Off the grid and out of the box

December 21st, 2016

Business lessons to be learned from the Amish

By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

The words “Amish country” are likely to bring to mind the same images found on many tourism brochures: horse and buggies, handmade quilts and pies and rolling green farmland.

While not untrue, the picture these words paint is incomplete and, perhaps, a bit outdated.

Northeast Indiana is home to one of the largest Amish settlements in the world. In LaGrange County, the Amish community consists of about 15,000 individuals or about 44 percent of the population.

These days, only about 3 to 5 percent of Amish workers in LaGrange earn their living from agriculture. The majority find work in factories, such as recreational vehicle manufacturing, or own entrepreneurial businesses. With a success rate that far surpasses the national average, the image of today’s Amish isn’t the only thing that warrants a closer look; it seems that there are some businesses lessons to be learned from the Amish model.

Ryne Krock, president and CEO of the LaGrange County Economic Development Corp., grew up in LaGrange and has been at his post for about a year and a half. He said it is exciting to witness the growth of Amish entrepreneurial businesses.

“A month doesn’t go by without me visiting a company that I haven’t met with before and just being blown away by what they’re doing,” he said.

Among these ventures are furniture manufacturers and other wood-working companies, steel and metal-working companies and various cottage industries, such as bakeries and food producers.

Krock has noticed a trend in the growth of Amish businesses.

“There are a lot of Amish businesses that have decided they don’t want to grow as quickly as demand is asking of them because they don’t want that additional work load to take away from their culture,” he said. “I think that’s something any business owner could look at and learn from – steady growth and maintaining their roots rather than letting demand drive their lifestyle.”

Depending on church district, the Amish generally are not connected to the electrical grid and guidelines may dictate the use of phone and internet. However, utilizing less technology doesn’t seem to be disadvantageous for most businesses, Krock said.

“The majority of Amish businesses in LaGrange County are selling wholesale, so they don’t require as much accessibility as long as they’re accessible to their large accounts,” he said.

In fact, several of the county’s Amish wholesalers have had success landing large accounts and are selling their wares to large retailers such as Lowe’s.

“You would think that not utilizing technology as much as other business that it would be hard to get accounts like that, and yet so many of our businesses up here have them,” he said.

Finding success in a niche

Freeman Miller, owner of F & N Woodworking in LaGrange, is one such Amish entrepreneur making strides in the national furniture market. His chair-making operation employs 26 individuals and ships chairs all over the country.

His business card lists a “voicemail” number rather than a “phone” number. That’s because the company’s phone and fax machine are located in a “telephone shack,” a small communications hub that’s separate from the main building. The machines are checked regularly so that calls can be returned in a timely fashion.

That level of connection has to happen, Miller said. Many of his counterparts in Ohio don’t use fax machines and that puts them at a disadvantage.

“Retail people want answers today,” he said. “They don’t want to wait two days, so it’s that type of communication that we continually have to do.”

Two generators and a battery back-up power the operation, which includes two Italian-made, computerized machines.

Miller credits a few things to his success and that of other Amish entrepreneurs. A demand for American-made products is one of them.

“We have a niche,” he said. “All we have to do is pay attention to this niche that we’ve got and work with it.”

Working hard and working smart are two more keys to success, he said. Many Amish workers start their days before dawn and finish around 1 p.m.

Most of all, Miller said, it’s the quality of his product and his service that make his business thrive. This is apparent in his cheerful voicemail greeting that ends with: “Remember, have a great day selling chairs,” as well as in his office where several new models of chairs await introduction at the 2017 Northern Indiana Woodcrafters Association Furniture Expo, a show organized by Miller that, this year, will bring together 80 to 90 furniture builders and 300 dealers.

Cross-cultural collaboration

Miller’s chair-making operation, and others like it, rely on Amish and non-Amish partners to provide components, lumber, equipment and shipping. This type of interwoven collaboration between businesses is the norm in LaGrange, Krock said.

Amish and non-Amish business leaders have a lot to learn from each other, he said. This year, he established a business round table with that goal. Once a month, seasoned entrepreneurs or business owners get together, pick a topic and bring with them a young entrepreneur or someone who is interested in it from both cultures with the hopes of providing feedback and helping them be successful, and to bring the cultures closer together through business at a younger age.

So far, it’s working, Krock said.

“Both sides are learning from one another and finding ways to partner,” he said.