Figuring Out Success With the Amish

by Erik Wesner

I’ve spent a lot of time with the Amish these past few years. I first encountered Amish outside of Arthur, Illinois, a rural community where the corn towers overhead and buggy traffic can outnumber the cars. I was working for a Nashville publisher, where I spent the better part of ten years in sales and management. I ended up selling a Bible product in Amish communities, a set of books called the Family Bible Library, a job which took me to over a dozen Amish communities from Pennsylvania to Iowa, and thousands of Amish homes.
As I experienced my firsthand look into the culture, I came to appreciate Amish for the reasons many do—their admirably simple lifestyle, focus on the family, enduring faith. But I also couldn’t help but notice one other thing: their booming businesses. One image always sticks out in my mind: the late-model Mercedes with out-of-state plates, parked outside of a plain-looking Amish cabinet shop, one of the many which populate the Arthur area.
What a contrast. Wealthy suburbanites were traveling from places like Chicago and Indianapolis—hours away—to buy furniture from modest Amish businesses—shops which, as I often found when I tried to get the attention of their owners, were busy. Clearly, the Amish were doing something right. I started to wonder if Amish businesses had any ideas to offer the non-Amish world, and thus was born the idea for my book.

patheos.com/blogs/thehighcalling/2015/08/figuring-out-success-with-the-amish/

I grew up in Kansas and there was a small Amish community about 15 miles from where I lived. There were a couple of Amish restaurants known for their home cooking and a bakery known for its awesome cinnamon rolls and a store where they made furniture. Very well made furniture.

They have an incredible work ethic and they’re fair and evenhanded in their business dealings. They don’t cut corners. They’ honest. They treat customers with respect. I was riding Amtrak once and overheard an Amishman talk on his cellphone to a customer. He was a building contractor. He was honest, straightforward, clear, and there was no doubt about his integrity. I learned a lot about how I ought to deal with people from those few minutes of eavesdropping

My grandparents live in the middle of Amish country in upstate New York. There are different groups/denominations, but my experience with them is very similar to this. Very hardworking, respectful. In that area which has some economic problems, they are incredibly prosperous. They don’t deal much with the “English” by choice, at least there, but some do because of their work. My grandfather hires them frequently to help him with various building projects.

I have heard twice that they whip their horses,leaving scars. That makes me very sad.

I live in Ohio Amish Country. My house was built by an Amish builder, who also happens to be the bishop of his Old Order Amish community. I live on 8 rural acres that was sold to me by an Amish farmer. I looked for land in this area for many years before I found the right piece. It had a little rise, which was the perfect spot for my house, woods, open meadows, a pretty stream, and a natural pond built by beavers.

When it came time to find a builder, my husband and I interviewed over 20 “English” builders. We nearly signed a contract with two of them - until we checked their references and looked at some of their work. We had just about given up hope of building when we made a trip to an Amish lumberyard one day. This yard cuts and mills most of the building and furniture materials for the Amish builders and furniture makers in this area. We figured that if anyone knew good builders, the lumberyard guys would. They gave us strong recommendations for 3.

In the meantime, we drove around the area and found some new builds going on. One builder’s name kept popping up as we looked at the quality of the work. It turns out that he actually built several of our closest neighbors’ homes and they all raved about him. We were warned by some of the locals that he was in high demand and had a very long waiting list. He does no advertising at all of any kind. All of his work comes from word of mouth and from his reputation as a fine craftsman, not just a house builder. One of them offered to call him for us, because that might get us moved up his project list. It did. He gives preferential treatment to repeat customers and those they recommend to him.

With our experience in building this house with an Amish builder, let me tell you why
the Amish are so successful in business. He does no advertising at all of any kind. All of his work comes from word of mouth and from his reputation as a fine craftsman, not just a house builder. His waiting list for the start of a project is about 3 yrs. at any given time. During the worst of the building recession, he never stopped building or even slowed down. We had house plans drawn up by a very well-known and pricey architect. In our first meeting, he examined our plans very carefully and made notes. Then, he sat and asked us questions about how we plan to live in our new house, what we liked and didn’t like about other houses we had lived in, what our dream house would be like if cost was no object, and what were the “must have” and the “nice to have, but not mandatory” in every room of the house. This went on for over 3 hours and by the end of that time, we felt like he was an old friend. He sent us home and asked us to give him a week to "think:

We went back to his workshop the following week. On his drafting table, he had a new set of plans that he had drawn himself. He went through them, room by room, wall by wall, and even down to the placement of the electrical outlets and light switches. Both my husband and I were astounded! He had perfectly captured our dream house much better than the original plans by the pricey architect did. With just a few minor tweaks, we had our house on paper. He gave us the cost sheet a couple of days later and it was calculated so carefully down to the penny that his house plan, which was the far more complicated and full of details that we hadn’t even considered before he suggested them, and far more upscale finishes, came in $100,000 under the original plan.

