God's Network
Christian CEOs bond for love and profit.
By Ellyn Spragins, FORTUNE Small Business editor at large

NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business Magazine) - Many entrepreneurs start companies to get rich. Some want to be famous. Others just can't work for anyone else. Bart Azzarelli, 57, launched his Florida pipeline-construction company because, he says, God told him to. Azzarelli's organizational chart shows God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit at the helm of Dallas1 Construction & Development, a Tampa-based business that grossed $27 million last year. The title on his business card is AMBASSADOR FOR CHRIST. His workers wear hardhats adorned with the fish symbol that early Christians used as a secret password. "I decided that if God was instilling in my heart to start a business, then it would be God's business," he says.

To run a thriving business according to Christian principles, as Azzarelli tries to do, is like coaxing the lion to lie down with the lamb. When is it acceptable to lay off workers? How much of a company's profit is a Christian entrepreneur justified in keeping for himself, and how much should he share with workers? Can a business owner succeed in a competitive industry while maintaining more stringent ethical standards than his rivals?

In an effort to answer such questions, Azzarelli joined his local chapter of C12 (http://www.c12group.com/), a national for-profit company that brings business leaders of mostly private companies (with annual revenues typically less than $5 million) to monthly meetings where Oprah-style confessional fireworks blend with Bible study, business coaching, and a hefty dose of old-fashioned networking. The "C" is for Christian, and the number 12 signifies the optimal chapter size, determined by the founders' research. (Christ apparently felt the same way about his apostles.)

C12 boasts more than 400 members in 16 states. The network has doubled in size over the past three years without advertising or recruiting. "We believe that when we get to heaven, [God] will say, 'I gave you a company to run and all these relationships that go with it. How did you do with that?'" says Scott Hitchcock, C12's Tampa Bay Area chairman.

Growth is accelerating at similar networks for Christian business owners such as BBL Forum in Anaheim, Wise Counsel in Jacksonville, and the Fellowship of Companies for Christ (FCCI), based in Oklahoma City, one of the oldest and largest groups, with 1,000-plus members in more than 20 states. "I've been doing this for 30 years, and I have never seen anything like the last couple of years," says Kent Humphreys, president of Christ@Work, a ministry of FCCI. He estimates that more than 30 Christian networks for business leaders are thriving in the U.S. today. Half were launched in the past five years.

Entrepreneur as ministry

Judgment day seems far away at a December meeting of Azzarelli's C12 group, which starts at 9 A.M. at the manicured Tampa Palms Country Club. Entering a beige-and-cream conference room, 15 CEOs and presidents look like well-heeled board directors. They greet with long hugs. Many carry shopping bags full of Christmas presents for one another. There are no hair shirts peeking out from under their neatly pressed polo shirts.

These wealthy, accomplished men don't see any insurmountable conflict between being a good Christian and a good businessman. C12's goal is to help members embrace an updated version of the old Calvinist precept that a Christian's material success is proof that God blesses him and his work. C12 takes this doctrine one step further, arguing that a Christian entrepreneur doesn't actually own his own business. Instead, God owns the company and places the entrepreneur in charge as a ministry to help others.

Not surprisingly, few entrepreneurs swallow this concept easily. "One of the hardest things for these guys to understand is that it is God's business, not theirs," says Hitchcock.

From a legal perspective, Dallas1 belongs to Azzarelli, not God. Azzarelli is responsible for making payroll and paying taxes. If Dallas1 gets sued, Azzarelli is on the hook, not God. So what does it mean, exactly, to say that God owns Dallas1? For Azzarelli, it means that God actually makes key management decisions at the company. Azzarelli says God told him in 2000 to launch a new pipeline-construction company in Charlotte, where he and his wife, Jan, had some acquaintances. Azzarelli obeyed, but the new venture did not prosper. "I dumped $400,000 in there, and it kept losing money," he recalls. God, he says, went silent.

Two years later, on the verge of closing down the Charlotte operation, Azzarelli prayed hard for direction. Driving his Cadillac SUV past the University of South Florida campus one day, Azzarelli lost patience in a way that another motorist might during a cellphone conversation. "I started yelling, 'God, I haven't heard from you in months! What do you want me to do with this company in North Carolina?' I hadn't gone a block and a half, and this impression that came over me was so great: Give it away."

