When the Imago Dei Defines a Business Culture

Bob Chapman, chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Companies Inc., gives a TEDx talk at Scott Air Force Base in 2012.

Barry-Wehmiller is a multimillion dollar global engineering/manufacturing company you’ve probably never heard of and yet “touch” multiple times each week. Close to 95% of all the cardboard used in the U.S. is made on a BW machine (that’s virtually every cereal box at your grocery store). 80% of the world’s medicines pass through a BW-engineered centrifuge. BW holds the patent on those little metal clasps on our manila envelopes and makes the pull-off tabs that top most soda cans.

They do it all with about 12,000 employees worldwide. But CEO Bob Chapman doesn’t see them as employees. He sees them as “somebody’s precious children.”

Chapman’s been running the company for decades. But his leadership style—which is all about putting people first—dramatically changed when he began to understand the idea of each person’s deep worth as made in God’s image. He learned it through his Episcopal Church. He’d marveled at the good influence his rector had in shaping the lives of the congregants. Then, Chapman realized that he, too, had a “congregation.” In fact, his congregation at BW was larger and instead of having them in his sphere of care just one hour per week, he had them for 40+. Chapman found himself thinking: “What if we used that time we have people in our care to help shape their life and give them a chance to be who they’re intended to be?”

The query, coupled with Chapman’s epiphany that his workers were not just functions or employees, but someone’s precious child, moved him to chart a new course. Together with other leaders, he wrote what has become known as the corporation’s “Guiding Principles of Leadership” or GPL. It contains elegant language about a corporate culture that builds trust and family; that empowers, listens, and genuinely cares. When the management debuted it to the workforce…it fell flat. One person sent the higher-ups a copy of Enron’s core values; a not-so-subtle challenge that he’d believe the GPL when he saw it in action.

Chapman says he was glad for the challenge as it spurred his team to launch a series of listening sessions with workers. Leaders asked what people’s jobs would look like if the GPL was put into practice. Matt Whiat, a leader with BW’s Leadership Institute, describes some changes made:

  • Break bells on the manufacturing floor were destroyed. “We said, ‘we’re not going to treat people like animals.’” Instead, management would trust line workers to take breaks when needed and not exploit their newfound freedom.
  • All employees were given permission to use company phones (before that privilege was reserved only for the white-collar professionals).
  • Language shifted. For example, instead of asking workers, “What changes can you suggest that would make your workflow more productive?” (which implies that the worker is being inefficient) the query changed to: “What frustrations do you face in your work—and what could be done to address them?”
  • Transparency increased. Job candidates were told about the company’s research on market-rate pay, in that locality, for the specific job being sought. The company committed itself to paying market rates for every position.

The small steps earned company leaders some trust. But the real shift came in the midst of the Great Recession. At one of BW’s divisions, a $30 million order was cancelled. It was a huge challenge and many at BW feared the loss of their jobs. Now BW’s “truly human leadership” concept was on the line.  Chapman decided the company should respond like the family he said it was.

As Whiat explains, “Leaders decided that rather than allowing one group to suffer a lot—losing their jobs—we all should suffer a little.” Bob personally cut his salary to $10,000. More importantly, every company employee was told to take one month’s unpaid leave. They could take it in the time and manner of their choosing—a day or week off here and there or in a lump sum. With the cost savings, Chapman explained in his letter to all workers, not one person would have to be laid off.

This action more than any other convinced the remaining skeptics that the caring language of the GPL was real. The action stimulated empathy. Employees who could afford to go without pay for longer than one month offered to swap time with those who needed more work. Co-workers balanced their leave with one another in ways that helped everyone to manage. And, since BW didn’t lose any workers, as the recession slowly ebbed and business picked up, it didn’t need to go through the expensive process of hiring and training new workers. This gave the company a competitive advantage and allowed it to get back on its financial feet faster. Once things were more stable, BW paid employees back the 401K matches they’d missed out on during their four weeks off.

Given that level of excellent employee care, it’s no surprise that turnover at the company is remarkably low and that children of BW employees have been known to follow in their parents’ footsteps, taking their own positions at the firm. In fact, doing good has helped BW do well: annual corporate revenue growth has averaged around 18 percent. When people like to come to work, feel safe, and trust those they work with, Chapman argues, they are more productive. “Our advantage is simply this,” Whiat says. “We believe in people.”

Dr. Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP). Image: Scott Air Force Base.

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