It's payday at Walker Manufacturing, and here comes Bob Walker, ample and smiley, ambling through the clatter and roar on the factory floor in his clean khakis and soft brown shoes, gripping a fistful of checks. This week, he's got the welding department. Next week, it'll be grinding, plastic assembly, receiving, and spare parts. The week after, paint, final assembly, and shipping. Then he'll start over. Walker has 172 people on his payroll. Handing them their pay, in person, is one way he stays connected.
The guys are used to this connect deposit. They lift their masks, remove their gloves, return his smile, and shake his hand. One of them is Tom Grady. He lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 48 miles from the Walker factory in Fort Collins, Colorado. "We'll get snow," Walker explains to a visitor, pausing at Grady's station. "Quite often in Wyoming, because of the wind coming across there, they'll close the roads. Anyway, Tom is a guy"--suddenly the words catch in Walker's throat. When they come again, they're in a higher register. "We go to work at 6:30. He's in the parking lot out here, even on snow days, well before"--another catch. Addressing Grady, he says, "You just don't miss!"
"I promised you and your dad when you hired me I'd be here," Grady says.
"You kept your end of the deal!"
To the visitor Walker says, "We've watched a couple of kids grow up in his family and turn into some good young adults. He's done a lot of good work here."
"Thank you," Grady says. "I appreciate that."
Walker is squinting and his eyes are moist. "Thank you, Tom." And thank the Lord.
* * *
Some aspects of Walker Manufacturing are plainly evident. The company makes riding lawn mowers. In Colorado, not China. It buys raw steel from Nucor's American mills, engines from Kohler in Wisconsin, and other parts from suppliers in the upper Midwest. It sells its all-American mowers to contractors, colleges, hospitals, and public-works departments worldwide (30 percent of its sales are international), and to a dedicated core of lawn "enthusiasts," as Walker calls them--people who don't mind paying up to $18,500 for a fully loaded lawn Corvette. In sum, it's an old-time, American-style, value-adding industrial enterprise, and it's a small business, a $56 million company with a 2.5 percent market share competing against the likes of Toro and John Deere.
Walker is a family business. Bob's dad, Max, was a Kansas cattleman and farmer, born in 1923, who turned a passion for rolling machinery into a sideline making golf carts, off-road transports, tractor-cab coolers, and, ultimately, lawn mowers. Before Max died, in 2011, he passed the business to his two sons, successfully executing a handoff that two-thirds of the 18 million family businesses in America routinely fumble. Bob, who is president, and his brother, Dean, who oversees product design and development, are in their 60s now. They're preparing the next generation, led by Dean's sons Ted and Ryan, both in their early 30s, to take over. Third-generation family businesses are rarer still; only about one in 10 can mow that lawn.
Walker is a good place to work: $11 an hour to start for unskilled labor; twice that or more for experienced welders and machinists; plus profit sharing and a gold-plated health plan that costs $11 a week for single coverage. That's upper-middle range for a non-union shop in this part of the country. Average tenure here is more than 11 years. So that's Walker Manufacturing: American through and through, family owned and operated, sustained by a loyal work force, and led by a man with leaky tear ducts. But if that was all you ever knew, you'd be missing the point. Walker Manufacturing is not merely a business. It's a mission, a Christian mission, whose every action, every attribute, every influence it strives to exert on customers, suppliers, employees, dealers, and the wider world is rooted in the Walkers' faith in God. It's not obvious, and you wouldn't know unless you ask them directly. But the Walkers are Christian entrepreneurs.
According to a just-released survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 75 percent of Americans identify with organized religion, and more than 90 percent of that subset are Christians. Both totals are down since the last Pew survey, in 2007, but the fact remains: We are a religious nation. We are also a nation of God-fearing businesses, as committed to Islam, Judaism, or Christianity as we are to the P&L. Religion's influence can be as logical as a kosher or halal restaurant. It can also be shouted out in the form of Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby--the latter having defended its religious values in the Supreme Court. Yet the blowback from secular businesses against so-called religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas--which sanctioned discrimination against gays--powerfully showed the limits of faith-first business practices.
Faith and the Law
Before he became a religious professional, Jesus was a small businessman--a carpenter. But what presumably came naturally to him--blending faith and business--is a challenge for American entrepreneurs of all creeds. Your beliefs are sacrosanct, legally; your ability to impart them for your business, less so.
