Amish Ex-Farmers Have Business Tips for CEOs

Article excerpt

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in America have never been to high school, don't use electricity, and would sooner love their competitors than sue them.

For generations, the Amish have tended farms tucked away in rural communities like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, motivated by a faith that urged them to be in the world but not of it. But as housing subdivisions and strip malls suck up farmland, many Amish have traded their plows for profits--with remarkable success.

There are nearly 9,000 Amish-run small businesses in North America, according to Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster and a noted expert on the Amish and other Anabaptists. And whereas 50 percent of small businesses fail within the first five years, only 10 percent of Amish-run enterprises have gone belly up.

Despite church strictures against electricity, the Internet, motor vehicles and many forms of advertising, Amish businesses have landed contracts with companies like Kmart and Ralph Lauren, developed nationwide networks of retailers and crafted kitchens for customers from coast to coast.

"The phrase 'Amish millionaire' is no longer an oxymoron," Kraybill says.

Amish expert Erik Wesner explores this surprising success story and offers tips on what other entrepreneurs can learn from the "plain people" in his new book, Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive.

Wesner first encountered the Amish while he was a traveling book salesman in the Midwest. "The business owners were the busiest of anyone," Wesner recalls. "They only had ten minutes to talk to me. But when I did talk to them, they bought books."

At a time of short-sighted speculators, when Wall Street brokers brag of luring widows into bad investments and executives admit to ambitions that outpaced their ability to produce safe cars, the Amish have a unique and compelling ethos, according to Wesner. "The meaning of success in an Amish context tends not to be wealth," he said. "Generally, financial success is a means to an end."

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Those ends include preserving their family-centered lifestyle, working hard at an honest trade and passing a meaningful vocation on to their children. …