Faith at Work - Adam Ross (1964-) CEO
In my next two columns, I want to tell the stories of men who seek integrity at work, men who strive to live by principles, and bring constructive change as a result. I will begin with a Christian businessman whom I will call Adam Ross. Ross is the CEO of Brick Corps, a large, rapidly growing construction firm with annual sales of $5 billion. Ross, somewhat improbably, left his industry for two years to obtain a seminary degree, then returned to construction where his faith shows itself in his desire to construct good buildings while reducing costs, increasing profits, and treating people well.
Construction is a cyclical business. The industry faces booms and busts and individual firms endure them too. Indeed, years can be lean or prosperous, sometimes in defiance of industry trends. That requires firms to stay nimble and develop thoughtful personnel policies. These policies have touched Michelle Strong, an award-winning, forty year old architect at Brick Corps.
After college, Michelle got a job with a small firm, gained experience, and honed her abilities. In time, she accepted an offer at BLK, a prestigious architectural firm. She worked on three year-long projects, including a major league baseball stadium. The week she finished her elements of the stadium, a supervisor called her in, thanked her for her work, and told her to pack up her desk. Michelle had excellent reviews and everyone liked her, but when she finished her project, her firm cut her because they controlled costs and maximized profits through constant layoffs. Strong knew this was BLK's norm when she took the job. Indeed, because everyone knew BLK's model, firms that needed architects tracked their layoffs and Brick Corps hired Michelle soon after she was dismissed. As a single woman, Michelle is thankful for the security of working at a place with a different approach to employment. Despite working in a traditionally male field, Brick Corps respects capable women, so that Michelle swiftly became a Senior Designer, then a Vice President.
Brick Corps' approach to the business cycle and personnel is the antithesis of BLK's. Adam Ross says, "We don't lay good people off. We don't believe that's the way to build a company. Besides, money isn't necessarily the most important thing for us." In fact, Brick Corps is highly profitable, and treating people well is vital to its success. Its offices are ergonomically sound and gathering spaces are attractive. They have a well-equipped gym, with a personal trainer, so their people can stay fit. They offer amenities such as oil changes for employees while they work, to simplify life for their staff. These policies probably help retain talented people, but that isn't the way Ross explains himself:
Layoffs are one way to do business, but it's not the way we operate. We refuse to lay off good people. We take care of people, not because someone said 'It's the right thing' or because we hope somebody admires us. We don't do it for the bottom line. We do it because we know who we are, what kind of business we're designed to be. It's consistent with who we are.
And who are they? A corporation that believes people are its chief resource, and tries, however imperfectly, to live that out. They believe that if they lose good people, they inhibit their company's performance. None of this means Brick Corps is soft on its staff. Far from it. Each year, they rank all employees, to identify who is thriving and who is languishing. They move out the bottom 10%, both to protect their business and to let faltering employees find work that better matches their skills. Strikingly, during one major down cycle, they did not cut one qualified worker. They let retirements and performance-based departures reduce the staff, and when their payroll was still too high, everyone – including the CEO - took a 10% pay cut.
Ross sees the flaws at Brick Corps. As a gospel-loving believer, he has a robust sense of his sinfulness and need of grace. He knows that his flaws affect everything he does. To change his company or the construction business, he has to change himself and that, Adam notes, "is a messy proposition." He quotes Peter Kreeft, "This world is a vale of soul-making, a great sculptor's shop and we are his statues. To be finished, the statues must endure many blows of the chisel… This is not optional.” Once we have lost our innocence, the way back to God must be hard. This, Ross adds, is not linear:
In the past, I tried to draw bright, clean lines, and follow them. I wanted to state my principles, align my behavior, and tighten everything up with low tolerance for error or sin. But then I realized I'm capable of anything, any sin. My life doesn't have straight lines. Sometimes it looks like there are no lines at all, just clouds and paisley swirls.
As a believer, Ross wants to be faithful, as well as successful at business. But he rejects the quest for perfection. "I want my people to see my struggle, not an illusion of success, control, or moral perfection. Then they can trust me." With that trust, he believes they can change the world of design and construction. His plans include vertical integration of the construction process, including drone-based contour mapping of building sites and large-scale 3-D printing, but that is another story.
Ross doesn't call himself a reformer, but he, together with the owner of Brick Corps has fashioned a business model that embodies biblical principles of love, justice, and care for one's neighbor, all driven by the gospel. He wants to put up great buildings, for a good profit, driven both by his skill at construction and by his biblical convictions. Over the years, he earned a position that lets him implement his ideas. As a believer, Ross's ideas flow both from professional insight and from biblical wisdom. Heart convictions drive his goals – to construct strong buildings, profitably, while finding a better ways to treat people. And that is faith at work.
“These accounts are adapted from Doriani’s forthcoming book on faith at work, The Reformation of Work.
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.
 We could see this as BLK taking a half step toward the gig economy. See chapter one.
 Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 85.