Religious discrimination in the workplace Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 affords broad protection to workers against discrimination based on their "sincerely held" religious beliefs, no matter how loopy they may seem to you. On the other hand, you need to be very wary of proselytizing. It's fine to live your faith, and OK to share your beliefs with those who welcome them. But if your advances are unwelcome, that's religious harassment.
Public accommodation The Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for certain businesses to refuse service to customers on the basis of specific criteria, notably race and gender but also religion. But federal law says nothing explicitly about other criteria that may conflict with your religious beliefs. So unless your city or state specifically legislates otherwise--most do not--you may be able to legally discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, for instance, or gender identity. When Randy and Tish McGath, owners of 111 Cakery in Indianapolis, refused a gay couple's request for a commitment ceremony cake last year, they not only caused an uproar; they also violated a local antidiscrimination ordinance. Note to potential discriminators, legal or otherwise: 111 Cakery has since gone out of business.
Contraception coverage Unless they work for a religious organization or certain nonprofits, women are entitled to free birth control under their employer's health plan. The Hobby Lobby ruling didn't change that. The Supreme Court allowed the closely held corporation to exclude from its health care coverage four birth-control methods that the owners objected to on religious grounds, claiming they induce abortion. The right to an abortion is protected, by the way, but there's no law that employers must pay for that procedure.
Does faith beget competitive advantage? There's a saying, sometimes attributed to Napoleon, that God sides with the nation that fields the bigger army. In the case at hand, that would be the Illinoisans of John Deere. But in the battle for dominance in the marketplace, Christian entrepreneurs view their advantage differently. Bill Peel, who directs the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, a self-described "unapologetically Christian" school in Longview, Texas, offered this explanation in an email: "Here's the issue. Faith-based leadership of a company should make a difference in the integrity of a company, the quality of products sold, the way employees are treated, the concern a company shows toward its community, and the disposition of company leaders themselves. All of that should have an impact on profitability. But just as many Christian business leaders have failed ethically (think Ken Lay of Enron), great companies that follow biblical principles aren't necessarily guaranteed success."
What's more, he notes, "business leaders with zero faith can be wonderful people of character whom everyone should respect and who lead incredibly ethical, well-run companies." In other words, you're not damned if you don't.
The first question that has to be settled," Bob Walker says, "is, 'Who owns the business?'" He's sitting behind a big mahogany desk. To his right is a window that frames the Front Range and, in the far distance, shrouded in blue mist, the 14,000-foot Longs Peak. Directly opposite Walker's desk is a painting of a ship at sea in a storm. Two figures are standing on the bridge: the captain, his hands on the wheel, and behind him, Jesus, his hands on the captain's shoulders.
Walker finds the answer to his question in what's become a staple scriptural reference for Christian entrepreneurs: Matthew 25:14-28, the Parable of the Talents. A lord distributes different amounts of talents, or units of currency, among his three servants, and leaves on a long journey. While he's away, two of the servants invest their talents and double their wealth. Well done, he tells each of them upon his return. But the third plays it safe--earning his master's scorn.
Here's how Walker sees that in a business context: We are the servants. God is the master. He has delivered to each of us, on loan, a portion of his bounty. And he doesn't want us standing pat. One could ask why God gives different amounts to different people; Walker sometimes wonders that himself. But "that's not our question to answer," he has decided. For him, the parable is not about equity; it's about return on equity: "Whatever he has given, he wants us to multiply. If we don't, he won't be pleased. We'll be punished."
Multiply the money? Yes, of course. "Sometimes Christians struggle with profit," says Peel. "They shouldn't. God is a god who loves profit." Walker, a LeTourneau graduate, is on board with that: "Profit is not a dirty word in our thinking," he says. "We can't do what we do without profit."
But more than making money, Walker says, business is about multiplying resources and creating opportunities. Here he cites the miracle in which Jesus feeds thousands with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Walker thinks he has something analogous to offer by way of livelihoods, and he likes doing the math. He counts the people on his payroll, plus those on parts suppliers' payrolls, plus the truck drivers who come and go from the plant all day, plus the people who work at Walker dealerships and, not least, anyone who has ever been paid to cut grass with a Walker mower. "My belief," he says, and he chokes up saying it, "is that this little company--and it's just one example--is literally feeding thousands of people." This knock-on effect is real and well-documented, and the reason manufacturing jobs are so critical to the American economy.
