Why Young Friends Should Consider a Career in Business

At the time that the Religious Society of Friends first began in England, one had to be a member of the Church of England to get into a university. Thus early Friends could not become qualified for professions, and many as a result gravitated to careers in business. The Cadburys, Rowntrees, and Barclays made substantial commercial and ethical contributions to British society in those early days. Similar contributions were made in this country, particularly in Pennsylvania.

Early Friends created a variety of business innovations, a good example being the "one price rule." In 17th-century England buying any product was analogous to buying a used car. Everybody haggled, and different prices were charged to different customers. Friends felt, on ethical grounds, one should establish a fair price for goods and charge it to all customers. Customers could send children to shop and they would return with the correct change. Transactions were simplified, and businesses grew as a result. Now everybody does it the Friends way.

In 1974, David Scull founded Partnership for Productivity Service Foundation to foster the private sector in Kenya. Many small businesses were started, providing goods and employment for a variety of people. Some of these were Kenyan Quakers whom Lee visited during a trip to Africa. People were feeling satisfied and were having fun, and their lives had been changed for the better. The Barclays Bank, 300 years after its founding, was providing funding. They had not forgotten their Quaker roots.

So are these same opportunities available to young Friends today? Can Friends, by choosing a career in business, live in keeping with Friends testimonies of Simplicity and Integrity while making meaningful contributions to society? To us, the answer is an obvious Yes. Business impacts our lives in a myriad of ways. It effects the houses we live in, buildings we work in, jobs we work at, our healthcare, the food we eat, even the magazines we read. Friends Journal is, after all, a business. It may be on a different scale than Time magazine; but it still must attract readers, pay salaries to those who work there, and sell advertisements to those who wish to obtain something in return (Quaker dollars, Quaker students, Quaker retirees) so it can continue to publish articles of interest to its readers.

We know that the impact of our own small company, Universal Woods, reaches way beyond the walls of our business. We provide 85 percent of the cost of healthcare for our 50 employees and another 70 spouses and children. Over the course of the last 10 years, we have increased wages an average of 1.5 percent over the rate of inflation, allowing our employees to improve their standard of living. They are sending children to college; in some cases, buying homes; making car payments; and saving money for retirement (our 401K plan, by the way, includes a socially responsible stock fund as an investment option)—and that is all made possible by the business we run. We have been able to do these things because we have created products that people want to buy and use.

One part of our business, which creates and produces items that can be digitally imaged and sold for signs, awards, name badges, and the like, sells products that provide a core part of the business of over 500 small retailers. Think of all of the people they employ and the impact that has. We provide marketing plans and support that allow them to compete successfully with much larger businesses in making personalized products. We also make warehouse flooring with Medium Density Fibreboard cores, replacing plywood, steel, and concrete, and positively impacting the environment as well as providing a service to our customers. We have also eliminated 100 percent of the hazardous emissions in our own facility during the last ten years, further impacting our environment.

We do all of these things because we think they are good business practices. We also believe our Quaker beliefs tie into those practices in a very clear way. Young Friends who share these beliefs have, when coupled with imagination and schooling, a leg up on their competition in the world of business.

Honesty and personal integrity are at the core of our success and that of most businesses we know. Enron and Tyco may get the headlines, but people want to do business and associate with people who treat them fairly and whom they can trust. There is a picture of a Quaker on the cover of the Quaker Oats box because Quakers symbolized trust and good value when the company began in the 1800s. (Imagine, Quakerism as a consumer brand!)

Other Quaker values are also useful in business. A person practiced in achieving consensus has had to learn to really listen to others and understand what is important to them. That is a vital skill to have on a sales call. A belief that there is that of God in everyone is a good start in understanding the rationale for employee empowerment. It is also useful in doing business with people from the over 30 countries that use our products.

Lee’s favorite story in that regard was when our Indian distributor came to visit our company and opened up his notebook to take notes. It had a picture of Gandhi on its cover. Lee interrupted the meeting in our conference room to invite the distributor down to his office to show him the pictures of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. on his wall. In our lunchroom we have four tables with quotes from King, Gandhi, Edward Deming, and Lee. We call them company value tables because the quotes represent core parts of what we believe and what our company is based on.

Friends have always known that if we want to change the world we live in, we must be a part of that world. When young Friends choose to engage in business they are involved in a fast-changing environment, but they can bring timeless values to it. And they have the opportunity to have an impact far beyond their everyday job.

Paul Neumann

Paul Neumann is the president and CEO of Universal Woods. Lee Thomas is chair of the board of Universal Woods, and he teaches business principles at Bellarmine University School of Business. Both are members of Louisville (Ky.) Meeting.

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