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Let Us Now Pray ... for Accu-Fab
 

Three years ago Gregg Page and Dennis Zullig decided that spreading the glory of God -- not making money -- would be their company's top priority. They had no idea how deeply the experience would test their faith.
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The Fellowship of Companies for Christ International aims higher than your basic business-networking organization. It's a group that supplies spiritual inspiration and guidance for born-again-Christian CEOs.

And it runs a Web site where company owners with business concerns can post requests asking other Fellowship members to offer their prayers. "Please pray for wisdom in time management during our busy spring season," a Christian-business owner named Kayla wrote in a typical posting last May. A CEO named Tom sent this message: "I am talking to a candidate to take over the helm of my company as part of an exit strategy. Please pray I make the right decision."

Sometimes the petitions are urgent -- such as the one posted late last spring on behalf of Gregg Page and Dennis Zullig, co-owners of Accu-Fab, a Raleigh, N.C., custom-metal-cabinet manufacturer caught in a bad financial crunch. The company was facing pending bankruptcy, and "their particular industry segment has been hit harder than any that I'm aware of," wrote Steve Campbell, a regional FCCI leader who's become a close adviser to Accu-Fab. "Please pray for God's intervention for a way out & for God's favor to be shown in the people that will be making some very tough decisions."

Page, 42, Accu-Fab's president and CEO, and Zullig, 55, its vice-president of operations, had seen the crisis coming, but with a customer base made up largely of ailing telecom companies, they hadn't been able to turn business around. By last May, Accu-Fab's bankers were threatening to cut off the company's line of credit. By late summer the threats had escalated further. Page and Zullig were facing a demand for immediate repayment of $4.2 million in loans.

Last September, as the pair headed out for a critical meeting with their bankers, Campbell sent FCCI members in Raleigh another prayer request: "Dennis, Gregg, and their attorney are on the way to Charlotte to try to work out something on their bank note, which was just called.... Please pray for God's intervention, that Gregg and Dennis might find favor with the Lord and with man on this financial matter. The business stakes couldn't be higher!"


BY THE BOOK: Dennis Zullig helped draft Accu-Fab's new mission statement.

Still, for Page and Zullig, it wasn't just about the potential death of what only three years earlier had been a fast-growing $11-million business. It wasn't even that if Accu-Fab were forced to liquidate, nearly 100 employees would lose their jobs. Page and Zullig, both devoted evangelical (or born-again) Christians, had committed themselves three years earlier to running Accu-Fab as a "Christ-centered business" -- one that would base its operation on biblical principles and, they hoped, spread their Christian faith. Yet the recent hits Accu-Fab had taken -- namely, the loss of some of its biggest telecom customers and a sudden spike in raw-material costs -- had been devastating. Although Page and Zullig were trying their best to keep Accu-Fab's Christian focus, sticking to their ideals was becoming tough. "We've had a lot of disappointments," says Page. "We've learned some lessons. There's been lots of days that have tested our faith."

This past September, Page, Zullig, their accountant, and two lawyers drove the three hours from Raleigh to Charlotte to meet with Accu-Fab's bankers in a bid to buy the company some time. Just before the meeting, they huddled next to their van in a drizzling rain. They bowed their heads, locked their arms together, and prayed.

Bibles and business plans

It's not as though Accu-Fab is the only U.S. company that's run into difficult times lately. And Page and Zullig certainly aren't the only Christian-business owners who are trying to mix commerce and faith. Open a local Christian-business directory, like the Shepherd's Guide or the Christian Yellow Pages, and you'll find listings for Christian carpenters and landscapers; Christian doctors, dentists, and weight-loss centers; and even Christian karate schools. And it's not just Main Street-type businesses that are proclaiming their faith. There are old-economy Christian steel companies and mining companies and industrial-cleaning companies, and new-economy Christian software companies, too.

When it comes to rallying those company owners, there's no question that evangelical Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, have led the way. The FCCI -- founded in 1981 by six Atlanta-area CEOs -- now claims some 1,500 privately held Christian businesses as members in 150 chapters countrywide. In some areas where the FCCI has full-time organizers, such as the Rocky Mountain region, membership has quadrupled in the past five years. "A lot of company owners really feel the stirring of the Lord," says Larry Albertson, who heads the Rocky Mountain chapter. "There's no doubt about it -- they're being called."

