Editor's Comment, by Bonnie Price Lofton
Wilmer Otto '73 has expanded his business interests far beyond this building in downtown Arcola, Ill. He operates several businesses in the midwest and in Eastern Europe. He has real estate interests in Illinois, Indiana, Florida and Romania.
His company, Equipment Direct-USA, has led the way in developing U.S. Ex Im Bank financing for the export of second-hand heavy equipment to Ukraine and Russia.
With German and Ukraine partners, Wilmer has organized an equipment leasing company based in Cyprus.
Out of every 10 alumni reading this magazine, at least one or two ought to have their names in this issue. I’m making an educated guess - from studying our alumni records - that 1,000 to 2,000 of you are working in businesses.
You’ll see that there aren’t thousands of names in this issue - we weren’t able to contact everyone for reasons to be explained in a few moments. But there are hundreds of names.
Most names mentioned in this issue are connected to businesses in areas that were rural or small town 50 years ago. Many of the businesses revolve around supplying food or lodging. Or around construction on previously agricultural land. Some of the businesses provide the information and skills that people need to improve their lives. Few of the businesses (maybe none) are rapacious, unhealthy or “adult-only.” As far as I can tell, EMU’s alumni group contains no X-rated movie producers or cigarette marketers.
Of the graduates with high management positions, about half appear to have majored in business or something business-related, like accounting. These graduates say they rely frequently on what they learned in classes such as accounting, human resources, strategic planning, economics, business ethics and corporate social responsibility.
Steve Brenneman ’94, chief executive officer of Terra Group (a new name for an enlarged company previously known as Nappanee Windows), notes wryly that he wasn’t a serious student when he came to EMU in 1990. He majored in business administration, but mainly wanted to play basketball and find a wife - which he did. Yet Steve did absorb the social-justice lessons taught here, and he believes this motivates him to tackle “thorny ethical issues” in his business now. Today Terra Group is partnering with Russian scientists on using appropriate technology - namely, a uniquely configured aluminum turbine - to make hydro-electric or wind power.
“This could provide the world with the power it needs with minimal impact on the environment,” says Steve. “Lucid’s systems have little or no detrimental effect on surrounding ecosystems and do not produce any harmful byproducts.” (www.lucidenergy.com).
Ironically, alumni who pursued non-business majors seem no less successful as business persons. Jeff Boodie ’07, business coordinator for O, The Oprah Magazine, started EMU in pre-med but switched to liberal arts. Grace Witmer Styer ’79, chief financial officer for an array of family enterprises, was a dietetics major. Elaine Warfel Stauffer ’72, owner of Warfels Sweet Shoppe, majored in middle school education. (Download the PDF collection of photos of 55 alumni from all walks of business, including Elaine.)
Strong Roots an Asset
Spencer Cowles, business dept. head
“I think the agricultural background of the families of many of our students helps them to be successful in business,” says Spencer Cowles, PhD, who has taught in EMU’s business department since 1988. “The qualities needed for entrepreneurial success - hard work, persistence in the face of setbacks and even failures, adaptability, spotting market opportunities, discipline, strategic planning - are present in successful farm operations.
“The incidence of successful entrepreneurship among our graduates is phenomenal.”
Some of this success may be due to a tradition of strong, loyal families in the Mennonite world. The trajectory of liberal-arts major Phil Wenger ’82, owner of Isaac’s restaurant chain, provides a case study.
Phil comes from a long line of preachers and teachers in Pennsylvania and Virginia. His grandfather A.D. Wenger was Eastern Mennonite’s second president, 1922 to 1935. Phil and his six siblings followed the path of their parents, Chester ’34 and Sara ’42 Wenger, to higher education at Eastern Mennonite. Phil did non-profit work in Washington, D.C., for a few years before returning home to Lancaster, Pa.
Phil wanted to start a business, but had no money. With the help of his parents and fellow alum Isaac Williams ’78, Phil was able to launch a small sandwich shop only a year after graduation. “My parents believed in me, when all I had was college debt,” Phil says. His parents took out a mortgage on their home and loaned Phil $25,000. “You can’t go bankrupt on your parents,” he offers with a smile as he recalls the difficult start-up years. Isaac’s Restaurants now encompasses 650 employees at 20 locations, dotting central Pennsylvania.
