The Workplace

In offices, factories, and warehouses, employees of fast-growing companies are telling CEO-turned-minister Mark Cress what they feel they can't tell their bosses

By the time Mark Cress had made it as an entrepreneur, he was in the process of shedding that identity. His conversion began in the summer of 1993, during an eight-week, 9,000-mile trek that would lead him through 35 states and away from his business for good. The trip served as an inward journey, replete with Bible readings and daily prayer. He was looking to effect a sea change in his life, and he was talking long and hard with the chairman of the board.

Few could have foreseen the change in Cress, a self-described "career entrepreneur," who had "wanted to be a business guy" since he was 8 years old. Employees at his company, Success Stories Inc.--which appeared as #137 on the 1993 Inc. 500, a ranking of America's fastest-growing private companies--had even started an office pool, with the winner being the person who could correctly choose the first day Cress would call in from the road. "That first week I got the shakes every time I passed a pay phone," he recalls.

But Cress's employees had underestimated the self-discipline that drove him to wander for 40 days and then some. The shakes soon ceased, no one collected on the pool, and Cress's employees were, in time, reduced to calling him--once on his birthday and again after a close friend's father died. That presented Cress with a fresh revelation: "If the business could survive for eight weeks without me, it could survive a lot longer than that."

A few months later, in December 1993, Cress, then 37, began the process of paring down his life. He sold the majority stake he had in his $1.8-million company, based in Richmond, Va., to his employees, and put his 6,000-square-foot, half-million-dollar lakefront house on the market. "A lot of my friends thought I had had a nervous breakdown," says Cress. "They didn't understand what I was trying to do."

What Cress was trying to do became clearer in April 1996, when he started Inner Active Ministries (IAM), a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, after earning a master's degree in divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Wake Forest, N.C. Today he works with 10 companies, mostly small but fast-growing businesses in North Carolina's Research Triangle area. Cress started out with one employee--himself--which was one greater than his client list. He has since hired two full-time and two part-time chaplains and has opened a second office in Richmond, Va.--all in a year and a half.

Cress shows up at his client companies at regularly appointed hours, makes the rounds, and sees if anyone wants or needs to talk. He wears a polo shirt with a logo ("I AM"), pressed khakis, and thick-soled walking shoes. The book he usually carries is not the Bible, but a daytimer, which he often uses to slap people on the back in good-natured greeting. He wears a pager, and his card, liberally distributed, bears a 24-hour emergency 800 number in red ink and this slogan: "Caring in the Workplace." Inner Active Ministries charges its clients from $16 to $180 per employee per year, depending on the company's size and the level of service delivered. What Cress offers in return is confidentiality and compassion.

As he visits offices, factories, and warehouses Cress positions himself to see a side of the fast-growth experience that most CEOs wouldn't recognize--or would prefer stayed buried at home. The strain that fast growth imposes on employees is largely hidden, visible mainly through its consequences: chronic absenteeism, flagging productivity, sinking morale. There is more sickness and substance abuse than Cress had ever imagined. "A lot of what the employer sees is the tip of the iceberg," he says.

Driving away one day from one of his client companies, Cress relates the plight of one employee, whose manager had noticed that he was often absent and was clearly troubled. But Cress knew more. The man's wife had recently tested positive for HIV. "He refuses to get tested; he doesn't want to know," says Cress.

It's a few minutes before 8 a.m. on a steamy summer morning as Cress pulls his Toyota Corolla into the parking lot of Storr Office Environments, in Raleigh. The company, which designs and furnishes office space, is growing so fast that it has run out of asphalt, and there are cars parked on the lawn out back. Thank God for visitor spaces.

Cress immediately wanders over to a man sitting in his car, who is nursing a morning cigarette and coffee. "Hi, Walt. Everything OK with the house?" Cress explains, "Walt and his wife are getting ready to close on their first house. That's a big step for them. Hey, Ken," Cress says, waving to another employee pulling in for work.