The FCCI, in turn, has helped spawn numerous other Christian business groups -- such as the CEO Institute in Dallas and C12, a Christian-business support group based in Tampa. Indeed, an entire mini-industry of management consultants, business lecturers, and authors has risen up to offer advice to Christian CEOs. Back in the early 1980s, recalls FCCI vice-chairman Larry Burkett, there was only one book -- God Owns My Business -- that Christian-company owners could turn to for guidance. Now there are Christian-business videos and seminars and nearly two dozen Christian-business publications, such as The Leadership Lessons of Jesus, The Leadership Principles of Jesus, God Is My CEO, Business As a Calling, Beyond the Bottom Line, The Word on Management, and Business by The Book.

Of course, the rise in the number of companies that identify themselves as Christian reflects the growth in the number of evangelical Christians in the United States, now estimated at upwards of 80 million. Even Burkett suspects that some percentage of companies claiming to be Christian simply see it as a smart way to market themselves to all those Christian households. "There are certainly people who go around parading Christianity on their sleeves as a method of getting business," he says. However, Burkett and other FCCI leaders insist that for the vast majority of Christian CEOs the motivation runs much deeper, and that the company owners who go to Christian-business seminars and hold workplace Bible-study groups are genuinely trying to run companies that reflect their faith -- even if that means accepting lower profits, and even if it risks offending employees who don't share their beliefs. "The reason they're in business is to represent Jesus Christ," says FCCI president Kent Humphreys. "And they have their Bible in one hand and their business plan in another, and they're trying to integrate the two, and it's tough."

Troubled waters

Accu-Fab CEO Gregg Page took a detour or two before he "got convicted," as he puts it, and devoted himself to his religion. In the 1980s he spent five years on the road as a stage manager for a rock band called Nantucket, which opened for high-volume headliners like AC/DC, Ted Nugent, and Kiss, and yes, he says, he joined in the usual activities of rock-band life. Burned out on the constant travel, he eventually went to work in the custom-sheet-metal business, joining Accu-Fab as a sales rep in 1991. But despite his Southern Baptist upbringing, he was blowing his paychecks on new cars and golf and fishing trips, and was living what he calls a "carnal Christian life." Page says he came to realize that that wasn't enough, and he began to ask himself some larger questions. Those questions came to a head one night in 1993, when he was away on a sales call in Orlando, alone in a Ramada Inn. "I remember being on my hands and knees on the floor of my hotel room, praying," he says. "I had gotten very material focused and wasn't happy." That night, Page recommitted himself to Christ.

He started studying Scripture seriously, and he and his wife got involved with a local Sunday school program, but he was also consumed with work. In 1994 he managed to raise $2.2 million to buy out Accu-Fab's former owners. He began bringing in new customers like Gilbarco and Nortel, as well as new product lines. He drove up annual sales from $4 million to nearly $11 million and designed and built a new 12-acre company headquarters and plant. Yet at times he found that his zeal to grow Accu-Fab and his professed Christian beliefs weren't entirely in sync. He was frequently impatient and intolerant of mistakes. In one two-year stretch in the late 1990s several quality managers and manufacturing managers and a customer-service rep walked out. "I was very performance driven at the expense of courtesy and kindness," says Page. "The Lord sent me through some troubled waters."


MAN WITH A MISSION: A former rock 'n' roll roadie, Gregg Page decided to change his life one night in a Ramada Inn.

Nonetheless, Page is convinced that God stuck with his company. He's certain that divine intervention played a part in sending Dennis Zullig, a veteran corporate manager with experience in sheet-metal manufacturing, to take over as head of Accu-Fab operations in mid-1999. Zullig, who owns a 20% stake in Accu-Fab, has played a key role in prodding Page further along the Christian path. It was Zullig who went to a fall 1999 luncheon that the FCCI organized in downtown Raleigh. From there, he signed up for an eight-week FCCI-sponsored seminar on operating a Christian business. With each session, he grew more certain that Accu-Fab needed to step up its commitment to Christian values.

The idea was hardly a complete departure. Accu-Fab's former owners had also been committed born-again Christians, and when Zullig joined the company, the vast majority of managers, including accountant Tony Strickland and plant manager Jim Nance, shared the faith.

Even so, while Page tried to run the company ethically, in keeping with Christian values, its focus was the same as any other business's, he says: "We were driven by P&L statements and profitability." In talking with Zullig, he became convinced that that wasn't enough. As a Christian CEO, he felt he was called to a "higher performance standard." That, to him, required a deeper commitment to treating customers and employees honestly and fairly -- and to serving as a real witness for his faith. "I wanted us to be a model that would hopefully energize others," he says.

