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Don Flow: How do you live faithfully?

The owner of a major automobile sales company describes how he integrates Christian faith into his business practices while respecting others’ beliefs.

February 16, 2010

Don Flow follows a calling to institutionalize Christian beliefs in a pluralistic marketplace. Using the question of how a Christian lives faithfully in the modern world as his framework, he is building not only a successful enterprise, but also a model for doing business as a Christian leader. Asserting that “wealth, properly considered, is critical for the flourishing of life,” Flow intentionally embodies belief in practice, hoping to transform the business environment in a way that embodies Christian principles.

After doing his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia and working most positions in his father’s large auto sales business, Flow earned a master’s degree in business administration from Wake Forest University. He went on to build his own auto franchise, using his vision of infusing Christian principles in the marketplace. Today, Flow Companies has 900 employees and 31 franchises in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Fayetteville, N.C., and Charlottesville, Va.

Flow spoke with Faith & Leadership about how he has lived out his values in running his business.

Q: How did you know that your calling was to integrate your theology with business?

There was a deep sense of direction in both my prayer life and my personal life. I talked to my dad at length about what my coming back to Winston-Salem would look like. I told him I wanted to start off as a technician [at one of his auto dealerships] and get paid just like that. He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, because I want to come side-by-side with everybody who has done the job.”

I was really fortunate to have a father who said, “I want to encourage you;” [eventually] that meant my borrowing a lot of money, working really hard and thinking about building an organization that would have a slightly different orientation than most people have toward the marketplace.

I began to ask, What is the role of business in society? From that, we developed the three foundations of our company -- covenant with our customers, community with one another and commitment to the common good (of our cities).

Q: How do you describe the nature of profit?

First of all, profit is not accounting. Profit is economic. Profit says that you have to have a return of cost on capital or you’re destroying capital, but once you reach that return, who has a claim on that? Historically, in pure capitalism, we’d say that the stockholders have a 100 percent claim on that. But in a systems model, a lot of people have a claim on that because they enable you to flourish beyond your cost of capital.

Christians struggle with the whole issue of wealth. Wealth as an idol is wrong, but wealth, properly considered, is critical to the flourishing of life. The question is, How do you live faithfully? What are the marks of the Christian faith in the world? That is a defining framework for me.

Q: How do you answer those questions?

There are the following ways to give authentic witness to your faith in the marketplace: One is what I call vocational integrity; that is a person who works in a place that is highly pluralistic and secular. Their credibility is defined by the way they actually do their job. If they want to be heard, they have to do their job with excellence.

The next one I call the United Nations approach. That is for working in an international setting. Finding common language is an extraordinarily important witness for Christians -- respect, truth, responsibility -- defining common language that creates culture and community is a life-giving work. It takes a lot of time. It takes building relationships.

The third way is infusion. Much of business language came out of a particular time and place when religious language was in retreat. It was the highly analytical language of modernity. There was not much language of the heart or of human connection. How do you bring more human language back into the setting? In American culture, we’re infused with instrumentalism in much of our language; you “earn” my respect. That means that people don’t intrinsically deserve respect, they can only gain respect by their actions, which relates respect to capacities and actions.

When you held your child the first time, did you look at your child and say, ‘You’re going to need to earn my respect?” No, what did you do? You said, “I love you.” Now, we fast-forward to 20- some years later, to the first time you meet an employee, and we hear leaders say, “You have to earn my respect.” What changed in those years? We need to start with a fundamental commitment to a person’s well-being. They’ll have to earn my respect for how they do their job, but I need to separate how they do their job from who they are as a human being.

When you fight for that in your company all the time, it becomes a different place. There is no place for someone to be mistreated. That doesn’t mean they can’t be terminated if they’re not performing well, but they can’t be treated in a way that says they are just instruments of production.

Q: How do you infuse the culture of the marketplace with those values?

We have meetings, orientation programs, webcasts, emails and letters…It needs to be reinforced in the culture over and over. Group dynamics have a “forming-storming-norming-performing” dimension. Every time someone new enters the group you’ve got to keep reforming because we’re not static people. Our whole lives are not defined by what we do at work -- every time you have an outside life experience, you’ve got to keep reforming what you are doing inside the marketplace as well.

Q: How do you manage the different levels of commitment that your employees bring to their work?

The more they participate in all of this, the more they begin to internalize it. When we faced this dramatic downturn in the economy, we broke the entire company into small groups. Every single person in the group was in charge of coming forth with ideas. We wanted to say, “We don’t want to cut anybody, if possible, so that means we need to eliminate waste everywhere. When you look at a person, think that, if you could eliminate $4,000 a month [of] waste you could save that person’s job.” It was staggering the ideas that came forth. We saved so much money; it was really incredible.