Entering the building, Cress says, "We'll just cruise around first to see where everybody's at." Cress knows when paydays fall at Storr, so he can gauge the mood before he even steps in the door. He knows the company just landed a big contract that could double its sales in three years. Unemployment in the county is less than 2%, and Storr has 35 job openings it's working hard to fill. The company needs to produce, and despite the humanizing presence of Cress, there are harsh reminders to that effect. An emphatic sign in one area of the building warns, THIS IS AN OFFICE, NOT A LOUNGE.

Cress moves in the direction of that admonition, toward the back of the building, meeting and greeting workers as he goes. "Roger had foot surgery four weeks ago. Dave here is headed toward nuptials in a few weeks," he narrates as people enter and exit his orbit. In the rear at the loading dock he exchanges handshakes with a knot of workers. After things quiet down, he zeroes in on one of them. "So how you doin'?"

"OK." Not much eye contact.

Cress has tapped into a wellspring of grief, and he knows it. The man's 27-year-old wife is dying from a rare blood disorder. His son has the disease, too, and his other son was recently killed when he was hit by a bus. Cress later confides that the man routinely misses two days of work a week.

Another worker passes by. "Paul's mother is dying in Miami, and he needs to go see her. But he has no vacation time," Cress says. "So I'll brief the company when she's ready to go, and he'll go on down." Then there's Tony. "Hey, Tony, how's your mama?" Cress asks. She's in Mississippi, where she's preparing for surgery. "Anything I can do for you, let me know. I'll be praying for your mama."

Mark Cress had started three companies before his fourth, Success Stories, took off. The company produced upbeat documentaries about American businesses for syndication to TV stations in eight Atlantic states.

But Cress came to find that success comprised a more tangled narrative. Typical was the case of the manager Cress hired for his Baltimore office, who on his first day of work went to the hospital with a kidney stone. "He had three successive kidney stones after that," Cress recalls. "He didn't work for six or eight weeks. I ended up going up to Baltimore and running the office." In fact, Cress recalls, "the more employees I had, the more issues they had. I wasn't sure I wanted to get involved."

As Cress's former partner, Jess Duboy, recalls: "He was pretty tough on people. He expected them to perform, and he called them on the carpet when they were wrong. That might have bothered him. He felt he had to be tough, but he didn't really like being that way." Cress's impulse to win in business was at war with his softer side. "I felt compassion for the people who worked for me," he says. "I wanted to minister to people in the workplace."

Most people who come out of divinity school look for the relatively safe harbor of a church. "Less than 1% of the students do something like this," says James Cogdill, who taught Cress in the seminary. "This is something with absolutely no concrete support. It really was a step of faith."

But Cress still brought an ingrained pragmatism to his calling. He saw a demand for someone who could give counsel to workers in the hothouse economy of the '90s, for a buffer between hard-pressed employees and hard-charging employers. Cress likens what he does to "dental insurance 10 years ago," a fringe benefit that will evolve into an accepted one. While some would argue that a company has no business tilling the treacherous terrain of its employees' personal lives, Cress contends that the demands of modern-day competition have blurred boundaries, often setting work and home life in direct conflict. Meanwhile, life seems to grow ever more secular and material. "A lot of people have been 'de-churched," says Cress, leaving them nowhere to take their cares. "Seven out of 10 people here don't even have a minister. And we're in the Bible Belt."

The world, as Cress sees it, can be divided into three kinds of people--those "who are in crisis, those who have just had a crisis, and those who are about to have a crisis." Futhermore, he says, if personal crises were ranked on a scale of severity from one to 10, employees would not confide in their employers anything past a grade-4 crisis. "Either they would be too embarrassed, or they would fear they would lose their job." That's where Cress comes in, closing the gap between the ideal of business as one big family and the reality of business as business.

