Eastern Mennonite University

Spring 2008

Kudos to Our Business People

EMU President Loren Swartzendruber
EMU President Loren Swartzendruber

Ben M. Miller, my maternal grandfather, was an entrepreneur though he may never have heard of the term. It’s not likely that there was such a word in his native Pennsylvania Dutch language!

According to Allon Lefever, recently retired director of EMU’s MBA program and continuing business instructor, the term entrepreneurship has its roots in the French language from 150 years ago but only became commonly used in the past 30 years. The two French terms, “entre” (meaning “between”) and “prendre” (meaning “to take”) came to connote the idea of “taking the risk between buyer and seller.”

Grandpa Miller started several businesses in southeast Iowa in the 1930s and '40s. His oldest son and two sons-in-law, including my father, joined him in a farm implement business where they were partners for more than 30 years. Many of my earliest memories are from “going to work” with my Dad. I knew that J.I. Case and New Holland farm equipment was the best - until I married into a John Deere farm family.

The business thrived under the leadership of the first and second generations. At one time it was the largest Case dealership in the states of Iowa and Nebraska. The farm crisis of the late 1970s, perhaps coupled with the fact that none of us in the third generation remained active in the business, eventually resulted in its demise. I will always be grateful for the practical experiences gained from personal involvement in a family business enterprise.

Years later, as a young pastor, I made an effort to visit most of the members at their places of employment and was surprised to meet some resistance from a few business leaders. The reason for their hesitation was soon evident. For too many years they had felt the church wanted their money but was also critical of them as business folks. Ironically, most of the earlier pastors had been business leaders or farmers themselves, but as a recent seminary graduate I had to prove that I was not anti-business. Many of them became, and remain, close friends.

Neither Grandpa nor his partners completed high school. They didn’t have the distinct advantage of taking accounting, marketing, business law, economics and business management courses at EMU. It is quite possible the enterprise would have benefited enormously from such opportunities.

They did embody some foundational principles that EMU teaches our current students. Integrity in all business matters was paramount. Treating one’s customers with respect and meeting their needs (so long as it didn’t interfere with “keeping the Sabbath holy”) was another. As owner/partners they paid themselves an hourly wage, and only shared additionally by splitting the profits that were generated during the year, and that only after appropriate reinvestments were made in the business.

My grandfather shared one other attribute with many EMU graduates. He was a philanthropist - another description he wouldn’t have applied to himself. I know this from the way others in the community described him, as one who was generous with his time and money. As for many of our business graduates, his primary impetus for being in business was to create opportunities, meet specific community needs, and to give something back to the church and community.

University presidents are privileged to meet many successful individuals, each of them with a unique story to share. The vast majority of business leaders I’ve known strive to behave ethically, serve their customers with dignity, and offer their gifts for strengthening the communities in which they live. We are proud of and grateful to them.

Blessings,

Dr. Loren Swartzendruber
President

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