Review: The ServiceMaster Story

the servicemaster story

The ServiceMaster Story, Albert M. Erisman. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A history of ServiceMaster, attributing its success to its ability to hold four ethical principles in tension and to the five leaders, who like overlapping shingles, led the company for over 70 years, including 29 consecutive years of revenue growth.

This book is fundamentally about four principles and five men, and the company that became known as ServiceMaster.

Four principles:

  1. To Honor God in All We Do
  2. To Help People Develop
  3. To Pursue Excellence
  4. To Grow Profitably

At one point, the last three principles were portrayed as arms balanced on the fulcrum of the first, to honor God in all we do. Erisman traces the development of the principles from early versions by founder Marion Wade, to this version, which existed for most of the company’s history and is still referenced by some franchisees. The first two were perceived as the ends, served by the other two, and this, in the author’s mind, was significant to the success of the company. Honoring God by acting with integrity, and valuing developing people as an end, rather than the means to profit led to highly motivated service employees, and management who valued them. It also led to the development of disciplined, highly ethical, and competent leadership.

This was done within a creative tension that valued excellence in products and services that made them an industry leader, and steady, profitable growth up until about the year 2000. The tension was not easy to maintain, and Erisman traces the questioning of investors of the religious commitment at the heart of the company, particularly as the company went public, and as it acquired diverse service lines.

The five men who led the company between its beginnings in 1929 and 2003 served as “overlapping shingles” to each other, developed by and succeeding each earlier leaders who remained in the mix bringing wisdom, continuity, and complementary strengths. The five were:

  1. Marion Wade, the founder who started out in 1929 with a moth-proofing business that expanded into carpet-cleaning and disaster recovery. Wade not only was an innovator who found better products and processes but he laid down the ethical foundations that became the four principles.
  2. Ken Hansen was hired in 1946 after a stint in Christian ministry. He had strengths in finance, sales, and organization that brought discipline to the company while adhering to and refining the ethical foundations. The company incorporated shortly after he came, first adopted the ServiceMaster name under his leadership, moved into hospital services. He oversaw revenue growth from $1 million in his first year as CEO to $100 million the year after Ken Wessner succeeded him and Hansen became Chairman. He played a critical role in developing the “overlapping shingles” ideal of succession, serving under Wade and mentoring and collaborating with Wessner,
  3. Ken Wessner came to ServiceMaster in 1954, worked his way up through the company, leading ServiceMaster Industries, and its hospital services division. Wessner was responsible for finalizing the Four Principles, led the company into international expansion and research. His strength was processes and systems.
  4. Bill Pollard joined the company as an Executive Vice President, leaving a legal career, in 1977. Pollard became CEO in 1983 and led the company into the acquisition of other complementary service companies, beginning with Terminix and Merry Maids. A real focus of Pollard’s work was to ensure the training of service workers in these businesses in the company’s principles and their implementation, particularly the intrinsic value of the person.
  5. Carlos Cantu came into the company with the Terminix acquisition and became CEO in 1994. He continued the pattern of acquisitions developed by Pollard, but stomach cancer forced him to step out of the CEO position in 1999, at which time Pollard re-assumed the reins, as both Chairman and CEO

This began a transition as the company dealt with debt load from acquisitions, a changing marketplace, integrating acquisitions into the company’s culture, and dealing with pressures testing the company’s commitment to the four principles. Erisman deals more briefly with the post-2000 company that began to move away from the four principles under a revolving door of CEOs, spinoffs of parts of the company, including the powerhouse industrial services, acquisition by a private equity firm, and a move from the Chicago area to Memphis. It is a story of fluctuating revenues, transitions in personnel, and more importantly, the Four Principles, in which the first two were downgraded, with a greater focus on profitability.

This is a fascinating case study of whether religious principles could serve as an effective framework for a company, particularly work done to honor God and value the worker. The evidence of the narrative, summarized in a chart of revenue growth from 1957 to 2000 on page 203, argues for a strong “yes.”

This leaves a question. What happened after 2000? Erisman’s account made me wonder about earlier decisions. Until Bill Pollard, people were developed within the company with a vision of succession, the overlapping shingles. By the end of Pollard’s second term as CEO, there were no overlapping shingles, and the company went outside for its next CEO. One wonders if there needed to be an expansion of principle two to the personal development of top leadership. It also seemed that the company became less disciplined in its growth. After early acquisitions that were carefully integrated, the subsequent ones seemed less so, and the flurry of acquisitions incurred significant debt loads, along with the challenge of meshing competing organizational cultures.

