David Green, Biblical Billionaire
Brian Solomon, Forbes, Sept. 18, 2012
David Green insists God is the true owner of his $3 billion arts and crafts chain. Acting as His disciple, Green has become the largest evangelical benefactor in the world—with plans for unprecedented gifts once he’s in heaven.
Fresh off an inspection of Hobby Lobby’s sprawling 5.5 million-square-foot distribution warehouse in Oklahoma City, the company’s CEO, David Green, retreats to his office in the adjacent executive building. His coffee table is draped with a bird’s-eye-view photograph of his corporate campus, annotated with scribbles in black marker that show the expansion under way.
When I ask him to walk me through the secrets to his company’s growth, which the aerial plans represent, the 70-year-old, with a full head of white hair, blue eyes and a prominent square jaw, doesn’t take any personal credit. “If you have anything or if I have anything, it’s because it’s been given to us by our Creator,” says Green, sweeping his hand over the acres laid out before him. “So I have learned to say, ‘Look, this is yours, God. It’s all yours. I’m going to give it to you.’”
He means that literally. David Green has one of America’s great, little-known fortunes, having turned a makeshift manufacturing operation in his living room for arts and crafts into a retail monster, with 520 superstores in 42 states. Green and his family own 100% of the company and he ranks No. 79 on our list of the 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion. Hobby Lobby’s cash spigot currently makes him the largest individual donor to evangelical causes in America.
“I don’t care if you’re in business or out of business, God owns it,” says Green. “How do I separate it? Well, it’s God’s in church and it’s mine here? I have purpose in church, but I don’t have purpose over here? You can’t have a belief system on Sunday and not live it the other six days.”
There are very few members of The Forbes 400 who bring religion to work. Most notable are Chick-fil-A’s Truett Cathy and Forever 21’s Jin Sook and Do Won Chang, born-again Christians who keep Bibles in their office and print John 3:16 on the bottom of each shopping bag. More typical is Warren Buffett, who admits to being agnostic. Green joined Buffett’s Giving Pledge in 2010: His public letter doing so quotes 2 Corinthians (“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”). And that’s about all that Buffett and Green have in common philanthropically. Rather than try to cure malaria or fix the U.S. public school system, he’s turned his arts and crafts empire into a massive missionary organization. Hobby Lobby takes half of total pretax earnings and plunges it directly into a portfolio of evangelical ministries. Green keeps the total amount of his charitable contributions private, but based on information received from him and discussion with various recipients, FORBES estimates his lifetime giving at upwards of $500 million.
In the U.S. Green’s wealth produces the physical underpinnings of dozens of churches and Christian universities. It began in 1999, with a former V.A. hospital building in Little Rock, Ark. that he purchased for $600,000 and converted into a church. Green has since spent over $300 million donating about 50 properties. The word is out: Ministries approach him constantly with proposals for their new church or Christian community center—only one in ten is chosen. He won’t help them unless they pass a doctrinal vetting process, which includes questions about the Virgin Birth. Even well-known pastor Rick Warren needed to pass Green’s muster before the billionaire handed his Saddleback Church a 170-acre ranch property last August to use as a retreat.
“Even the most generous Christian philanthropists often don’t see the purpose of their giving,” says Dr. Mark Rutland, ORU president and founder of the Global Servants evangelical ministry. “There are impulse givers, people who give to their alma mater or their church or some particular ministry with which they become familiar—but the Greens are Kingdom givers. … They consider it an honor; they consider it a mission.”
Abroad, Green is putting Scripture into the hands of nonbelievers. “People ask, ‘How are you going to get a Bible to everyone in the world?’ We’re doing it,” Green says. Through foundations he supports, he has already distributed nearly 1.4 billion copies of Gospel literature in more than 100 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia. The OneHope Foundation targets children age 4 to 14 with Scripture tailored to them, while Every Home for Christ sends evangelists with Bible booklets door-to-door in some of the poorest countries on Earth. “It’s not like you give them that but don’t give them food; you do both,” Green stresses. But the priority is clear: “If I die without food or without eternal salvation, I want to die without food.”
Green and his family show what giving looks like “from a biblical perspective,” says Rob Hoskins, president of OneHope. “For high-net-worth individuals, particularly people that created first-generation wealth, to look at the growth of their business, not for them to maintain a lavish lifestyle or accumulate generational wealth but for the cause of Christ—they’re a shining light in the Christian community.”
Green makes a distinction between “good” causes—employing people or researching cures for disease, for example—and “great” causes, which will echo beyond our temporal existence. “I don’t know how to get anywhere else once you start with that one thing: that the Bible is God’s word,” he says. And Green has taken God’s word digital. He sponsors the YouVersion Bible app for mobile phones, equipped to offer almost 300 different versions of Scripture in 144 languages—all available at the tap of your finger. It has already been downloaded more than 50 million times.