Belief never made payroll. It can't insulate you from bad hires, bad processes, a bad economy, or any other risk. Belief confers a different benefit, says Jerry White, director of the Caruth Institute for Entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He likens the entrepreneurial journey to running a never-ending gauntlet of decision making. It's a fearful journey, potentially paralyzing; successful entrepreneurs arm themselves with data, but in the end, learn to trust their gut. Believers, no matter what their faith, have access to a resource that nonbelievers don't, White says, one that "the believer believes has infinite wisdom and power, and has the best interests of everyone at heart. The believer will follow that inner voice. When they get that confirmation, they have clarity. You do this for a while and you develop a sense of confidence."
When the global economy tanked in 2009, Walker Manufacturing got slammed. The impact was sudden and severe. Inventory piled up; cash drained. "The bank began talking funny to us," Walker says. "At one point they suggested, 'We need to send in a consultant.' I was not happy." Consultants are not the ones with infinite wisdom.
There were layoffs, the first in company history: two rounds, totaling about 29 percent of the work force. As the year was winding down, prospects looked bleaker still. "I was asking the Lord what to do," says Walker. "It looked like we were going to have to lay off even some more. My brother and I, we were struggling trying to decide what we should do."
Walker doesn't receive explicit divine guidance often, and never on trivial matters. But he has certain spiritual practices: regular prayer; the 15 minutes he devotes each morning to reading the Bible; the two-mile walk he takes every other day, alone. All are ways of preparing himself to receive what he describes not as an audible command but rather as "a quiet little voice that I hear in my mind, that tells me what I need to do."
What God told Bob Walker to do in late 2009 was to halt the layoffs and instead put small teams of employees to work on community-service projects around town--cutting grass, raking leaves, painting houses. Dean Walker got the same message at about the same time, and together they put the plan into action. "It didn't help with cash flow, but it gave people something to do," says Bob Walker. "It helped get us through December, and sure enough, in January things began to pick up."
Not even the Walker brothers would dare infer a causal connection--the idea, say, that God rewarded them for being good Christians by injecting some divine stimulus into their little corner of the economy. Their faith is more nuanced than that. But they do believe, powerfully, that God is looking out for them. And "if at a macro level you can say, 'Whatever I do, even if I make the wrong decision, God will take care of me,' it's hugely comforting," says David Miller, director of the Faith & Work Initiative at Princeton University. "Even if you totally misread your theological discernment and you make a cataclysmic error, nevertheless, God will take care of you. For those who believe that, the spiritual insurance policy is huge."
Dean Walker refers to the "biblical principle of living peacefully if you can with all men." On the most basic level that means welcoming any qualified job applicant, regardless of religion. The Walkers themselves are Nazarenes, a Protestant denomination whose strictest followers--the Walkers among them--do not smoke or drink. Other Nazarenes work at Walker Manufacturing, but so do people of other faiths and no faith at all. There is a nondenominational chapel service every other Wednesday in the lunchroom, led by Bill Hoffman, a Free Methodist pastor and 38-year employee who works in the warranty department. No one takes attendance--and Inc.'s photographer, sent to document faith on the factory floor, was shooed out of the meeting. Two dozen is a big turnout. "It's just a time of sharing God's word and exhorting somewhat upon it," says Hoffman. The company health plan, by the way, covers all forms of contraception.
On a customer level, it's hard to imagine the Walkers confronting a situation like that of the Christian-owned bakery in Indianapolis that refused service to a gay couple planning a commitment ceremony. But if they ever did, Bob Walker sounds like he might handle it differently. He views homosexuality as "not God's design," and yet he says: "I try to be a person who loves all kinds of people. If they're living a lifestyle that's different from mine, that doesn't mean I'm right and they're wrong."
When wronged by others, the Walkers turn the other cheek. "We walk away," Bob says simply. "We don't sue." If others sue them, they defend themselves, absolutely, though they've gone to court just five times in all the years they've been in business--a remarkable record for a company that for 35 years has been selling gas-powered machines with spinning blades.