We took his cost estimate sheet and 2 page “contract” to our attorney. When he saw the name of the builder, who is quite well-known in our area, he said “Oh…Roy’s your builder? That’s good enough. I don’t even need to review this. His word is his contract.”

Well…that was exactly right. Roy promised delivery of the completed house in 120 days - almost a miracle in itself for a very complicated 4000 sq ft house. We were lucky and got a long run that summer of perfect weather. It was finished in 92 days. His Amish crews worked from 6:00 am to dark, 6 days a week. Roy had estimated the materials so carefully that at the end, there was less than 1/2 a dumpster full of waste to haul away and that was mostly packing materials. And the best part…the house actually came in even under his estimate.

So what can “English” business learn from the Amish? I have a beautiful home with amazing finish details, solid cherry handmade cabinetry, cherry floors, a walk-out finished basement, an amazing sunroom that has become my favorite room in the house, a great room with a hand-laid stone fireplace, a wall of windows, and a 23 ft open ceiling. I have a kitchen designed for cooking and baking that wowed a kitchen designer from the big city. All of this came in the form of suggestions made by my builder after he sat and asked us all those questions. He listened to us and he cared about making us happy and he delivered on all his promises and all his estimates. In short, he made his customers happy and he kept his word to us. I think that’s all anyone really asks of any business.

I can’t speak for every single Amish, but I live among the Amish in Ohio Amish country and consider many of them friends. I’m a horse person myself and I can tell you without any hesitation that none that I know would intentionally harm a fly, let alone damage their horses like that. I’ve seen them cry when they had to put down a lame horse in pain when no vet could help. From my own observations, their horses are treated better than some “English” person’s children.

That is good to know. I do know of two rescued from an animal shelter who were whipped by their Amish owners, but maybe that is a minority.

I don’t doubt that there may be isolated situations of animal cruelty, just as there are isolated situations among us “English” as well. There are bad seeds in every culture, including the Amish. But just as our own culture condemns animal cruelty as unacceptable, their does too, and for an even more obvious reason. They are dependent on their horses for transportation and to work their fields. Outside of their homes and farm land, their horses are their most important assets. It wouldn’t make much sense for them to incapacitate the very means that provide them with mobility and income. Amish children are taught to have a reverence for the family’s horses because their theology teaches that the horse was a gift to mankind from God. Their barns and the horses’ stall are usually cleaner than some people’s houses. Most vets will tell you that it’s rare to find thrush (a bacterial disease caused by dirty hooves and horses standing in manure) in Amish horses.

A few Amish operate “puppy mills,” but you find bad examples in every society.

Some people tend to think of the Plain as harsh, strict, uncaring, and unfeeling people. It’s no more true of them than anyone else.

You know how Amish kids grow up and have their little bit of time in the secular world before officially deciding if they’re going to stay Amish or go do something else? I have been wishing for some time that Amish kids on the edge of adulthood were more likely- instead of the secular thing- to explore the campus communities of solid Christian schools, whether it’s a Bible school, liberal arts, maybe some Catholic colleges and universities as well. Maybe that means enrolling, maybe it just means auditing a few classes and being around campus life while doing some other things in the community. I think that both sides of that interaction would learn a lot more from each other than they might initially expect, especially Evangelical Christians given that the Amish movement sort of split off from the rest of Protestantism and isolated itself to a certain extent. Perhaps this would be a way for the Amish to reconnect with the rest of Protestantism, and for Protestants to reconnect with something valuable that they don’t tend to see much of firsthand.

For the record, if this were the premise of a reality TV show, I would find that to be much more watchable than the current thing that tends to happen on Amish reality shows. The whole decision making process is approached as if young Amish people have two options- be Amish and mostly withdraw from society, or reject being Amish and be totally secular. I’d like to see more things happen where young Amish people have a chance to get to know people their own age who are equally committed to some other form of Christianity, and just create a situation where they can learn something from each other. Then maybe that informs a later decision on a longer timescale, but you have some time to spend when that’s not really the focus.

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