Jeffrey Cornwall has been in business. He knows what it’s like to worry about balancing budgets.
But in the current economic downturn, he hopes that business owners will keep more than the bottom line in mind. Now director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., he would implore them to focus on the virtue of courage and make decisions justly.
Cornwall has authored or coauthored six books, including Bringing Your Business to Life: The Four Virtues That Will Help You Build a Better Business — and a Better Life, which he coauthored with Michael Naughton, who holds the Moss Endowed Chair in Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
Register correspondent Annamarie Adkins spoke with Cornwall about applying virtues to business practices and what it means to be a “good” entrepreneur — no matter the state of the economy.
You are a convert to Catholicism. What brought you to the Church?
I converted in the early 1980s, a few years after my wife and I were first married. The Catholic intellectual tradition drew me into the Church, particularly the writings of Thomas Merton.
My wife had grown up Catholic, but we decided it would be good for both of us to take the classes together. Going through the process with my wife created a strong foundation for our marriage that has served us well as parents, as business owners, and as members of our community.
Also in the 1980s, I was partner in a health-care company, Atlantic Behavioral Health Systems, located in North Carolina. Our company operated a variety of health-care facilities and programs and employed over 300 people. After nine years of rapid growth, we negotiated the sale of most of our corporation’s business interests.
My faith challenged me to think long and hard about how we treated the various stakeholders of our business. For example, in our business, my partners and I decided early on that we would find ways to share the wealth generated by the business with those who helped us create that wealth — our employees. We did this through various ownership and profit-sharing programs. This is one of my own personal stories that I share in our book. We also have stories from several other entrepreneurs about how their faith informed their practices in business.
How has your faith altered your perspective about the purpose of business?
Focusing on the bottom line is necessary for a business to survive and thrive. My faith has helped me to understand that while it is necessary to run a financially sound business, it is not sufficient. It challenged me to ask some important questions: What kind of jobs are we creating for our employees? Are we treating our employees justly in terms of compensation and sharing the fruits of our success? Am I tempering my entrepreneurial aspirations to ensure that I am also being a good spouse and parent? Am I being a good steward of the resources we have in our business — our employees’ labor, our investors’ moneys, and our own talents?
After we sold our company, I was eager to start another venture. I had the deal all lined up and ready to go. Then my wife “put me in time out” from any new businesses. She wanted me to take time to make sure what I really wanted to do next — not to be impulsive by letting my entrepreneurial spirit get the best of me.
It took me weeks to finally settle down and allow myself to truly discern about what I should do next with my life. I eventually realized that I really wanted to get back into teaching and help aspiring young entrepreneurs. My wife’s wisdom helped remind me of the importance of temperance.
There are countless how-to books for business people and prospective entrepreneurs. What niche does your book fill on the bookshelf?
Our book offers a how-to that guides the integration of faith and values into the processes associated with entrepreneurship and business leadership.
One of the entrepreneurs in our book, Luke Wooten, owner of Station West Studio, has made concrete decisions to limit the growth of his business to allow both himself and his employees to have time with their families. He has had numerous offers to greatly expand his operation, but has resisted due to the impact it would have on his time and availability with his family.
He has even created a family friendly recording studio to allow recording artists to bring their children with them while recording in the studio. He has also been known to stop recording, load up all the artists, and take them with him while he coaches his child’s soccer team.
Your book focuses on the two “Vs” of the entrepreneur: vocation and virtue. What is the vocation of the entrepreneur?
Certainly, part of why we work is to make a living and pursue a career. However, vocation speaks to the connection of our faith to what we do in our work as entrepreneurs. This perspective helps to reduce the gaps and divisions between our work and the rest of our lives.
To do this, we have to look at the whole of our lives. And the place we find the whole is the place where we find God helping us live the life we were intended to live. This is the meaning of our vocation.
An entrepreneur who appears several times in our book is Charles Hagood, who is a partner in a large consulting business. He and his partner have always been very careful stewards of their company resources. This has allowed them to create a program that supports employees to go on mission trips while on company pay.
They also cover all travel costs for employees and their family members who go on these mission trips. Their commitment to this program and others is how they integrate their faith into specific practices in their business.
In what ways are the four cardinal virtues important for the entrepreneur?
One of the surprises of working with Dr. Naughton as we first developed our theology class for entrepreneurship students was when I was first exposed to the virtue tradition. I was struck by its explanatory power. The four cardinal virtues — prudence, courage, justice and temperance — helped me to understand more deeply my own experiences as an entrepreneur.
I came to the realization that my actions in business were either good habits or bad habits — that is, either virtues or vices. If I had come to this insight earlier, I may have made better decisions throughout my life, not only as an entrepreneur, but also as a husband, father and church member.
I am certain that I would have limited the growth of our business if I had understood these virtues earlier. I developed a “habit” of pursing any opportunity that made business sense without thinking about how it affected our employees and our families. Understanding the true meaning of the virtue of temperance would have changed my approach to growth and expansion of the business.
What is missing from the current analysis of the economic crisis? Does your book speak to some of the problems plaguing the markets?
The business news of the past couple of months has revealed quite starkly not just the financial instability of our economy but the moral instability of business, as well. The moral collapse of the financial and other major economic sectors was, for the most part, not caused by vicious people, but by people who lost sight of any moral norms in their attempts to achieve their economic goals. Their understanding of their contribution to the wider society was incomplete.
We see a silver lining in all of this, however. The American economy is being driven primarily by small businesses. For the first time in over 100 years, over half of our economy is made up of the output of small businesses under 200 employees. These entrepreneurs have created 78% of all new jobs over the past 20 years. These small businesses are what will pull America out of the current recession.
Our book speaks to these entrepreneurs. We offer them a path that will help them to not only rebuild our economy, but hopefully our culture. We need entrepreneurs to rebuild our economy. We need good entrepreneurs to help us rebuild the moral foundation of our culture.
Annamarie Adkins is based
in St. Paul, Minnesota.