There’s no flash or flamboyance in David Green. Even though he founded the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts retail chain and is able to give away millions to Christian organizations, he is a soft-spoken, modest man.
Foremost a Christian, he is also a businessman, a family man and a faithful church member. He does not pursue publicity, is no cosmopolitan trendsetter and prefers a quiet life of work and family.
Yet, he’s been in the news recently over his federal court challenge of Obamacare rules now going into effect. The most recent round went to the president’s lawyers, but the company is appealing.
New government regulations require Hobby Lobby to provide employees with health insurance plans that cover the “morning-after” and “5-day-after” contraceptive pills. If the court ultimately backs the government, Hobby Lobby must comply or pay crippling fines of up to $1.3 million dollars per day ($100 a day for each of the company’s 13,000 employees) until the coverage is provided.
Hobby Lobby, privately held by David Green and his family, does offer employees health insurance that includes coverage for most contraceptives. There is one exception. The Greens refuse to include the “morning after” or similar pills because they may trigger a woman to abort a developing child. The pills work by preventing ovulation or, if an egg is fertilized, it may be prevented from attaching in a woman’s womb, thus killing a life after conception.
A lower federal court acknowledged that the mandate interferes, at least indirectly, with the Greens’ “exercise of [their] sincerely held religious beliefs.” But the judge said, in finding for the government, that the Greens do not face a “substantial burden” in complying with a legitimate federal interest. Their faith was called a “secondary” issue.
In late November, the Greens appealed the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The family’s lawyer, Kyle Duncan, of The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, said they have an unconscionable choice to make. They “either violate the law, or violate their faith.”
David is clear in his stand. In a phone interview with reporters, he said, “These abortion-causing drugs go against our faith. We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate.”
A Sincerely Held Faith
The court did get one thing right about him. His faith in God runs deep.
“My background is the Pentecostal Church of God. What I believe today has a lot to do with my mother and father being pastors. I got it all through them. At church, I saw God do many miracles and at home I saw people of tremendous integrity,” he says.
The Green home in Altus, Oklahoma, was modest, as befits pastoring parents who never served a congregation of more than 100 people. David’s was an early life of hand-me-downs and washing dishes in his school’s cafeteria to earn money for snacks. When a big meal was served at home, it probably meant church members made a love offering of groceries to his parents. Then, there might even be meat on the table.
“We didn’t have a lot of things growing up,” David says. “But then, none of us ever had one cavity, either. Never had one aspirin. Not one prescription. From the time I was born until the time I left home, God provided for us and it was just tremendous to see God at work.”
His five brothers and sisters grew up to be pastors or pastors’ wives. David? He fell in love with retail stores while in high school. He was introduced to his future by T. Texas Tyler, whom he still calls “Mr. Tyler.”
At age 17, David began working for Tyler, who managed McClellan’s five-and-dime store. Typical of small stores at the time, the worn wood floors were squeaky; departments such as housewares, hardware and clothes packed display aisles; and it was exceptionally tidy.
A lot of good things came out of the McClellan’s experience. David learned to keep floors clean, price merchandise properly and focus on keeping customers happy. He also met Barbara, a part-timer in the stationery department. They married when he was 19 and she was 17. Their marriage is still going strong after more than 50 years.
An Arts and Crafts Empire
By 1972, David had spent more than a decade in retail. The needs of his growing family prompted a big step. He and a friend borrowed $600 to start the company that became Hobby Lobby. The first store opened in a 300-square-foot retail space in a suburb of Oklahoma City. Today, there are more than 500 stores in 41 states and sales exceed $1.4 billion a year.
Those are impressive statistics that David puts into perspective.
“The Hobby Lobby business is not ours. That’s the main thing,” he says. “The business is worth billions, and God owns everything—every store and all that’s in it. We just run the place for Him.”
This can be seen in practices that set Hobby Lobby apart from many businesses. The chain’s stores are closed on Sundays. Christian music plays in the background at the stores. Hobby Lobby even employs corporate chaplains, who are helpful to all the staff but never impose on non-Christian employees.
David says there’s another side to running a retail business that draws him: It’s a highly competitive game that he loves to play. On office days, his favorite thing to do is dart out and visit a nearby Hobby Lobby store. He revels in the atmosphere of retail. He enjoys the strategizing involved in how an item is priced and displayed. Will it sell? Or will shoppers pass on it? That’s the game.
He also believes in supporting his employees. The store pays higher than minimum wage as a way to encourage staff to stick with the company.
“I could pay my workers $7.50 an hour. But one little thing and they will just go down the street to work for the same wage,” he says. “I’d much rather pay a few dollars more and have people that will stay and gain experience to do the job well.”
A Joyful Giver
Lest anyone think he sounds too perfect, David admits he has a Peter-like side that comes out sometimes.
“I think about Peter a lot—how he reacted so quickly to things. He was a fire, ready, aim kind of guy. I’ve been accused of that, too. Fire, ready, aim.”
But no one disputes that, like Peter, David can be generous. One of his favorite ways to give is buying permanently closed Walmart stores, which can be remodeled as large churches with a relatively modest investment. These are donated to various conservative, Bible-based churches. Though Pentecostal, he has given buildings to Baptists. Fifty years ago, such a gesture would have been viewed by many Christians with suspicion. It would have been seen as too bold an act of Christian unity.
David has also become a major underwriter of Christian colleges, though he wasn’t much of a student when he was young. “I barely got out of high school myself,” he admits.
His most extravagant gift was to Oral Roberts University. In 2007—only two years before evangelist Oral Roberts died—his university was in deep financial trouble. Though the school had survived previous budget crises, newspapers were reporting that bankruptcy loomed.
“I didn’t know Oral Roberts and I had no reason to help him. But God got ahold of me and made my heart grieve for the kids at his school. And I was concerned about what was happening to colleges and universities that were teaching from a biblical foundation.”
So David went to see Roberts in Tulsa and offered a $70 million bailout, with a proviso. If Roberts took the gift, his son, Richard, had to be removed from the school’s board of trustees. At first, Roberts balked. But when David started for the door, the aging Christian leader stopped him.
Today, the school has been rescued and revived. The budget is healthy, the school is improving its academics and more than 2,400 students are enrolled.
David has given a combined $300 million for building projects at 50 Christian colleges and universities. These include:
• In 2004, he gave a gift of $10.5 million to Liberty University for a building at the university’s law school in Lynchburg, Virginia.
• In 2007, David bought the defunct Bradford College in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The following year, Zion Bible College, an Assembly of God school, agreed to make renovations and upgrades to the campus, so David signed it over. The name changed to Northpoint Bible College.
In addition to all these ventures, David and his son, Steve, have another passion. For years they have been collecting rare Bibles, ancient Christian texts and biblical artifacts. Within the next four years, the Greens will open The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
“God’s Word means so much to us, so this will be a world-class museum,” David says. “Only two things are eternal: God’s Word and a man’s soul.”
Putting God First
There are four keys to success in retail, David Green says in his book, More than a Hobby: How a $600 Startup Became America’s Home and Craft Superstore (Thomas Nelson, 2010). The sequence is important and generally applies to all businesses. The keys are:
1. Run your business in harmony with God’s laws. This will keep you on an ethical footing. Seek to please God in everything you do.
2. Focus on people more than money. Without employees and customers, you’re going nowhere. Make sure you never stop thinking about the customer’s perspective. And make sure you have the right people at the helm in each area.
3. Be a merchant. Notice, he didn’t say a “business-person.” That’s too generic. Your core activity is buying and selling merchandise. That’s what it’s all about. The rest is periphery, or even distraction.
4. Install the proper systems to support the first three keys.