All this suggests to me that both principle and people (as well as sound business practice) are crucial to developing and sustaining great companies–whether ServiceMaster or Starbucks. Erisman shows the dangers when profit becomes an end to itself divorced from God-shaped integrity and the intrinsic dignity and value of an organization’s people. Great businesses, such as ServiceMaster from 1957 to 2003, hold these in a creative tension. For those asking whether business may be done Christianly, Erisman offers an extensively researched case study of how this was done in one company at a high level for decades, and the challenges to be faced in sustaining that commitment over the life cycle of a company, and beyond one’s own leadership tenure.

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I received a copy of this book from the author. The views expressed in this review are my own.

Review: BAM Global Movement

BAM Global Movement

BAM Global MovementGea Gort & Mats Tunehag, Foreword by Albert M. Erisman. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A compendium of short chapters on the theology and theory of the Business as Mission movement combined with thirty stories of practitioners.

BAM is an acronym for Business as Mission, sometimes called “transformational business” or “kingdom companies” or “Great Commission companies.” The idea is the formation of businesses run on biblical principles to advance God’s purposes in the world. Mat’s Tunehag summarizes this as follows:

“The first global think tank on BAM (2003-4) and the Lausanne paper on BAM (2004) helped catalyze a common global understanding of the concept. It sought to address how businesses can:

  • serve people
  • align with God’s purposes
  • be good stewards of the planet and
  • make a profit

This is often referred to as the quadruple bottom line. We aim at a positive impact economically, socially, environmentally, and spiritually, which will lead to the holistic transformation of people and societies–to the greater glory of God. We are especially concerned about the world’s poorest and least evangelized peoples” (p. 192).

This book is a “working out” of the principles outlined above. It begins with a Foreword by Albert M. Erisman, a key contributor to Hendrickson’s Theology of Work Project, outlining the key concepts of business and mission set within a theology of the Kingdom of God. Then the book’s co-authors explore a number of issues around Business as Mission with thirty illustrative cases studies of business as mission entrepreneurs working around the globe.

In the first part of the book, Gea Gort sets “BAM in light of a broader movement.” Her first essay sets the tone in asking the question, “Did we shrink the gospel?” and goes on to explore the scope of God’s mission as missiologists like Christopher J. H. Wright have articulated as the calling of all Christians, involving not only efforts to evangelize but a living out of the story of God’s redeeming purposes in “our relationships, communities, structures and world.” She goes on to trace the connection of Business as Mission to the Theology of Work that has developed a much more holistic rather than dualistic vision of the relation of our work to God’s kingdom. The other chapters in this section discuss the transition from donating to investing, the embrace of the local and a theology of place, and a move from individual entrepreneurship to a focus on community where BAM is integrated into the work of church denominations.

Mats Tunehag then writes a series of thought pieces in Part II on “The BAM Concept Explained.” The essays in this section seem to be topical or occasional in nature rather than following some logical sequence of exposition. It begins with an Introduction and case study of BAM as a global movement. This is followed by a discussion of wealth creation, a concept that arises throughout these essays. Wealth is viewed as a good thing flowing from the Creation Mandate, that encourages generosity as well as a capacity to generate financial and other kinds of capital for various stakeholders, alleviates poverty, is coupled with justice, and stewards the creation well.

Tunehag also offers biblical and historical perspectives, a two-part section on “Business as Mission is Bigger than you Think” writing about business as justice, true religion, shalom, stewardship, servant leadership, human dignity, reconciliation, creation care, love of neighbor, great commission, body of Christ, and glorifying God. One essay talks about how BAM can be “smelly!” Another discusses the pitfall of business without mission. The role of BAM in the fight against human trafficking is discussed in providing jobs and restoration and employment that undercuts the economic lure of trafficking.

The stories span the globe, from coffeehouses in London to a Christian “shark tank” in Birmingham, Alabama to a brewery in Amsterdam to a cashew operation in Mozambique. The stories combine descriptions, lessons learned, mistakes, obstacles, and BAM principles. Most of the stories were of Western, Caucasian entrepreneurs, with (if my tally is accurate) one person of color from the U.S. and four non-Western foreign nationals. This conveys an impression of BAM as a predominantly white, Western enterprise, when much of the global missions movement today is increasingly under the leadership of people from the Majority World. I would have liked to see more of these stories, which would have truly conveyed the idea of a global movement.

