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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.”

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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.

A Lesson from Booker T. Washington

One person you will seldom read about in history books is Booker T. Washington.

Unlike many contemporary black leaders, Booker T. taught a lesson that many would do well to heed today, that regardless of skin color or social environment, it is man’s relationship to God that determines the outcome of his life.

Washington was such a man.  Born into slavery in 1856 and feed at the end of the Civil War at the age of 9, Booker found himself working in the salt mines of West Virginia.  Waking up before 4 a.m. to begin his shift in the mines, he ended the day by learning to read from a literate black ex-soldier hired by his parents.  In 1872, at age 16, he was ready to attend Hampton Institute, a new high school for blacks some 500 miles from home.  After nine years, at age 25, he was invited to head a new school in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute.

Washington was a religious man.  According to his daughter Portia, “We never at home began the day without prayer, and we closed the day with prayer in the evening.  He read the Bible to us each day at breakfast and prayed; that was never missed.  Really, he prayed all the time.”

He saw Christianity as the remedy for all social ills, saying, “What is the remedy for lynching? Christian education of the white man and the black man.”

Entitled to be embittered for the injustice of slavery, he chose a different view, a biblical one.  “We went into slavery in this country pagans; we came out Christians.”

He believed that religion “must be woven into the warp and woof of our everyday life.” His teaching was exemplified by his life.

There is a lot we can learn from studying the lives of men like Booker T. Washington.  Faith in God, hard work, and personal responsibility are among the characteristics that mark men like him. Yet these are qualities we often overlook in modern day America.  We forsake God, rely on government, and shun personal responsibility.  We emphasize the color of a man’s skin and his ethnic background rather than the content of his belief. This breeds fear, resentment, and unforgiveness, qualities that enslave again – only this time, it is both black and white.

If racism is to cease, it will not be by protests, marches, or social programs. It will be by embracing what Washington referred to as “Christian teaching.”

In this body of truth, we are taught to accept one another, as Christ has accepted us.  We are commanded to forgive, if we want to be forgiven. We are instructed to look at a person’s heart, not his outward appearance.

Washington did not let his social environment or the color of his skin determine the outcome of his life. It was faith in Christ and obedience to His word that made him the man he was.  I wish I could have known him. He is my brother.  What little I have learned about him has enriched my life.

The Call to Entrepreneurship

Sometimes you have to be careful about what you ask for.

It was a cold November morning in 1977, and I was working for the City of Lansing on their street patch crew.  Our job that day was burning high spots off the asphalt pavement. To do this, we used a hand-held burner attached to a kerosene tank, which was strapped to the rear-end of a dump truck. The four-foot high tank had a hand pump on the top; it was my responsibility to keep the tank pressurized to run the burner.

During that time I was looking to transfer to another department; and since I had an interview scheduled, I was praying about it.  In fact, as I was standing in the bed of the truck pumping up the tank, I was asking God to lead me in the matter.

That’s when I got my answer.

At the precise moment I was praying, the welds on the bottom of the tank gave way and the tank shot up like a missile, bursting into flames.  I was blown upward and back to the front of the truck bed, and surrounded by flames, dove over the side to avert being burned alive.

Miraculously, though my eyelashes and eyebrows were signed from the flames, and my clothing satuarated with kerosene, I did not catch fire.  My only injuries were a broken wrist and a few lacerations.

It took surgery and six months for my wrist to heal, and during that time I did considerable thinking and praying.  One day I received the ‘call’ to start a painting business.

Thankfully, prayer is not always answered in such a dramatic way.  With me however, there is no other way I would have chosen to start my own company – especially a painting business!

Truth is, everyone has a work to do, a purpose unique to him, one that fits the overall plan of God.  Someone has to paint buildings; this is what I was picked to do.

Not all hold this view however, that there is a divine purpose for our work.  There is this dualistic mindset that separates things secular, like work, from that which is deemed sacred.  The Judeo-Christian ethic, upon which our economic system is predicated, teaches that man is made to work.  It is this belief – that work is sanctified, which gives meaning to the most menial of jobs.

Martin Luther put it this way:  “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.”

And so all life is sacred, including its occupation.  There is no dichotomy of callings; all are called and to each is given his or her assignment in life.  Jesus – he was a carpenter.  Peter, his right-hand man, a fisherman.  Luke, who wrote The Gospel of Luke, was a doctor.  The apostle Paul, a tent maker.

Me, I was called to be a painting contractor.