The Modest Billionaire

by | Jan 31, 2005 | Business & Marketplace, Finances & Career

Editor’s Note: With Hobby Lobby hitting headlines recently because of its lawsuit against the HHS mandate, Charisma wanted to share this article from 2005. It highlights Founder David Green, who believes God has blessed his business so he can share his money with others.

Could you pick a billionaire out of a crowd of ordinary folks? Probably not this guy.

David Green, listed by Forbes magazine in 2004 as the world’s 514th richest person, doesn’t fit the tycoon stereotype in the least.

The man who runs an empire of successful businesses, including the fast-growing Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store chain, is soft-spoken and appears almost shy. When on the job he often wears khakis and a sport shirt instead of a power suit. His office isn’t plush and full of gadgets but simple and comparatively small, yet it sits on a corner of Green’s mammoth 3-million-square-foot company headquarters.

But it’s not his obvious disregard for luxurious living, or even his quiet, unassuming manner that makes Green a stark contrast to those living the typical lifestyle of the rich and famous. What he counts as valuable makes this man a misfit in the cutthroat world of business.

Green has eternity in mind.

“If we don’t change someone’s life for eternity and we do $1.5 billion in sales—so what?” Green asks. “That’s why we are excited about telling people about Christ because He will affect their lives for eternity.”

As he talks about his relationship with God, Green’s diffident manner drops away and his quiet voice takes on strength and firmness. He doesn’t measure success in dollars and cents or in rising profit margins. But how did a quiet, unpretentious man with a heart for Christ become a leader in the world of competitive retailing?

Small Beginnings
Green’s story began at the age of 7 when he first met Christ and surrendered to Him. His father, a Church of God pastor, led him to the Lord.

“I guess when you’re a PK [preacher’s kid] you get immersed in all that,” Green says. “I have five brothers and sisters, and they are all serving the Lord. Most of them are either pastors or pastors’ wives.”

But Green didn’t fit the full-time ministry mold even then. He was the child who didn’t shine academically.

“When I was in high school I took Distributive Education [DE],” he says. “I wasn’t very good in school, so I enjoyed getting out of school. DE allowed me to get credit for working.”

Two life-changing things happened while Green worked at McClellan’s five and dime store in Altus, Okla., during his junior and senior years. For one, he received his earliest training in business. For another, he met his wife, Barbara.

They married right after high school. She was 17 and he was 19. Their union produced three children and is still going strong after more than 40 years. Barbara has been his partner in business and in ministry.

A 13-year stint with the TG&Y retail chain further prepared Green for his destiny. Then a small thing started him on the road to greatness: Small picture frames.

“In 1970 … there was a little craze about taking some small canvases and paintings, a group of small frames, to put on a wall,” he says. “We saw the opportunity to start manufacturing these frames. We borrowed $600 from the bank and started making them in our garage.”

That low-budget, garage business was just the beginning. The Greens opened a store in 1972. They moved the frame manufacturing business from the garage to the back of the store and sold arts and crafts in the front area. The whole store encompassed only 600 square feet.

Greco Frame & Supply, which is one of the Green’s family of businesses, is still in operation today, although the small-frame trend has given way to larger ones. The arts and crafts business, which became the Hobby Lobby company, propelled the Greens to success.

It wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation, though. For three years David Green kept his TG&Y job. For the first five years of the business, Barbara ran it without taking a salary.

Their hard work paid off. The business expanded. Now it includes 309 Hobby Lobby stores, as well as 19 Mardel Christian and office supply stores.

The Greens also run Crafts Etc!, a wholesale arts and crafts company, and Hemispheres stores, which sell furniture and home furnishings. In addition, the Greens’ Worldwood company manufactures many products sold in the stores, and H.L. Realty is their real estate and property management arm.

A Family Affair
Obviously the Greens have their hands full with so many businesses. Many of the hands helping them belong to family members.

Barbara still comes in to work several days a week. Older son Mart is president of Mardel, and younger son Steve serves as vice president of Hobby Lobby. Nephews Randy Green and Jeff Green run Crafts Etc! and Greco Frame & Supply, while daughter Darsee Lett is the creative director for the stores.

The family are partners in more than the business. Just as Green’s parents influenced their children to serve the Lord, David and Barbara passed that legacy on to their children.

“David’s passion—his drive—has been instilled in his entire family,” Glenn Cranfield says. Cranfield, a lifelong friend of the Greens, is their interim pastor at Lakeside Assembly of God in Oklahoma City. “They want to know Christ and make Him known to others in every area.”

Why have the Greens prospered? Perhaps the answer can be found in the statement of purpose posted for the world to see on Hobby Lobby’s website (hobbylobby.com). It says the company “is committed to honoring the Lord in all we do by operating … in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.”

The statement ends with a bold declaration of faith that is rare today in the world of American business: “We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has prospered. He has been faithful in the past, we will trust Him for our future.”

Adhering to that statement hasn’t been easy. Like the time when the Greens decided to close their stores on Sundays.

“We all started feeling at the same time really that the Lord wanted us to close our stores,” Green says. “It seemed like a contradiction. We have a statement on our website saying that we are trying to run this based on biblical principles, but we had people who would like to go to church and couldn’t.”

At that time the stores sold $100 million in products on Sundays.

“It’s the busiest day per hour,” Green says. “So that was a little bit scary for us, although we decided we should never make our decisions based on dollars and cents. We should make our decisions based on what’s right and wrong.”

They posted a sign on all the stores with this announcement: “Hobby Lobby will be closed on Sundays so that the employees can have the opportunity to worship with their families.”

And the chain continued to prosper.

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