Azzarelli and his wife turned over 70% of the Charlotte business to the manager who was running it. Last year the company earned $140,000 on sales of $2.5 million. The Azzarellis then gave away the remaining 30% ownership stake, half to another employee and half to their only daughter.

Lately, Azzarelli says, God has been trying to get him to soften his aggressive personality. The feisty entrepreneur began to sense this divine message after an altercation with a parking attendant landed him in jail for nine hours. During his short incarceration, he decided God was telling him not to intimidate people anymore.

He tries to obey. Early last year a county inspector in the Tampa area asked him to redo a manhole installation that had already been approved by a licensed engineer who worked for the developer that had hired Dallas1. Indignant, Azzarelli started to remind the inspector of all the extra efforts Dallas1 had put into past jobs and to suggest that the company would no longer go the extra mile for the county if it had to change out the manhole. "But as I was doing it, God just impressed on my heart: 'This isn't how I want you to act,'" says Azzarelli. The manhole was changed without complaint.

'I don't have to lie to people'

At noon the Tampa Bay C12 chapter moves into today's spiritual topic: Working on My Ministry in God's Business--A Year-End Audit. Fervent as usual, Azzarelli brandishes a spreadsheet packed with dozens of statistics: charitable donations made, Bibles given away, meals cooked for employees--and the number of employees who in the past year had accepted Jesus into their lives (there were 44 last year, 31% of the total workforce). Salaries at Dallas1 are pegged to industry standards, but incentive compensation and bonuses push employees' income significantly higher, says Azzarelli. Last year Dallas1 paid just over $600,000 in performance rewards and $570,000 in bonuses, according to the company's bookkeeper. That amounts to about $4,300 for each employee.

A few years ago, when Dallas1 lost money, Azzarelli borrowed to pay bonuses. The company spends 30% of its annual profits on charities, community organizations, Bible purchases, and the like. Employees who have trouble paying a bill can ask for help from the Jesus Helping Hands pot, into which employees voluntarily kick in weekly amounts, from $1 up. None of the money has to be repaid.

"A lot of people come in looking for a job because they've heard that we're a good place to work," says Terry Medina, 54, the company's human resources director, who was raised Catholic but embraced evangelical Christianity after working at Dallas1 for eight months. "The other places I worked just don't care about their employees the way they do here." That's the sort of thing you'd expect an HR director to say, of course. But interviews with Dallas1 employees support Medina's claims. "I came in pretty skeptical," says Ralph Goodell, 45, a dispatcher who joined the company two years ago. "But I'm a lot more comfortable here because I can follow my conscience. I don't have to lie to people."

C12 members say they consider their responsibility as steward of a company their most important duty, even if it means laying off workers during a downturn. If this strikes you as being a businessman first and a Christian second, you'll get an argument from Azzarelli and his colleagues. Azzarelli had to lay off half of his 35 employees in 1993 and says it was one of the hardest decisions he's ever made. Still, he says, "it would not have honored God to keep them on and lose money and then lose the company." He was able to hire most of the furloughed workers back over the next couple of years.

After lunch a member stands up and asks the group for guidance on a painfully personal issue: how to deal with a family member's eating disorder. At C12 gatherings members occasionally bare an upsetting family secret, so no one snickers or makes a joke to deflect discomfort. The men search one another's eyes as they offer tentative suggestions. "Does [the relative] want to change?" asks one. "Could you pray together?" wonders another. "Maybe you don't say 'I love you' enough," suggests a third.

It's hard to imagine a group of secular CEOs having this discussion. You don't find this kind of intimacy in most business organizations because you don't find this kind of intimacy in business. The members of C12 do not expect to resolve all the conflicts inherent in Christian commerce. But Christianity does bond them together in a way that few other entrepreneurs experience. It also provides a template for integrating their values and their work. It's not easy to reconcile the lion and the lamb, but these guys are trying their hardest.

Read more from the FSB cover package Jesus Inc.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.