Legacy and Adversity
For a Christian business, "the vector of time is different," says Miller. It's not about quarterly returns, as with public companies, or even multiyear returns, as with any private company: "Some would say it's an eternal return," he says. "So, OK, we need to make money. But if we have a few fallow years or quarters, that's OK, because we want to keep the entity whole and healthy for the long haul."
It's been a tough row to hoe since 2009, when Walker Manufacturing lost money. The company broke even the following year and has been profitable since, but it was not until 2014 that total payroll, unit sales, and, critically, profit margins returned to pre-recession levels. This April, heading into mowing season, Walker recorded its third best sales month ever, and is on track to sell close to 6,000 units this year. "We're back in the groove now," Bob Walker says.
The brothers are determined to preserve what they have built--for the sake of themselves, future Walkers, and the relationships they have nurtured with suppliers, customers, and employees. They're motivated, haunted even, by the memory of a catastrophic decision made by their father 47 years ago. Max Walker was a designer first and a businessman second. In 1968, he sold out to a company in Casper, Wyoming, moved his family there, and stayed on as an employee, doing the job he loved best. Within a couple of years, the company was bankrupt. Max lost his job and the Walkers lost their home.
The sons have been parsing the lessons of that traumatic period ever since: One, just as faith can't promise profits, neither can it protect us from stupid decisions; two, they know at least as much as the proverbial other guy about how to run a business; and three, forget selling the company--they want nothing to do ever again with outside investors. "Stay Independent" is the last, critical bullet point in Walker Manufacturing's mission statement (called What We Believe): "Use internally generated finance, product development, and in-house production to keep control and build continuing opportunity."
After the bankruptcy, Max worked construction. He saved his money, kept tinkering, and when a former customer offered him a contract to build a tractor-cab cooler he'd designed, he bought back some of his old equipment from the bank and moved his family to Fort Collins to be closer to the customer. That was in 1974. The cooler business didn't last, but by then Bob and Dean were pitching in, and together they came up with a new product--the original Walker mower.
Today the Walkers own 60 grassy acres east of town on Harmony Road. More than just a work address, it's also a family compound: 200,000 square feet of production facilities, 16,000 square feet of office space, and an upstairs apartment where Max lived until he died and his wife, Margaret, now 91, still lives with a full-time caretaker; most days, Bob joins her there for lunch. The grounds feature a test lawn filled with hillocks, boulders, and flower beds; an airplane hangar and landing strip (the Walker men are all pilots); and the house where Dean Walker and his wife, Suzanne, live. "A lot of people would look at that and think that's really weird, to be this close to your work," says Dean. Those people didn't grow up on a farm. "It's totally natural for me," he says.
Bob has three adult daughters, none of whom have shown any interest in the business. Dean had four sons. The third, Dan, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm the summer after he graduated from college, in 2008. Dan "was the most like me," his father says. "Kind of quiet, kind of reserved, but an intense person. He could have helped me a lot." Dan's death hit his younger brother, Kyle, especially hard. After drifting through college, Kyle eventually moved to Philadelphia, where he works in sales; only recently has he shown any interest in returning home.
That leaves Ted and Ryan. Both are in leadership training, spending time in six functional areas, awaiting the day when one of them might be tapped to lead the company into the next generation. If Bob or Dean has a favorite, they're not saying. Bob refers to Genesis 22, where Abraham, raising his knife, is prepared to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, until God stops him at the last moment and accepts a ram instead: "And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide." And to the book of Samuel, in which the successor to King Saul is found not among Jesse's seven strapping older sons but in David, the youngest, who was off in the fields tending the sheep.
Whoever the next leader turns out to be, critical challenges await, notably what Bob calls government overreach. That's a nondenominational tension, but Christian companies can sometimes feel it more acutely. For instance, Max Walker always believed that workers should be paid promptly, every Monday, for the prior week's work. That was before the company finally gave up trying to keep pace with growing paperwork requirements and it outsourced payroll; now everybody gets paid on Wednesdays. Not a big deal, but what's next?
Those kinds of challenges--revolving "around our freedom to live out our beliefs as we try to apply those in business," as Bob describes it--aren't going away, and they won't get any easier for the next generation. No one's panicking, though. "We talk about getting the right people in the right seat on the bus," Bob says. "Well, that's a scriptural principle. You need to have the guy called, God-anointed, in the right place, and good things can happen." The Lord will provide, he's saying; that's why he's choking up again. But the mortals at Walker will still have to execute.