"We've grown in leaps and bounds. There's a lot of pressure to get things out," says Joe Gray, who manages one of the terminals at Estes Express Lines, a trucking company based in Richmond, Va. "In the mornings between 6:30 and 9 it's like fighting a wildfire around here." In an industry littered with the husks of bankruptcy, Estes is growing at a 25% clip. Started without so much as a garage in 1931, it is now a $317-million, 5,000-employee business operating in every state east of the Mississippi. Two of Estes's 65 terminals currently employ Cress.

Rob Estes, the third-generation president of the company, says that as the company grew he "was amazed by the amount of issues people had. Some of these situations were pretty traumatic." He has tried to keep up--by sending personal notes to employees each month on the occasion of a death, an illness, or the birth of a child. Three months after Estes Express Lines first hired Cress to minister to employees at its Raleigh-Durham International Airport location, which employs 2% of the company's workforce, that division accounted for almost as many of Estes's monthly cards as the rest of the business combined. Cress had dug in and found a lot of pain that was going ignored.

Although Cress was ordained as a Southern Baptist and would appear to have fundamentalist leanings, he stresses that his work is nondenominational. "I don't care if they're Jewish, atheist, or Buddhist, this is really about caring for people," he says. "I'm not out there in the parking lot beating people over the head with a Bible." But he's still intense about his work. In his regular sweeps through his client companies, Cress seems incapable of forgetting a name or face, and masterly at attaching a salient life detail to everyone he meets.

Rich Styles, president of AdStreet Inc., a fast-growing ad agency based in Cary, N.C., says: "I was a little apprehensive about Mark. You don't want to get into a sermon every Thursday." But he was drawn to Cress because of his background as an entrepreneur. "He understands what you go through when you have to meet a payroll," Styles says. "He's helped me tremendously. I feel a lot calmer about things now."

Cress stresses that his work is confidential, even though he is hired and paid by the management--and often speaks to managers in general ways about the workforce. He acknowledges that one of his roles is to improve productivity, reduce absenteeism, and increase retention, but he admits he can't yet quantify any impact he's having. Still, Cress knows that he gains his influence by connecting with the rank and file. He sets out to win hearts and minds with a strong initial showing of empathy. At orientation meetings with new client companies, he inevitably encounters workers with family members in the hospital. He makes it a point to go visit them. "Most people don't even know where to turn when they have a problem," notes Cogdill, Cress's former teacher. "If someone like Mark makes a gesture toward them, they will attach themselves to him."

Perhaps it is his follow-through that wins converts: Mark Cress delivers. Jesse Price, owner of an auto junkyard and body shop in Raleigh, noticed Cress at the center of a tent-raising at a church revival meeting. "The first time I realized that that boy was a genuine good old boy was when we were setting up the tent," he recalls. "We were trying to put it up, but he was the only one who really wanted to put it up. He's a doer." Since then, Price's older son has been diagnosed with a rare and lethal form of lymphoma. Cress has spent at least two hours a week with Price and went so far as to fly with the family to Boston to see a cancer specialist.

In order to keep going the extra mile, Cress religiously goes to bed every night by 10 so he can rise by 5. He is frequently at the hospital by 6 a.m. On more than one occasion he has sat and prayed with family members through 11-hour bypass operations. Since setting out on his newfound mission, Cress has not wavered, even when he had compelling reasons to reconsider it.

In selling Success Stories to his employees, back in late 1993, Cress had cosigned the note that allowed them to buy the company. He was on the hook for their debt. In the meantime, he had invested his proceeds in stocks and used the dividends to pay his seminary tuition bills and living expenses. But in January 1996, Cress was called to a special board meeting and was told the business was failing. The directors wanted him back to right the company. But, he says, "I felt confirmed that I was there [in seminary] for a reason. I had already crossed over that line."

He wasn't coming back.