Doing Well and Doing Good
The book Entrepreneurs in the Faith Community-Profiles of Mennonites in Business (Herald Press, 1996), edited by Calvin W. Redekop and Benjamin W. Redekop, noted tension until recently within many Mennonite churches over whether it was possible to be both a good businessperson and a good Christian. Many Mennonites felt a person could not “serve the kingdom of God and the faith community by pursuing wealth and power in the ‘world’.”
The Redekops’ book, however, made the strong case - through profiling a dozen entrepreneurs who also supported church and mission work - that ethical business people could be, and often are, assets to the Anabaptist community, given their energy, drive, creativity, willingness to take risks, and ability to recover from setbacks. Not to mention their importance as employers and as philanthropists. The book raised some issues that bear pondering today:
1. At least some of the success of Anabaptist business people can be traced to the strong moral character and work ethic instilled by their religious upbringing, centered around family and community ties. As a general rule, these entrepreneurs have not experienced the kinds of personal problems - such as messy divorces, substance abuse and business scandals - that often bedevil the “movers and shakers” of the world. That’s the good news.
2. Yet what happens when the social norms - the community mores - that helped shape these entrepreneurs come to feel suffocating and confining? Do the entrepreneurs conform to them and remain in the church community, or do they break away from it?
3. When business people are successful, often they face mixed reactions in their communities. They may be both resented for their success and envied for it. What are appropriate Christian reactions to business success?
4. The road to business success is rarely smooth. Set-backs and mistakes are inevitable, sometimes even resulting in bankruptcy. How empathetic and supportive is the church community when such set-backs occur? How much understanding do business people receive when they must lay off employees and reduce or discontinue their charitable contributions in the face of necessary belt-tightening?
5. Making money and remaining true to one’s beliefs and morals do not always go hand-in-hand. Where does one draw the line? If land development will damage a sensitive ecological system, what is the right course of action? If your product is needed by the U.S. military, do you supply it? If launching a business will require you to neglect your family for the next five years, should the business be launched? What percentage of one’s profits should be re-invested in the business and what percentage given to meet the needs of other worthy causes?
6. Finally, if you are a successful entrepreneur, do you strive to use your resources wisely during the flush times - to be good stewards of what is in your hands or under your control - or do you find yourself yielding to the urge to spend wastefully and unnecessarily to meet growing material desires, encouraged by the greater society in which we live?
To be certain, this issue of Crossroads does not attempt to answer these questions. Instead it could provide food for conversation on these topics by demonstrating that hundreds of EMU’s graduates have moved far beyond the stage of previous generations who wondered, “Should we be involved in business?”
The answer is now a resounding “Yes!” EMU alumni are key players in retail businesses, banks, insurance and accounting firms, hotels, restaurants, publishing houses, law offices, land development, and construction-related industries. Some, but no longer the majority, farm or work in farm-based enterprises. Alumni are also in health-related businesses, but that is the subject of the following (summer) issue of Crossroads, so we will leave those aside for now.
The alumni pictured in this issue were picked fairly randomly.
We (the editor and her advisory board) sought photo subjects to which our photographer could travel in a week-long journey by car from Harrisonburg. We wanted variety, not just middle-aged men doing business at a desk topped by a computer terminal. We wanted small and large businesses in our sample. We wanted alumni who had stayed close to EMU as well as alumni who had lost touch with us.
For the listing of businesses, we attempted to send a short survey by e-mail to about 1,000 alumni whom we had reason to believe were working in business-related jobs. The majority of those e-mail addresses proved to be out-of-date and therefore useless. Sometimes we were able to find alternate e-mail addresses by using Internet search tools to locate alumni, or by phoning alumni. Most of what we gleaned is in business and professionals listing and in the photo collection entitled "Enterprising Folks" but this is probably no more than 15% of our “alumni in businesses.”
The summer ’08 issue of Crossroads will contain a supplemental listing, consisting of everyone who registers here:
www.emu.edu/crossroads/update. Send us your information!