The Road to Paradise
How a Christian contractor rises in Phoenix.
By David Whitford

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Ogbonna Abarikwu prays throughout the day--in the shower, in the car, as soon as he opens his eyes in the morning, and when he closes them at night. His prayers, he says, are less about asking God for what he wants (God, make me rich!) than humbly asking what God wants for him. He calls it "searching God's face," and he works hard at it.

Abarikwu (pronounced ah-BEAR-i-ku), 46, is the founder and CEO of CK Engineering, a ten-year-old consulting firm that specializes in road and highway work. Located in northeast Phoenix, CK boasts 15 employees, $2 million in annual revenues, and big plans for growth. Abarikwu displays all the classic entrepreneurial traits: ambition, a nose for opportunity, impatience for what's next. "We've done this," he'll say. "Now let's go make something else!" Like many entrepreneurs, Abarikwu stresses that his work is not about money. "Money just comes with the doing," he says. "It's about fun, challenge, creating, doing what they say can't be done." But more than that--and this is where Abarikwu parts company with secular entrepreneurs--he sees his business as a vehicle for expressing God's will. Abarikwu's faithful search has led him to a God who demands alms and good works but does not expect him to be a saint; a God who wants him to set a good Christian example but does not ask him to proselytize; a God who desires more than anything for Abarikwu that he be successful, and in so desiring, has led him to the promised land. "I wrestle with him," says Abarikwu, "challenge him, fight him! As if he's right there and I can touch him. 'You told me! What are you doing? You said if I did this and that ...' And guess what? He delivers consistently."

In the beginning, newly arrived in Phoenix, Abarikwu did not know a soul. Still looking for his first client, he took himself one day to a large gathering of municipal contractors. He sat down next to an older white man. And now Abarikwu, who is black, has a confession to make. When he meets a white person for the first time, he looks and wonders, Does he look racist? Does he want to have anything to do with a black man? In this case, Abarikwu had strong doubts. He did not like the look of this man. But something kept him in his seat.

"When you have freedom, when you've been cleansed and you have been redeemed, you feel as if you can climb any mountain," says Abarikwu. Whether or not you share Abarikwu's faith, you have to admit that his attitude is helpful for anyone fool enough to start his own company. Such a person sees openings where others see closed doors. He persists in the face of setbacks and believes despite all evidence to the contrary. Crucially, he listens to the voice within. Call it your gut, if you prefer. Abarikwu calls it the Spirit. "Stay with him," that voice was telling him now. "Stay with him."

So Abarikwu stayed. He introduced himself. He obtained the man's card: Darryl Truitt, principal in Standage & Truitt, a big construction company. Abarikwu called Truitt repeatedly over the next few weeks, but he was always busy. Finally Truitt agreed to see him. "Okay, now tell me," Truitt said to Abarikwu from behind his big desk. "What is it you think you can do?" Abarikwu rattled off his qualifications: engineering degree from the University of Colorado; public- and private-sector experience; traffic expertise. "Okay, all right," Truitt said. He reached into his drawer, took out a traffic-study assignment, and placed it on the table. "Well, read through that," Truitt said. When Abarikwu had finished, he asked, "Well, can you do it?" ("He was new and seemed bright and refreshing," Truitt recalls. He also saw an opportunity, he says, to comply with municipal guidelines that encourage minority subcontracting.) Abarikwu proved his worth, one job led to another, and CK Engineering was in business.

If you ask him, Abarikwu will tell you that the "C" in CK Engineering stands for Chimaobi, his oldest son, and means "The Lord knows the desires of our heart" in the language of Nigeria's Ibo tribe. "K" is for Kelechi, his daughter, and it means "Glorify God." From that you might surmise that CK Engineering is aiming at something beyond the ordinary definitions of success. But otherwise you would have no clue. There are no portraits of Jesus on the walls at headquarters, no Bible quotations on Abarikwu's business card, no lunch-hour devotionals in the conference room. There are two born-again Christians on staff, in addition to Abarikwu, but also two Hindus and two Muslims. With Abarikwu's blessing, the latter leave the office for a couple of hours each Friday afternoon, with full pay for the day, to attend prayer services at a Phoenix mosque.