In late 1999 he and Zullig drafted a new company mission statement, which made "operating for the glory of God" Accu-Fab's number one priority. And they soon revamped the company's Web site, phone message, and even its PowerPoint sales pitch to spread the word that Accu-Fab's priorities had changed. Page and Zullig say they knew that making such a public declaration was risky: they might alienate non-Christian customers and would certainly be setting themselves up for more scrutiny. "If you put it out there," says Page, "you gotta live with it."

Can I tell you what the Bible says?

The real challenge was putting the company's new priorities into practice. In early 2000, Accu-Fab was awash in profitable orders from big telecom customers like IBM, Alcatel, and Ericsson, and the company had the means to promote "the Christian-management paradigm shift," as Page puts it.

Early on, at least, that meant more sharing of the wealth. Accu-Fab had long had profit sharing for managers, but in early 2000, Page and Zullig revamped the program to include all employees, and at year-end they passed out $112,000, or 17.2% of net operating income, in bonus checks. The program wasn't entirely magnanimous: part of what the company was aiming to do was to create new incentives to boost productivity. But as Page saw it, divvying up profits was also scripturally sound. "Biblical principles wouldn't support anything else," he says. "You can't amass a personal fortune at the expense of your employees."

Likewise, Page and Zullig tried to impose stricter ethical standards in dealings with customers. "If you're profit motivated, there are plenty of opportunities to take pricing to an extreme," says Page. Plus, it's easy to add charges "where there's a high probability they won't come under scrutiny," he says. Resisting the temptation can be tough. Page, for example, recalls that in mid-2001, Accu-Fab had sent out an invoice to Siemens that included a high markup for copper parts. That prompted a call from a buyer at Siemens who complained that he'd been overcharged. Page says it wasn't a clear case of overbilling, but ultimately he did agree that the pricing had been too aggressive, and he wound up writing Siemens a $16,000 rebate check. And though Page says the refund was probably necessary to salvage a longtime customer, he also believed it was the right thing to do. "The ultimate decision is what is ethically right," he says.

Even before Zullig joined Accu-Fab, Page had tried to spread the Christian message by promoting lunchtime Bible-study sessions and by concluding employee meetings with prayers. With the new mission statement, the two stepped up those efforts. In early 2000 they started a regular Monday-morning corporate prayer time for Accu-Fab's managers. In April of that year they hired Tim Roth, a Christian chaplain from the Raleigh-based Corporate Chaplains of America, to spend two days a week ministering to Accu-Fab's then 140 employees. The staff, says Page, included Muslims, Vietnamese-born Buddhists, "and probably a few agnostics and atheists," along with at least three or four dozen practicing born-again Christians. (He adds that he'd "absolutely" hire a Jewish employee, but he's not aware of any Jews who have applied.)

Roth approached his role as company chaplain as that of a "caregiver," devoting most of his time to things like making hospital visits to sick employees. "When people have a crisis, they have someone to call," says Roth. On occasion he would try to speak to employees about Jesus, he adds, but only when they seemed receptive -- and only after asking if it would be OK. "Everything I do is with permission," he says. "If they ask questions, I'll say, 'Can I tell you what the Bible says about it?"

Page is well aware that civil-liberties advocates might look askance at some of the company's evangelizing. And, in fact, Lewis Maltby, who heads the National Workrights Institute, in Princeton, N.J., says he sees real problems. "It's hard to say no to the prayer breakfast when it's the boss that's inviting you," says Maltby. "It's subtle coercion -- perhaps unintended coercion, but coercion nonetheless."

In interviews for this story, non-Christian employees -- even those speaking off the record -- reported feeling no undue pressure to join in the company's prayer sessions. Yet there are definitely times, they say, when they do feel uncomfortable. "When they say prayers, most people will have their heads down," says Jonathan Roberts, a former press-break operator at the company. "[I'd] just sit there with everybody and look around."

Likewise, former Accu-Fab engineer Tom O'Connor says that when he first started, he felt a little awkward when other employees and managers would ask him if he wanted to sign up for Monday-night Bible-study classes. "At first I used to give excuses, but I let it be known that I just wasn't interested," he says.


KEEPING THE FAITH: Plant manager Jim Nance struggled with the idea of a Christian company undergoing layoffs.

