Unearthing the Secrets
I pull my truck into the drive, unsure whether to continue. It’s midafternoon,
and I’m down on my numbers for the day, so I decide
to press the gas. Riding down the long dirt lane toward the weathered
farmhouse, it takes me a minute to register what’s missing: power lines.
As I grab my sample case, I am unusually apprehensive. In my sixth
season selling books for Nashville’s Southwestern Company, I rarely
flinch when approaching a prospect—from big brick homes manned by
stare-you-down after-work dads to backwoods trailers, where you don’t
know whether to expect a handshake or the barrel of a Winchester.
But somehow the unassuming head-scarved figure standing in the yard
intimidates me in a way that others never have.
As I approach the housewife, I notice her two young girls, seated
at the picnic table nearby, conversing in a language that’s clearly not
This sales call falls flat; I sell no books today. Later, I find out that
Amish speak their own dialect at home and that Amish women rarely
make large purchases without the counsel of their husbands—a few of
many lessons I would learn doing business in Amish communities.
Some five years, twenty settlements, and five thousand Amish homes
later, the Amish don’t seem so odd anymore. In fact, in a wired America
that opts for Amazon and online searches, they turned out to be ideal
prospects. While the eighth-grade-educated Amish didn’t respond to
my college-prep materials, a follow-up with a Bible-oriented product
proved a huge hit. In Amish communities from Illinois to Indiana to
Pennsylvania, the Family Bible Library set rests on many bookshelves,
a classic that is treasured and passed from one generation to the next.
Salespeople get a bad rap. Direct sellers, in particular, often find
themselves stuck somewhere between trial lawyers and repo men in the
public estimation. They’re pushy, untrustworthy, sell suspect products,
and usually don’t take no for an answer.
At least that’s the stereotype.
Working an eighty-hour week, visiting thirty-plus homes a day,
enduring the doldrums of refusal in an entrepreneurial pressure cooker
over an intense three months would bemost people’s idea of a miserable
way to spend a summer. But in terms of raw business training, there is
perhaps no better preparation in learning human nature, organization,
and self-management, and in overcoming challenges. As the thousands
of company alumni who’ve done the job successfully over the years
can attest—including leading businesspeople, state governors, authors,
doctors, and teachers, among others—it’s an experience that can shape
a person in important ways.
Doing business with Amish in communities from Kalona, Iowa,
to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I enjoyed a firsthand look into their own
successful businesses. Many of my Amish customers signed the dotted
line amid the din of a bustling furniture-making facility or leaning over
the counter of an at-home retail shop. Later, studying the Amish as a
research fellow at Lancaster County’s Elizabethtown College, writing
an Amish-themed blog, as well as living and working among them,
I gained a deeper appreciation for Amish society. Though I quickly
learned that Amish are as human as the rest of us, I came to admire
them for the qualities that typically attract outsiders: their sense of
simplicity and honesty, and their emphasis on community.
I often saw evidence of these traits in business dealings with Amish
as well, which, as it turned out, gave a clue as to why Amish companies
were flourishing. The ability of Amish people—many of whom are
sharp and streetwise in a way that seems to belie the ‘‘in the world but
not of the world’’ faith tenet—to succeed in the arena of business was
also something I came to appreciate. After reading Donald Kraybill and
Steven Nolt’s Amish Enterprise—a sociological exploration of the Amish
business phenomenon—I began to wonder if the Amish business story
had something to offer the rest of us. It turns out it does.
Delving deeper into Amish entrepreneurship revealed a community
thriving in ways not just linked to the bottom line. In researching
this book, I focused on the two largest—and arguably most
entrepreneurial—Amish settlements, in Holmes County, Ohio, and
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I interviewed sixty Amish firm owners
employing roughly four hundred employees, chosen from across the
size and experience spectrum. They include contractors who have spent
years building in up-and-down markets, accountants, wholesalers, a
buggy builder, and custom furniture makers who create plush bedroom
sets for wealthy suburbanites. Some are second-generation businesses,
but most were started by the current owner. Most operate as sole
proprietorships, often in direct competition with one another.
As Kraybill and Nolt explain, the societal shift from agriculture into
small business has enabled Amish to maintain a plain lifestyle, support
large families, and ultimately keep their children in the faith. In these
and in other areas they’ve had resounding success.
But—as I learned the hard way—speaking with Amish about
success is not always easy. I recall asking a nationally known Amish
manufacturer to share a few ‘‘words of wisdom’’ on a management
question. His terse reply: ‘‘I don’t have any words of wisdom.’’ Full stop.
Only after a considerable pause, and further prodding and softening of
the terminology, would he continue to offer his thoughts.
Sometimes, praising an Amishman’s business skills can border on
the offensive. Asked about success, the typical Amishman, accustomed
to avoiding gross feelich (‘‘big feeling’’), will more likely point to external
factors than to himself as the cause. Instinct says, ‘‘It’s not me; it’s
something else’’—God, employees, good fortune.
That said, Amish do recognize business success, though the definition
of success itself can vary somewhat from the popular perception.
Concepts such as personal advancement and a high-consumption
lifestyle factor less prominently, if at all. Rather, Amish tend to keep
in mind that business is first a means to realize core goals, ones which
don’t usually come right to mind when thinking ‘‘business prosperity.’’
When it comes to those goals, ambitionsmay vary from individual to
individual, but certain aims repeat themselves. Family and preservation
of lifestyle. Passing something of value on to the next generation. And, of
course, the ultimate: getting everyone into heaven.
Amish business owners enjoy certain advantages as members of
their communities. Among other things, they benefit from a quality
Amish labor force, intrinsic market appeal to the non-Amish public,
and community relationships that foster bonds of trust and help to
reduce costs in areas such as hiring and firing.
At the same time, Amish business owners face numerous obstacles
resulting from the cultural restrictions of their communities. These
include constraints on the ownership and use of technology, which
reduce efficiency and add expense; cultural taboos, which can hamstring
product promotion to the non-Amish public; and, for the most part, a
lack of legal protection, since Amish do not sue, at times leaving them
exposed to unscrupulous outsiders.
Resources and restraints act against each other in the Amish business
arena. Yet, in the end, it’s the entrepreneurs themselves that make the
vital difference in entrepreneurial success, and it’s from them that we
can learn lessons for businesses in any culture.
The voices contained in this book express Amish ideas on business
success. And, like the Amish, I take the concept to mean more than
just the bottom line. As Amish well understand, ‘‘business success’’
incorporates the financial aspect. Yet the idea goes further. I explore
business success in the traditional monetary sense, while looking beyond
the numbers to examine deeper meanings of the concept, and their
relevance for modern business owners as well.
As I researched Amish business success, a few key concepts emerged.
Foremost are two: Business is a vehicle for something more important.
And, you can’t do it all on your own. The tight-knit Amish realize that
it takes strong relationships—forged with employees, customers, other
companies, and other members of the community—to achieve success.
In the following pages, we’ll examine how Amish hire, sell, create,
learn, market, and manage, all while keeping these concepts in mind.
The Amish voices you’ll hear may sound quaint at times. In other cases
they may sound like any neighbor.
One thing is certain, though. The principles these remarkable
businesspeople illustrate, reflective of human nature and raw business
realities, are universal enough to apply in any arena—whether you
prefer ‘‘talking Deitsch’’ or just plain English.
Raleigh, North Carolina
Excerpted from Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive by Erik Wesner Copyright© 2010 by Erik Wesner. Excerpted by permission of Jossey-Bass, a division of John Wiley and Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.