Return on Investment
Long past the conventional retirement age, Hobby Lobby founder David Green seems to be in his prime, touring the nation to promote his new book, Giving It All Away … And Getting It All Back Again: The Way of Living Generously.
“I’m not going anywhere, I’m only 75,” quips Green, who remains CEO of the Oklahoma City-based retailer with projected sales of $4.5 billion this year. “The kids aren’t going to run me off as long as the profits are where they are.”
Green’s profile rose in 2014 when he and his family successfully defended the company’s religious convictions before the U.S. Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby refused to comply with the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act mandate to pay for employee medications that terminate pregnancy after conception. Green’s book recounts how the entire family, including grandchildren, voted to file suit against the government to prevent Hobby Lobby from being forced to provide abortifacients for workers. Without the court victory in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the business faced daily $1.3 million fines that would have put it out of business.
Yet in the wake of those trying times, Hobby Lobby — the world’s largest privately owned arts and crafts retailer — has thrived as never before. The conglomerate now has 780 stores and 35,000 employees in 47 states. The company started in the family garage in 1970 after Green secured a $600 bank loan to buy a chopper and materials for miniature picture frames.
In the past five years, the retail chain giant — which is owned entirely by the family — has given away half its profits.
“Here’s what God can do,” Green told PE News. “God has created this environment where we started with $600 to now giving away hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”
The generosity only seems to have boosted the company’s bottom line. Hobby Lobby opens 50-60 stores annually, all debt-free. And the company is noted for its munificence to workers, with a $15.70 starting hourly wage for full-time employees and an $11 base for part-time help.
“Scripture talks about not withholding good when we have the ability,” says Green, citing Proverbs 3:27. “The biblical thing to do is to care about people. It pays dividends.”
Part of the Hobby Lobby legacy is relinquishing millions in annual revenue by keeping stores closed on Sundays so employees can attend church. Outlets also shut down at 8 p.m. the rest of the week so personnel can get home to families.
Green, who attends an Assemblies of God church in Oklahoma, is a proponent of giving back to God, and he is saddened by the fact that Christians give an average of a paltry 2.6 percent of their income to church.
“God’s Word tells us when we tithe God will bless us,” says Green, one of six children of financially strapped parents who pastored small, rural Church of God congregations in the Southwest. “His blessing is greater than what we give. When we don’t pay tithes, we have a lack of faith and we don’t believe God’s Word.”
DOLING OUT PROFITS
The reputation for benevolence has resulted in the Green family receiving more than 300 requests a month for financial assistance.
“We base our giving decisions on whether the result will be some spiritual change in a person’s life, directly or indirectly,” Green writes in Giving It All Away.
Currently, Green; his wife of 56 years, Barbara; their three children, Steve, Mart, and Darsee; Darsee’s husband, Stan Lett; and nephew Randy Green comprise the committee that makes corporate pecuniary decisions. The panel determines who is on the Hobby Lobby board, the corporation’s investment portfolio, and what organizations or people receive assistance.
“We see ourselves not as owners, but as stewards,” declares Green. “The Bible says God owns it. We accept that.”
The family wealth rests in the Green Stewardship Trust, presently overseen by David, Barbara, and their three children. If the trustees ever decide to sell the company, 90 percent of the proceeds will be funneled into a foundation for ministry purposes.
Consequently, Green has resolved not to bequeath his fortune to his heirs. Any offspring seeking to become a billionaire won’t be able to derail the company, the fate of many a once-prosperous family business. Green currently has 10 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.
“Someone who has ownership has a hook in the company, but this is a whole different paradigm,” says Green, who speaks with a rustic Oklahoma dialect, a deeper-voiced version akin to humorist Will Rogers. “No one can profit off the value of this company, now or in the future.”
All members must agree to Christian tenets and sign agreements that they can’t touch company stock.
“God has taught me that with great wealth and power comes great obligation to the next generation,” Green writes in his book. “No family member, of whatever generation, must ever view Hobby Lobby as his or her source of well-being for all of life.”
In financing ministry efforts, the Greens give priority to projects that disseminate the gospel.
Younger son Steve is president of Hobby Lobby, but most of his time in recent years has been spent preparing for the Nov. 17 opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The state-of-the-art 430,000-square-foot building, once a massive brick refrigerated warehouse, is three blocks south of the U.S. Capitol and cost nearly a billion dollars to buy and renovate.
“We have a Book that has changed the world like nothing else has,” says Steve, author of The Bible in America: What We Believe About the Most Important Book in Our History. The museum will feature more than 1,000 biblical texts and artifacts.
Older son Mart is founder of Mardel, a chain of 35 Christian and education supply stores in the central U.S. He also is on the steering committee of Every Tribe Every Nation, which has formed a digital Bible library as an accessible collection of translations.
The Greens want to see the Bible taught in schools, not just in the U.S., but around the world.
“It’s a big goal, but God is pleased with big goals,” Green says.
Ironically, much of the philanthropy the Greens approve involves higher education. Mart is the only immediate family member to attend college, and that for just one semester. Green says God prompted the family’s initial foray into contributing to academic coffers. The kinfolk notably saved Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from extinction in 2007.
An infusion of $70 million and Mart spending seven years as board chairman returned the Pentecostal school to financial viability.
The Greens have assisted a variety of other Christian schools, including the donation of the former Bradford College campus to the Assemblies of God. In 2007, the family purchased the vacant 18-acre campus in Haverhill, Massachusetts valued at $16.5 million for Northpoint Bible College, and financed $4.5 million worth of renovations to make the site operational. Barbara Green is on the board of Northpoint, previously located in Rhode Island and known as Zion Bible College.
In March, Forbes listed Green as the 81st wealthiest person in the U.S., worth an estimated $6.2 billion.
Green, who began working in a five-and-dime store at age 15, isn’t likely to step down as Hobby Lobby CEO anytime soon.
“I’ve got 20 years at least, don’t I?” Green jokes. “You will see me as a greeter if I’m not the CEO. I don’t want to stay home.”
IMAGE - The Green family members are (from left) Darsee Lett, Mart, David, Barbara, and Steve.