Christian CEOs bond for love and profit
God's network: How Christian business owners help each other get rich and go to heaven.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business) - 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 (http://www.d1cd.com), a Tampa-based business that grossed $27 million last year. The title on his business card is ambassador for Christ.
"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?
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 to monthly meetings where Bible study blends with business coaching and networking.
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.
Company 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.
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 uncomfortable concept: 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.
From a legal perspective, though, Dallas1 belongs to Azzarelli, 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. He says God told him in 2000 to launch a new pipeline-construction company in Charlotte. 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, ready to close down the Charlotte operation, Azzarelli prayed hard for direction. Driving his Cadillac SUV past the University of South Florida campus one day, he lost patience.
"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.
Borrowing to pay bonuses
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.
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.
C12 members say being a steward of a company is their most important duty, even if it means laying off workers during a downturn. Azzarelli had to lay off half of his 35 employees in 1993 -- 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."
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. 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.
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 and helps them integrate their values and their work. It's not easy to reconcile the lion and the lamb, but these guys are trying their hardest.
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