We have a lot of people that have been with us a long time. I’ve been to so many funerals and weddings and baby showers because that’s part of the connection in life. We’ve tried to institutionalize that.

For instance, we have a foundation where all of our employees’ children get college scholarships. We’re a private company; I don’t need to answer to [shareholders asking,] “How come you didn’t return 0.1 percent more than last year?” We hit a certain rate [of profit] and we say, What is the nature of profit, who does it belong to? Is it the people? Is it the community?

We have an employee emergency fund. If you have a personal emergency, you apply to a council and it funds you.

We also build Habitat for Humanity homes together for the community. One of the great things about [building a house] is that your position does not determine how well you are able to drive a nail. There are a lot of guys who are better at it than I am, so I play the role of servant in that setting. They’re the lead guys and I’m the junior guy.

We are very intentional about how we interact internally, how we interact with the customer and how we interact in our community.

Goodness, truth, beauty, justice and plenty are the five dynamics of a flourishing of life found in both the ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures. We translate that language. We call the good, social capital; truth is intellectual capital; beauty is aesthetic capital; justice we call political capital and plenty we call economic capital. They are all interlinked. In terms of our communities, we try to invest in all five of those areas.

Q: How do you do that in your institution?

We have a saying in our company, “There are no little people and there is no ordinary work.” If you use Paul’s metaphor for the members of a body, each member is important. When you think about an organization, you realize that there is no job that’s not contributing. We train our company leaders through an acronym, SERVE, which means: show respect, earn trust, reach for excellence, value input and energize others.

If you paraphrase Paul and Augustine to say that faith, hope and love are intrinsic human needs, that means three things:

One, there has to be a sense of purpose and something worth believing in institutionally. Humans have a deep-seated need for an expression of faith, of belief. The desire for transcendence is wired into our beings, whatever language you use to describe it. When friends ask me to consult on a company, I will come in and walk around, talking to people. If there is cynicism in the environment, that means there is nothing worth believing in about that company. They’ll say, “There’s nothing special about this place. You can’t really believe the people here.” I’ve heard that a million times.

Secondly, there is the hope that I contribute, that I am significant and make a difference. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “I don’t really care if anything I do matters.” When I was young my mentor used to tell me, “Accountability is the greatest gift you can give to anybody, because that means that their work counts.”

The last [way we institutionalize the idea of vocation] is [through understanding] love as an expression of the need for community, the need for connections. Christian leaders are always thinking, Is there something worth believing in here that is purposeful and that makes a contribution to society? That’s the flourishing of life. Can we describe ourselves that way?

Q: How does the legitimate exercise of power enable a community to flourish?

We’re living with the ramifications of churches having lost their voice [in the business world.] Lay Christians who are dedicated at the heart level have no framework for engaging with the world around them so they collapse everything into politics, which is left or right, very unattractive.

As Christians, you can’t just sit on the bank and critique the current, you’ve got to go out and swim in it. Then once you’re in it enough, you may have a chance to get up near the source of the current with some ideas for reshaping it.

There is a pretty unique opportunity right now for Christians, if we can find the right language. My focus has been on how to help a generation of younger people bring their beliefs into a pluralistic setting so that they learn to live with differences.

You can’t say, “I’m going to leave my beliefs behind and pretend we’re all in this la-la land.” You can’t live like that, but it’s not appropriate in a pluralistic setting to say that my beliefs should be privileged over another’s in all circumstances all the time.

How do we live faithfully with our normative beliefs? What does that faithful presence look like while inviting others? That is the quest for Christian leaders in pluralistic settings. If they could only help unwrap these questions, churches could have a huge impact on the Christian community.

Q: Can you give an example of community work that accomplishes that purpose?

We helped found a program that built 400 homes. [Participants went] through one year of financial [management] training. At the end of the program they had to have learned how to keep a budget for an entire year. We had a graduation class and we placed 400 people in homes. Because of that program, we started an after-school program for kids ages 5 to 15, for tutoring and a whole variety of things. The goal is to keep the kids in school, particularly the guys. We’ve been doing that now for about 15 years and we’ve had a lot of success.

Q: How would you describe the theology of power?

What does theology of power look like in the exercising of it? In Philippians 2 you can see the movement of emptying ourselves of power and intentionally saying, “I don’t use my powers to lord over another, but how do I use my power for good?” The Christian use of power based in this model is to equip another to use their gifts to enable the community to flourish.

The purpose of my equipping you is not simply for self-fulfillment; it is to serve the needs of the community.