Page and Zullig insist they're really not trying to push their faith on uninterested employees. Or, as Page puts it, "nobody here is beating anybody over the head with Bibles." At the same time, they believe that they have a duty to put the Christian message out there. They're proud that since early 2000 at least 18 Accu-Fab workers have been born again -- including one worker who accepted Christ in the company lunchroom -- and they openly admit they'd like more employees to do the same. "Our hope would be for everybody in the company to accept Christ," says Zullig.

They also wouldn't mind winning over some customers. As part of the company's revamped PowerPoint sales pitch, Page typically spends several minutes discussing the company's Christ-centered focus. And in December 2000 and 2001 he sent customers and vendors inspirational Christian books, such as The Word on Management and the best-selling The Prayer of Jabez, along with a Christmas letter that asked: "Has He been asking you to commit to a new or closer relationship with Him? All you have to do is speak the word 'yes' to begin to receive the comfort only He can provide."

Page says several customers (all of whom were Christian) thanked him for the letter. In some instances, though, Accu-Fab's evangelizing has definitely fallen flat. One customer who did not want to be identified says that after one of Page's sales pitches, two or three employees complained. "Some people were kind of taken aback," says the buyer, who recalls that Page spent the first five minutes talking about Accu-Fab's mission statement. "They thought it was out of place." The buyer, however, has continued doing business with Accu-Fab.

Similarly, after sending out his 2001 Christmas letter, Page got a voice-mail message from a Jewish buyer who asked to be taken off the mailing list. But Page says he's not aware of any instance where Accu-Fab's evangelizing has cost it business -- at least not yet. "The Scripture says we will be put on trial for our beliefs," he says. "That's a price we'll pay."

That's not our problem

Accu-Fab could afford to pay that price in 2000, just as it could afford the $11,000 a year it was spending on a company chaplain and the thousands of dollars that were going toward tithing and profit sharing and mailing out inspirational books. At the time, the company was doing nearly $1 million a month in business. "We were feeling pretty good -- we thought we were doing everything right," says Zullig. "We were just cruising and trying to keep up with demand."

That, though, was before the telecom market crashed. The first signs of trouble came in early 2001, when high-tech customers began scaling back orders. Then, in April, the big blow came. Page got word that the company's largest customer -- the southeastern telecom company Alcatel -- was cutting off all Accu-Fab business. All told, the company was looking at close to a 50% drop in revenue, and Page wasn't sure that nearly $200,000 in bills for pending Alcatel deliveries would ever get paid. Or whether, in the meantime, Accu-Fab would be able to keep meeting payroll and making its loan payments. "There were some scenarios," he says, "that could have killed us."

Back when they drafted their new mission statement, Page and Zullig hadn't imagined any circumstance that would force them to put dozens of people out of work. Suddenly, that's what they were facing. The two men spent long periods in Page's office talking and praying over the situation. "We were looking at sales forecasts and a backlog of orders we couldn't ship," says Page. "There were certain realities we had to face." Those realities kept pointing to layoffs, however, a move that they didn't think a Christian company ought to make. "It goes back to accountability. If you're truly holding yourselves accountable [to employees], you can't make a decision like that," says Page. Adds Zullig: "I kept feeling like we were failing people. The thought kept going through my mind that we were letting people down."

In the end, they laid off 18 full-time staffers, as well as 20 workers from a local handicapped-employees program. "I remember us going through that [layoff] list at least a dozen different times," says Zullig. "But the reality was, we had lost a lot of money, and we had to do something."

The damage might have been worse. According to Zullig, he and Page deliberated over whether they ought to make deeper cuts but opted instead to scale the remaining production workers back to a 32-hour workweek. The company was hoping it would need those workers when new orders came in, but Zullig insists that the bigger motivation was saving jobs. "We didn't just wield the ax and slash to the bone," he says. "If our goal in life was to make money, we would have cut a lot deeper."

Page and Zullig had deliberated just as hard over the company's decision in mid-2001 to acquire Can-Do Tooling, a 15-employee machine-tool company in Raleigh. On the one hand, the purchase fit perfectly with Page's goals of diversifying Accu-Fab's service lines. On the other, Can-Do had been losing money, and given Accu-Fab's own troubles, neither Page nor Zullig was sure the deal was right.

Page, however, points out that Barry Blinson, the owner of Can-Do, was a fellow Christian who had dug himself into a financial hole and needed bailing out. Ultimately, Accu-Fab paid roughly $750,000 to buy Can-Do. It was more than either Page or Zullig believed the company was worth, but they say they chose not to drive a harder bargain because of Blinson's financial straits. In fact, Zullig recalls, Page had actually wanted to pay more to "help a Christian brother. He said, '[Blinson] can't get out of debt with what we're paying.' I said, 'Gregg, come on. That's not our problem."