The book concludes with an adapted version of St Patrick’s prayer in light of business as mission. There are a couple appendices concerned with the idea of wealth creation and an extensive bibliography on business as mission, theology of work, and community transformation.

The value of this work seems to be in its ability to inspire a vision for business as mission. I could see it useful for Christian business groups, a group of business owners and entrepreneurs in a church, and for business and church leaders in dialogue about how BAM might be integrated into the church’s mission. The short chapters coupling theory and practice lend themselves well to lunch hour discussions with limited time, though no study guide is provided. I also see this as useful in a discernment process for someone considering transitioning into a business as mission enterprise, not so much for the “how to’s” as for the vision and principles that might be incorporated into a business as mission plan. Finally, I hope this will serve as a wider introduction to the Business as Mission movement for pastors, denominational and mission leaders that might inspire them to a larger vision of all of the people of God engaged in the mission of God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Accidental Executive

Accidental ExecutiveThe Accidental Executive, by Albert M. Erisman, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2015.

Summary: A former Boeing executive reflects deeply on the biblical character of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and amplifies on these reflections from his own experience in business leadership and interviews with other executives in a highly readable account suitable for discussion groups in business and church settings.

Over the years I’ve seen many people write books that are a variation on the theme of “leadership lessons from the life of….” What sets the good ones apart from others in my opinion is how carefully and closely the author actually remains to the biblical text, not forcing it to affirm things it does not say or speculating or over-psychologizing the text.

This is one of the better examples of this genre in my opinion. It is evident to me that the author, a former Boeing executive, has spent a long time soaking in the narrative of Joseph’s life from his immature beginnings and lack of awareness of how his brothers perceived him, to his formative experiences as a slave where he feared God, worked responsibly and fled sexual temptation, to prison years where he devotes himself to the task at hand, trusts God over the long years as he awaits deliverance, and then forthrightly, and without regard to personal position advises Pharoah with divine insight and good strategic insight cultivated through years of service. Then we see how he copes with fantastic success, confronts the thorny issues of reconciliation with those who betrayed his trust, and his later years.

I thought it of particular interest that Erisman questions some of the later decisions and the lack of apparent consultation on Joseph’s part when he institutes policies that enslave all of Egypt (while his own family enjoys special privilege) and how this might have contributed to the eventual enslavement of Jacobs descendants. This was a new thought to me and I thought reflected well on approach to scripture that doesn’t see accounts of lives like Joseph’s as unvarying hagiographies but rather descriptions of people who both walked with God and made mistakes.

Erisman enriches his reflections by drawing upon his own experience in industry as a Director of Technology for the Boeing Corporation. Discussing Joseph’s patience for example, he talks about a strategy that his R & D folk came up with to make production processes more efficient that was squashed by conflict between two divisions but adopted five years later when assembly was bogged down and needed this solution. He describes meetings he held with his division during a downturn as an example of dealing with fear through utter transparency that did not withhold bad news nor what steps were being taken by the company.

While Erisman’s own experiences often make him aware of subtleties in the text of Genesis, the stories that came out of his interviews with other execs, orginally appearing in ethix.org, gave memorable illustrations that particularly underscored the quality of integrity that ran through Joseph’s life. Perhaps most moving was the example of Wayne Alderson, who turned around Pittron Steel through his “value of the person” campaign, where he provided an office for the union president, spent regular time on the shop floor with employees and regularly thanked them for their work as they finished a shift. Through this he made Pittron profitable, and a buy-out target. When the new owners expressed appreciation for what Alderson had done but did not want him to continue the practices that accomplished these results, Alderson walked away rather than compromise. He also tells the story of Sherron Watkins, who was the whistle-blower at Enron who exposed its fraudulent accounting, at the cost of her job.

Not all the execs lost their jobs however. We also have narratives of Gloria Nelund in the banking industry, Alan Mullaly at Ford, Bill Pollard at Servicemaster and Bonnie Wurzbacher at Coca-Cola among many others who talk about the challenges and opportunities for influence in the business world. And this underscores a final value of this book in revealing that there is no sacred-secular dualism where spiritual work is better than work in the world of business. Erisman concludes his book with a discussion of calling that argues that people can answer the big call of God on their lives in corporate life and the world of business.

The book’s chapters are short and make this ideal for discussions in business and professional groups considering the ethics and spirituality of work. The format also lends itself well to personal reflection and the book, printed on high quality paper, makes a great gift for the business person in one’s life. Church groups that want to gain an appreciation for the world of work and the opportunities for spiritual faithfulness will also find this book a great resource.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”