While he has donated as much money to evangelical causes as anyone alive, Green is more humbled by the memory of his parents’ putting their last dime on the collection plate. His father was a small-time preacher who bounced from one tiny congregation to another, eventually landing at a church of just 35 attendees in Altus, Okla., a speck of a town amid a sea of cattle ranches and cotton fields. The family subsisted on hand-me-down clothes and food donations from the congregation, going weeks without having meat to put on the table—but that didn’t stop Green’s mother from donating to the church. His wife of 51 years, Barbara, recalls her mother-in-law with reverence. “We don’t give out of our need, we give out of our surplus,” she says. “David’s mother gave out of her need. She would give stuff when she might not have something to replace that with, yet she stepped out in faith.”
All of Green’s five siblings followed his parents’ example and became either pastors themselves or pastors’ wives. Green himself took the faith down a less traveled path. After flailing his way through middle school (he had to repeat seventh grade), he jumped at the opportunity to do a work-study program during his junior year of high school. As a stock boy at McClellan’s general store, where he would later meet Barbara, Green spent most of his time sweeping floors and unloading boxes for 60 cents an hour, but he fell in love with the romantic idea of buying something for 10 cents and selling it for 20.
After serving briefly in the Air Force Reserve and marrying his sweetheart, the 29-year-old Green was working as a manager at TG&Y, another five-and-dime, when he started the small business that would become Hobby Lobby. Borrowing $600 to buy equipment, Green teamed up with another store manager in 1970 to manufacture his first of many arts and crafts products: miniature picture frames. Soon the Green family kitchen table was converted into factory space manned by Barbara and the couple’s two young boys, Steve and Mart, who churned out frames for an allowance of 7 cents apiece. In 1972 he opened his first store, a 300-square-foot space in Oklahoma City.
Soon, with the help of a bead-buying craze among hippies (“God bless them,” Green says), he upgraded to a bigger location. Three years later he opened a second store in town, with 6,000 square feet of retail space, and quit his regular day job at TG&Y—against Barbara’s wishes. “She wasn’t on board at first,” Green says. “She was real comfortable with me working at TG&Y. They were doing $2 billion in sales; we did $100,000. Of course, they’re gone now, and we’re making $3 billion.”
Green steadfastly believes that the success is not his doing. “I think God has blessed us because we have given,” he says. Take Green’s account of Hobby Lobby’s close call with death in 1985. On one hand, there’s the perfectly reasonable, Business 101 explanation: He overleveraged the business and diluted the inventory with off-brand, expensive products like luggage, ceiling fans and gourmet foods. Then there’s Green’s explanation: “It was a pride problem, and I had to get rid of it,” he says, describing his leadership style. “It’s sort of like God says to me, because I was arrogant, ‘I’m going to let you have it by yourself.’ ” The Business 101 answer was downsizing, cost-cutting and pleading with creditors. The Green explanation: getting under his desk to pray for help. Whichever version is right, smart strategy or faith, combined with hard work, brought back profits.
Hobby Lobby remains a Christian company in every sense. It runs ads on Christmas and Easter in the local paper of each town where there’s a store, often asserting the religious foundation of America. Stores are closed on Sundays, forgoing revenue to give employees time to worship. The company keeps four chaplains on the payroll and offers a free health clinic for staff at the headquarters—although not for everything; it’s suing the federal government to stop the mandate to cover emergency contraception through health insurance. Green has raised the minimum wage for full-time employees a dollar each year since 2009—bringing it up to $13 an hour—and doesn’t expect to slow down. From his perspective, it’s only natural: “God tells us to go forth into the world and teach the Gospel to every creature. He doesn’t say skim from your employees to do that.”
No matter how big Hobby Lobby becomes—Green is adding 35 stores this year, with a long-term goal of surpassing 1,000—its founder wants to make sure the company remains faithful long after he’s gone. So far, Hobby Lobby has been a traditional family operation: All three of Green’s children, Steve and Mart, plus daughter Darsee, are executives, and several of his grandchildren have already joined the company. The ownership has been structured for the company to continue indefinitely, but in the event of a sale or dissolution of Hobby Lobby, 90% of the company will go to ministry work while the remaining 10% will be shuttled into a trust reserved for the education and health of family members. “My grandkids can’t say, ‘I own 5% and I own 10,’ and then all of a sudden they’re sitting on a yacht,” says Green, who, despite enough wealth for a fleet of Gulfstreams, still flies coach.
While the transition from a generational trust was difficult, Green is concerned only with behaving according to what the Bible tells him. Hobby Lobby, he knows, won’t last forever. “Woolworth’s is gone. Sears is almost gone. TG&Y is gone. So what? This is worth billions of dollars. So what? Is that the end of life, making more money and building something?” Green asks, answer already in hand. “For me, I want to know that I have affected people for eternity. I believe I am. I believe once someone knows Christ as their personal savior, I’ve affected eternity. I matter 10 billion years from now. I matter.”