The first time Abarikwu's friend Tom Cooper heard him talk about his faith was last summer, when Abarikwu was honored as a Phoenix Father of the Year. That was after Cooper had mentored him for almost two years. "He's very proud and sincere, but he's not going to try to convert anyone," says Cooper, CEO of Desert Fleet-Serv, a Phoenix truck-repair company.

Having seen Abarikwu's books, Cooper also knows that Abarikwu is not running a Christian charity. Salaries and benefits at CK are well above the average for comparable firms in Arizona, and the top engineers participate in a profit-sharing program. But only because Abarikwu knows that treating good employees well is good business. Abarikwu fired the new receptionist when she flopped, even though she was related to another employee. He says he fired a belligerent engineer on the spot one day after a flagrant act of insubordination. And do not expect him to forgive your business trespasses. If you owe him money for services rendered and refuse to pay, "I will initiate legal proceedings," says Abarikwu. "I don't think the Bible intends for me to walk away from it."

Nor does he believe that God expects him to play by stricter rules than do his competitors. For example, Abarikwu often does business with the public works department of Maricopa County. In theory, the best-qualified firm is supposed to get the contract. In practice, the best-connected firm often wins. Abarikwu believes he has two choices. He can sit in his office and wait for the phone to ring. (It won't.) Or he can go out and make connections with county officials--over expensive meals, in good seats at ballgames, and on country club greens. All this could be construed, he acknowledges, as a breach of the Maricopa County Procurement Code, which binds contractors and public servants alike. Abarikwu wants the contracts. He understands how the game is played. What does God want him to do?

"If I approach a client with the sole purpose of using those things to coerce him into favoring me," Abarikwu says, "I am failing as a child of God." (See Matthew, Mark, and Luke: "Render unto Caesar ...") Abarikwu tents his fingers, purses his lips, and tips his head forward. "So answer the question!" he admonishes himself, softly. Then he looks up. "I do those things," he admits. "I go play golf; I pay for it. I take them to fancy restaurants, I will pay for it. If they have a favorite charity, I will participate. It's part of doing business. It is an opportunity for you to get to know who I am, what my belief system is, where I stand on issues. And if those are consistent with what you are looking for in a consultant, and I am qualified, then I will get an opportunity. Like everybody else."

Bottom Line: Abarikwu believes that God wants him to succeed in business. So Abarikwu sometimes does what Abarikwu has to do, and in his heart that is not the same as pawning his beliefs. "God is not going to send all his angels from heaven and do the work for me," he says. "I have to be able to roll up my sleeves and get dirty and work very hard, and he blesses that." God will continue to bless his work, Abarikwu believes, as long as his efforts bring glory to God. "If I am able to create this [business] and make it stand on its two feet, my goodness, somebody can look at me and go, 'I will try to be like him.' You have just elevated somebody else's life!"

So you set a good example, says Abarikwu. And you provide good jobs. And you give away lots of money. "A true Christian who has a capitalist mentality will use that system to better humanity," Abarikwu says. Last year, Abarikwu says, he and his wife, Connie, who is a physician, donated nearly 20% of their combined income to charitable causes and needy individuals. They helped a woman adopt a child. They sponsored a young Nigerian man who moved to Britain--paid for his passport and plane ticket, found a place for him to live, and covered his expenses for three months until he could find work. They provided much of the funds to build a new church in Abarikwu's home village of Okwoyi, in Nigeria.

One thing the Abarikwus choose not to do is tithe at either of two evangelical churches they attend regularly in Scottsdale. "I sit in the audience and I hear the pressure to give the money," says Abarikwu. "But I also know in my heart that this church and the people in my congregation are fairly well-to-do. My mission is more with the people that need help, whether it's in South Phoenix or back home in Nigeria."

When Abarikwu arrived in Phoenix, barely one million people lived in the Valley of the Sun. Now there are nearly four million. Everywhere he looks, he sees new houses, new office buildings, new malls and shopping centers, and connecting them all, his bread and butter: new roads and highways. He is opening a materials-testing lab in the spring. He just qualified for his general contractor's license and thinks he could have a $20-million-a-year company in five years. Which thrills him and fills him with gratitude, and reassures him that what he is doing is in accordance with God's plan for Ogbonna Abarikwu.

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