Among the Believers
As a tour of corporate gatherings around the U.S. suggests, you've got to have faith to keep the company alive and well.
By Jerry Useem

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The noise reaches an ecstatic roar, a light spills down from above, and a woman makes her way toward the stage. A man in a shimmering red coat waits for her there, smiling, while the swaying multitude encourages her forward. There is something familiar--and distinctly American--about the scene.

It's an old-fashioned revival meeting, only not a religious one. The man in the red coat is chairman of Commerce Bank; the woman is a teller who is said to embody the company's spirit of devotion to the customer. The bank's Wow! Awards ceremony--held in New York City's Rockefeller Center--culminates in a dance number involving 150 employees, 20-plus Rockettes, and one corporate anthem: "Commerce comes alive in all you do."

To citizens of less charismatic corporations, who can't imagine themselves, say, belting out an ode to DaimlerChrysler, such displays of fervor are clearly the product of (1) North Korean--style choreography or (2) some Kool-Aid-fueled cult. The sound of the AutoZone cheer challenges your precious cynicism. At the annual meeting in Memphis, uniformed employees chant, "AutoZoners put the customer first / We know our parts and products / Our stores look great / We offer the best merchandise at the right price." It may not be poetry, but it carries the unmistakable sound of conviction, the kind that can't be faked. These people--many of them anyway--actually believe.

Believe in what? Both AutoZone and Commerce Bank believe that "customer service" is an ethos to be lived--imbuing the often thankless task of pleasing customers with an almost spiritual sense of mission. Berkshire Hathaway shareholders believe in (and profit from) their Great Teacher, Warren Buffett. Such belief systems provide an affirmative answer to the question "Does what I do mean anything?" It's the "we" part (any sports fan can relate) that provides the exhilarating sense of power, of belonging, of movement.

The notion that capitalism is America's true religion is one of those profundities repeated so often that it ceases to be profound. It also misses the mark. Companies are not churches. But the strongest of them, like the strongest churches, are more than stone edifice and empty ritual. They're communities of believers. -- Jerry Useem

REPORTER ASSOCIATE Christopher Tkaczyk