Cress knew that if he didn't return, all his equity might disappear. He and his wife were in the midst of building a new, albeit more modest, house in Raleigh. Just as Cress was receiving his degree, in the spring of 1996, the company failed, forcing him to liquidate his portfolio to pay its debts. Save for the equity in his house, his net worth had evaporated. Today he makes one-tenth the salary he was pulling down at Success Stories. Asked how he feels about such a dramatic shift in his fortunes, Cress hardly pauses before responding: "I'll tell you what. God knows what he's doing. If that hadn't happened, this ministry would have just been a hobby. I would have thought I'd be doing God a favor. I haven't spent one day mourning what happened."

He's been too busy. Cress grew IAM's client base from 6 to 10 companies between last April and July and added four chaplains. He looks for people like himself who have spun out of business and chosen a pastoral route. But for Cress those two worlds seem to overlap, suggesting that maybe the career entrepreneur never left. "This could potentially be a $100-million-a-year operation," says Cress. "I'm convinced we'll minister to 1 million people over the next 10 years. You'll be able to track it. The need's too great; the demand is not going away."

Asked then if IAM is really just another business, Cress quickly notes, "This is a 501(C)3 nonprofit." But he does have a business plan, doesn't he? "It's a strategic ministry plan," he replies.

When Cress set out to find a place to practice, he boiled the choice down to two locales, Raleigh and Jacksonville, Fla. "I tried to explore where God would have me be. It was a matter of prayer," he says. With an assist from Dun & Bradstreet, Cress chose Raleigh after discovering it had a faster rate of business starts.

Cress and his wife live on the outskirts of Raleigh, at the edge of the city's boom, where suburbia melds into tobacco country. Weathered barns and lush, leafy plants sprout from a coppery soil. It's an Old South landscape, standing steadfast against the forces and attitudes of the modern day.

The same might be said of the Cress household. Mark has been married for 21 years. He and his wife, Linda, have two daughters, ages 13 and 16. Linda is a trim, handsome woman with a steady gaze and an equivalent resolve when it comes to her marriage. "I'm a very adaptable person. My role as a wife is to support my husband," she declares. She says that she was not surprised by her husband's seemingly radical career switch. "We always knew the Lord would use him in some special way," she notes.

That is indeed the impression you get as Cress strides through the entrance of the Wake Medical Center, where he is about to visit a woman whom he first met 24 hours earlier--and who now appears to be near death.

Up on the sixth floor, Emma Smith is semiconscious, with an oxygen tube in her nose. She needs open-heart surgery, but her doctors aren't sure she's strong enough to undergo the operation. "Miss Emma," as Cress addresses her, offers him a faint hand. Her daughter, Ann, stands back in one corner of the room as Cress speaks. The TV, beaming from another corner of the room, has been turned down to a respectful drone: Jenny Jones is wading into the daytime audience, wielding her microphone like a cattle prod. Cress speaks tenderly to both Ann and Miss Emma, making familiarity appear instantaneous.

Cress is here because at Estes Express he caught wind that the mother-in-law of terminal manager Joe Gray was in the hospital. She had arrived for a weekend visit and fallen ill, gravely so. Cress then asked Gray if he could swing by the hospital. That was 24 hours ago, and Miss Emma has since taken a turn for the worse. Cress reads a psalm, says a prayer, and offers some gentle words to both daughter and mother. Then he heads for the door. Out in the hall, he says, "My heart is heavy for that family. Ann fears her mama may be getting ready to leave her."

Back out in the car, the minister, so adept at offering up kindnesses to strangers, reverts to his more analytical self. "Joe needs to be here. Ann needs him now," he says. "But Joe's of the old school. He probably hasn't missed a day of work in the last 20 years." Now he punches up Joe on the cell phone. "Joe, I just saw Ann and Miss Emma. You should be prepared to get a call." He is relieved to hear that Joe is headed for the hospital. "That's excellent, Joe. Ann has my pager number. I want you to call me as soon as you hear something more. I want to be here for you, Joe; you're in my prayers."

Edward O. Welles is a senior writer at Inc.