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Hobby Lobby Exec Shares Story of Legacy, Ministry

November 7, 2008

Thirty-six years later, business is booming for the retail chain, which now boasts 407 stores with sales of about $1.8 billion dollars in 2007. The company operates in a 33-state area, with Steve Green serving as president at headquarters in Oklahoma City.

The family built the company not only on sound financial and business plans, but also on a legacy of faith that guides company-wide decisions. Steve Green spoke to Oklahoma Baptist University students Monday, Nov. 3, at the invitation of OBU's Students In Free Enterprise group, sharing how the success of the company yields opportunities for eternal significance.

Green shared about a woman named Marie, a "preacher's kid" and a preacher's wife who had six children of her own - three boys and three girls. Finances were tight for Marie and her husband, Walter. Living in a one-bedroom house, the family's daughters slept in the bedroom, sons bunked in the kitchen, and Marie and Walter slept in the living room. At times, Marie's children had to go to school without shoes, and teachers would provide that staple need. If the girls invited friends over to play, they would put empty containers in the refrigerator so their friends wouldn't see the bare appliance and realize the depth of their poverty.

And yet, despite the family's struggles, Marie had a deep faith, trusting in God to provide and praying for her family. She also had a heart for missions, crocheting doilies to raise money for ministries. Her children caught hold of her faith; five of the six either became licensed ministers or married ministers.

But Marie was most concerned about the one child who didn't choose a ministry career. This son, never the model student, but with an affinity for math, enrolled in a DECA work program in high school and began a retail business he called Hobby Lobby.

Economic sustainability
Green related the growth path of Hobby Lobby, now known as Hobby Lobby Creative Centers, to OBU students. In 1974, the young company's sales were $150,000; in 1975, sales jumped to $750,000 and the company added a second store. "We've always been in a growth pattern," Green said. "We've always grown as quickly and as well as we could."

Yet in 1985, David Green called a family meeting and said he did not see how the company could survive. The oil boom recently had busted, directly affecting the Oklahoma economy. The company decided to simplify its merchandise, abandoning high-end products such as gallery art prints, luggage and ceiling fans.

David Green also felt God telling him, "This isn't your company." He chose to hand over control to God's guidance. And in 1986, the company marked record profits.

Steve Green calls those first 24 years of the company's history "economic sustainability" - building a company that could survive the present and make a profit to survive the future. He said the success was built one day at a time.

"That is what Hobby Lobby was doing, struggling, decision by decision, action by action, making Hobby Lobby the success it is today," Green said. "It was that endurance, that determination, that brought success."
Green referred to the past 12 years of the company's history as years of ministry. But he reiterated to the students that the ministry opportunities were a direct outgrowth of the company's financial foundation and continued success in retail business. Today, thanks to sound financial and business plans of their retail chain, and with Marie's legacy of faith to guide them, the family supports missions and ministries around the world, Green said.

"I don't want you to think ministry became the focus - it didn't, because we're retailers," he said. "But success allowed us to begin a season of ministry."

In 1996, while looking at newspaper advertisements, David Green felt convicted that too many ads touted "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays," with too few stating the truth of the seasonal celebration, a "Merry Christmas." Starting with a quarter-page ad, then a half-page ad, and finally full-page ads, Hobby Lobby became known for sharing a Gospel message through newspaper ads during Christmas, Easter and other holidays.

Today, the ads run in 290 newspapers with a reported readership of 44 million people. The public's response to the ads has been overwhelmingly positive for the retail firm.

In 1997, the company chose to contribute to the ministry of "Book of Hope," a booklet that harmonizes the four Gospels of the Bible into one message, addressing life issues from a Scriptural standpoint. Children and students in more than 100 countries receive the booklets. Hobby Lobby has funded production of 380 million copies of the Book of Hope.

In 1998, company administrators made the radical choice to close their stores on Sunday, their busiest day of the week, joining Christian-owned Chick-Fil-A as the two large chains following the standard.

"It helps our employees by allowing them to spend time with their families and worship," Green said. "That would be our desire."

Also in 1998, the company bought its first retail property to donate to ministry: a veterans' hospital in Little Rock, Ark. So far, Hobby Lobby has purchased 43 properties valued at $200 million, donating them to churches, parachurch ministries and other needs. That same year, they funded the movie project, "End of the Spear," about the martyrdom of five American missionaries in Ecuador by Woadani tribesmen in 1956. They also funded the subsequent documentary, "Through Gates of Splendor."

As the company continued to grow, and ministry opportunities began to arise, the Greens set criteria for giving: they chose to give significantly to a few causes rather than give a little to many causes.

"We have to say, 'no,' a whole lot more than we say, 'yes,' which goes back to the policy to support a few ministries well," Green said. "That means we have to be very good at saying, 'no.'"

In the past decade, Hobby Lobby has added a full-time chaplain to meet employees' needs. They engaged in "Every Home for Christ," an effort to take the Gospel into every home in the world, with a goal of funding the message into 400 million homes; they've nearly funded 200 million already. Most recently, they have stepped in to aid Oral Roberts University in Tulsa out of financial distress, consulting with the university on building a foundation of economic stability.

"We don't need fewer colleges or institutions building faith - we need more of them," Green said.

Green spoke from his personal faith; he and his wife, Jackie, and their six children are members of Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, Okla. He encouraged OBU students to personally consider their faith, noting how important he feels it is for each student to have a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

Marie died before she saw what her son, David, achieved: the successful retail art-supply chain; the affiliated companies such as Mardel and Hemispheres; the missions and ministries support worldwide; and even her own grandson sharing his faith and journey with students in nearby Shawnee.

Without a doubt, Marie could be proud.