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Work as flourishing in prison: The power of a ‘triple bottom line’ business

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For much of his life, Pete Ochs was a successful investment banker in Wichita, Kansas. Yet having started his own business and created significant wealth through a series of investments, he struggled to see the value and purpose of it all.

When the market took a turn for the worse, he realized that something needed to change. “After 9/11, our business dropped 50%, and I looked at God and said, ‘don’t you understand what I’ve done for you?’” he explains. “And [God] said, ‘Pete, I don’t want your money. I want your heart.’ And with that revelation, I said, ‘I’m really going to do business differently.’”

What came next can be seen in the pilot episode of Dealmakers, a new film series that highlights the challenges of faithful stewardship through the stories of individual business owners. Combining intimate interviews with compelling on-site footage and storytelling, the film follows Pete as his obedience to God transforms his own ambivalence into an economic life defined by faith and flourishing.

You can watch the trailer below and rent or purchase it here.

Pursuing business with a “kingdom mindset” doesn’t necessarily mean adopting new or experimental business models, but for Pete, his calling came alive through a new approach that brought jobs and skills training to inmates in a maximum security prison.

Prior to the decision to fill jobs via the nearby prison, Pete had aligned his business and investment strategy around a “triple bottom line” mindset, focusing on the integration of economic, social, and spiritual capital. “Really, it centers around three things that we all have to have,” he explains. “One is food, clothing, and shelter; it’s called ‘economic capital’…So we needed to make money. The second thing we all need is all the stuff money can’t buy. I call that ‘social capital’; it’s the things that we do for the common good. And the last thing we need is a moral code by which to live. We need to know what’s right and wrong, and we call that ‘spiritual capital.’”

When an opportunity came to invest in Seat King, a struggling industrial seating company, Pete saw the chance to apply his new, holistic approach.

Based in a small town in Kansas, Seat King was having a hard time attracting skilled labor, prompting Pete to consider a relocation to a nearby prison. “We had the theoretical model of economic, social, and spiritual capital,” he says. “But I’ll have to tell you that when we went inside the prison and saw the desert that that place was, it absolutely opened our eyes up as to what the possibilities could be.”

When operations began in the prison, Pete faced plenty of new challenges, but he also saw the transformative power of business in new and surprising ways, shifting his perspective not only toward the bottom line, but toward the employees and products under his stewardship. “Even though we had this philosophy, I think in the back of my mind I just viewed them [the prisoners] as an asset,” Pete explains. “But it didn’t take very many months until I saw them as people. They were people with the same needs, same stresses, same problems, and maybe even more.”

Although the typical wage for an inmate in Kansas is around 50 cents per day, Seat King offers competitive market-based wages, leading many to earn more than they would on the streets or in comparable positions in the marketplace. Yet as many of the prisoners testify throughout the documentary, the value and transformation they receive goes well beyond the ability to earn money or even learn new, transferable skills.

“I don’t want to leave behind a legacy of just being a murderer,” says one inmate of 22 years, imprisoned since he was 17. “I’m going to make an impact when I get out. I’m an artist, and that’s my goal in life. To not just be this.” For another, the job gave him a newfound respect and acknowledgment of his value and worth. “Here I am 37 years later, finally growing up as a man,” he says. “I can finally make my parents proud.”

The film, which runs about 35 minutes, includes a series of in-depth interviews with employees, each bringing their own personal story of redemption through work, human relationship, and value creation. Overall, it makes for a powerful portrait of the meaning that can be found in business, and showed Pete that, as a business owner, his task was higher and broader than the mere management of resources.

“At some point in time, we understood we weren’t the owners. We were the stewards,” he says. “…You can take more risk if you understand who the true owner is, but it takes a different way of looking at business.”

As Seat King continues to grow, Pete is already making plans to expand the model to other prisons. You can watch the film here.

Image: Dealmakers

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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