The decision to buy out Blinson was one that Page and Zullig soon came to regret -- especially after some new machine-tooling projects they were counting on failed to materialize. In the six months after the acquisition, Can-Do ran up $100,000 in losses. That would have been easier to take if the company's core custom-metal-working business had been doing well. But Accu-Fab still hadn't been able to bring in enough new orders to make up for the Alcatel account. By the end of 2001, the company had suffered three straight negative quarters, with losses of nearly $804,000.

In the spring 2001 layoffs, salaried workers had been spared. But by early 2002 Page and Zullig desperately needed to reduce overhead. At a hastily assembled meeting with Accu-Fab's eight top managers, Page and Zullig told the group that the company had to bring down payroll costs by another 20% -- a decrease that they said could come from either eliminating salaried jobs or having all salaried workers, including managers, take a 20% pay cut. The issue was put to a vote, and the management team decided it would be better to save jobs and spread the pain. "Nobody liked either [option], but the majority of people said that's the right thing to do," recalls plant manager Jim Nance. Says Accu-Fab human-resources manager Maureen Beavers: "The thinking was, 'We can weather this, we can handle this. We're not gonna put these people out of work."

During the following months, things got worse. Not only was less work available, but fierce competition meant that the jobs Accu-Fab did get were far less profitable. "Our competitors were bidding these absurd prices, and it was killing us," recalls Zullig. The Bush administration's decision last March to slap tariffs on steel imports spelled more bad news. Suddenly, Accu-Fab was facing an 8% increase in its total costs.

In April and May 2002, Page and Zullig laid off 24 more workers, including half a dozen salaried staffers. By then it was clear to both men that they'd erred badly by not cutting more jobs sooner. "In corporate America, if you have a downturn on Friday, on Monday you come in and slash the employee base. We elected not to do that," Page says. But that decision hurt them. "It ended up deteriorating the equity base and our ability to weather the economic climate," he adds.

As the company's situation worsened, both Page and Zullig were forced to rethink some basic ideas about what it means to run a Christian company. Although they tried to do the right thing by delaying layoffs and buying out Can-Do, says Zullig, those decisions probably cost the company about $800,000 in losses and ended up putting all Accu-Fab's workers in jeopardy. "You need to be pragmatic," says Zullig. "We're not a charitable organization, we're not a nonprofit organization. The lesson we've learned is, we've got a company to run, and it's got to run profitably or it won't exist."

"In hindsight, the Lord expects us to be good stewards," adds Page. "A good steward would ensure the profitability of the business."

A witness in the marketplace

At noontime on a recent Wednesday, close to a dozen employees toted their lunches and their New Testament Bibles to Accu-Fab's main conference room for the company's weekly Scripture-study session. The reading was from John, chapter 3, and Zullig, as he usually does, led the opening prayer and tried to prod discussion about the issues raised in the reading, such as the two sides of Christ (one merciful, one righteous) and what Jesus actually meant in describing the faithful as jars of clay.

Zullig has tried to keep up the Bible-study sessions in spite of Accu-Fab's recent troubles. But last spring, when the company was hemorrhaging money and the bank was threatening to cut off credit, he and Page were forced to make cuts. The company has had to lay off its chaplain and end its practice of sending out inspirational books as Christmas gifts for customers. It no longer pays for managers to attend weekly Christian-business lunches, and it no longer makes charitable donations. Those programs were the very sorts of things that Page and Zullig believed made Accu-Fab a Christian company. But, for now anyway, both men shrug that the programs are an expense the company can't afford.

After the meeting in Charlotte in September, Accu-Fab's bankers agreed to extend the deadline on the loan repayment. As a result, Accu-Fab's financial situation is no longer quite so precarious. But Page and Zullig are still under intense pressure to get the company back to profitability, which will be an uphill battle if the economy doesn't improve.

And yet the two have no plans to redraft the company's mission statement. Even in trying times, they say, they can offer a "Christian witness" in the marketplace by continuing to hold Bible studies and to spread the message to customers and employees. "We still have the same ethics and values," says Zullig. "We just don't have the same resources."

But the past year has given them a whole new understanding of what it actually means to run a business for the glory of God. Above all, says Page, it means managing resources wisely -- and keeping the company whole. "A business is no use to God," he says, "if it's out of business."

Susan Hansen is a former senior editor at Inc.


Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2003




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