands and thousands have been influenced for the kingdom of God by virtue of Amy’s birth and the Russell’s magnification of God at the time.
We ought alway see God as absolutely sovereign. There is nothing that escapes His notice. Prophet Graham Cooke rightly said, “What God allows in His wisdom He could easily prevent by His power.” This ought inspire a deep reverence for God in our hearts, what the Bible refers to as the fear of the Lord.
To magnify the Lord is to place Him above our circumstances, right where He belongs. He is already there, mind you—He just needs to be there in our hearts and minds. He needs to be there in our perspective, in my view of things. God is greater. He is more powerful. He is wiser. He is present. And, wonders of wonders, He loves us.

Why Legal Marijuana is a Bad Idea

Last November, Lansing, Michigan voters approved a measure prohibiting the city from regulating the “use, possession or transfer of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, on private property, by a person who has attained the age of 21 years.”

A similar move is currently underway in MSU’s hometown of East Lansing.

As a resident of the Lansing area and a business owner, here is why I believe legal marijuana  use—for medical or recreational purposes—is a bad idea.

1.  Adverse effects.

I first smoked dope—appropriately termed—in the fall of 1967.  I was a starting end on the high school football team, and within two weeks of my first high I quit the team, became seclusive, depressed and suicidal.  That didn’t stop me, though; I continued to use the drug and quickly moved to stronger ones like mescaline and LSD.  My life was miserable for the next 7 years until, in 1974, I found relief through faith in God.  

My experience is not isolated.  I have witnessed many whose drug use, beginning with marijuana, effected them much in the same way. One person I’ve worked with recently, a young man suffering from schizophrenia, traces his problem to drug use.  Others I know have lost their jobs, their families, gone to prison, and one boy committed suicide.  

I have been an employer for over 35 years.  Literally hundreds have worked for me at one time or another. No stranger to drug use, I know what it looks like.  At first there is a shift in the attitude, then an increase in absenteeism, then overall performance.  Ultimately the person quits, fall off the map, or does something to get themselves fired.  

Working under the influence of marijuana is also unsafe.  Unlike alcohol, the drug remains in a person’s system for up to 30 days, so the weekend’s high carries over into the workweek, posing a safety issue in the workplace.  

2.  Dangerous to society.

A bane to workplace safety, marijuana users behind the wheel of a car are just as dangerous on the road as those under the influence of alcohol.  Last I checked there were over 834 traffic deaths in Michigan—many the result of alcohol use.  So we want to add to the numbers those killed by drivers high on pot?

3.  Unnecessary.

While I understand the problem of chronic pain, with myriads of over-the-counter as well as prescription pain killers, medical marijuana is unnecessary.  And, as anticipated, cards issued for medicinal use are being abused, with people obtaining the drug for simple headaches, upset stomach, and other non-reasons.  

4.  A legal quagmire for employers.

Marijuana use for whatever reason presents a legal mess for business owners with employees. 

Not long ago I interviewed a potential worker who possessed a medical marijuana card.  He was issued it because he feared taking other pain killers and claimed he used it only occasionally.  Since we have a clear substance abuse policy in place and a claim a drug-free workplace, I had to consult an attorney to determine the legality of hiring or not hiring the individual.  Not surprisingly, with most laws fresh off the press, there are few legal precedents.  How this plays out in the courts—and how it impacts the workforce remains to be seen.  

Think about it:  Your doctor or nurse, lawyer, dentist, plumber, grocery check-out clerk, bank teller—high on pot.  Worse yet, your bus driver, school teacher, or fire-fighter!  The move is on to legalize pot, and if it goes where I think it is going, we’re in for a stoned society.  

Bad idea no matter how you look at it.

Lessons Learned from Near Bankruptcy

Most times its the things you learn when you’re down that stick.

Having begun in business in 1985, I built a larger, viable commercial painting company that grew from nothing to 60 employees and $3 million in sales. We had systems, procedures, a good grasp on the market, and even bought land and constructed a 10,000sf office/warehouse.

Then the market tanked and T. L. Hart, Inc. was left holding the bag of considerable debt, declining sales, and a building that lost half its value. In 2010 the bank called all our loans, including our mortgage on the property.

The good news is, we survived the storm, averted bankruptcy, and came out the better for it. On top of that, I came away with some valuable lessons. Here is a summary of what I learned during tough times.

1) Your business model must fit the locality in which it is located. My son John, an investment banker, told me this many years ago—but I didn’t listen to him. My business model would have worked well in a large metropolitan area, like Chicago or Atlanta, but not Lansing, Michigan.

2) You have to have the ability to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace. The bigger the ship the longer it takes to turn it around. I had accumulated so much overhead that when sales dropped by 2/3’s, I couldn’t unload it fast enough. Times change, and you’ve got to be ready for change whenever it occurs.

3) Use credit wisely and pay your debts quickly. It is hard to avoid using credit in today’s world, but the mistake I made was to rely on it. Not only did I fork out tens of thousands of dollars in interest over the years, but when things got bad economically, I had a difficult time making payments. Currently, we have virtually no debt and pay cash for everything—and it feels great!

4) Choose your employees carefully. I look back over my 29 years with T. L. Hart and wonder how I hired some of the people I did. I once heard a reputable contractor say, “Your only as good as the people you work for.” It is equally true that you’re only as good as the people who work for you.

5) Pray and believe God for good things. This really should have been first, but it certainly proved valuable when going through the loss of everything I worked hard to earn. In fact, it was faith and prayer that got us through, and not just by the skin of our teeth, but victoriously!

6) Don’t give up. When our banking official advised me to file bankruptcy—and file it fast, I told him I didn’t believe in bankruptcy. Had I quit I would have owed the bank and others close to a million dollars. As it turned out, I not only didn’t file bankruptcy, 2010 was among the best years T. L. Hart ever had!

7) Always make a profit. My mentor, the late Jim Russell, used to tell me this all the time. I would always respond (in my heart—I didn’t say this to him!), “Yeah, but. . .” Well, he was right. You have to make a profit every single month, even if it is a dollar!

8) Be aware that seasonal aspects and fluctuations in the market can affect your business. I struggled with the ups and downs of business cycles for decades. Finally, I faced the reality that ski resorts and golf courses face: you make your money when you can, when the weather allows. There are seasonal cycles, construction cycles, economic cycles; you’ve just got to come to grips with it. And. . . make sure your business model compensates for it.

9) Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. This was a hard lesson! I made the mistake of casting aside even the good things we had going for us during our fight for survival. Now, four years into a great recovery, I’ve still not put back into place many policies and procedures that helped grow T. L. Hart to begin with.

There are likely more, but these are the things that stand out to me as being the most significant. I am grateful that God not only led us through and of out of those difficult 7 years, but He taught me some valuable principles in the process.

May 2020