Religious principles shape businesses
By Geeta Sharma-Jensen
of the Journal Sentinel staff
April 6, 1998
The muezzin's call to prayer is a sound of daily life in Islamic
countries. But occasionally, that sing-song call ululates through the
carpeted offices of Kachelski, Atta & Straub on Wisconsin Ave. near the
Startled attorneys and staffers look up in amazement, but soon they
shrug and go back to work. It's only attorney Othman Atta's loudly
malfunctioning computer, accidentally bellowing the muezzin's call to
prayer through the hushed corridors of the law firm.
Five times a day, Atta's computer calls him -- usually softly -- to pray
as his religion requires. And five times a day, he prostrates himself,
often behind the closed doors of his office.
"When he doesn't answer the door, we know not to disturb him," says
Erich Straub, a non-practicing Catholic who's one of Atta's two law
Every day, in businesses here and there, Milwaukee-area workers like
Atta unroll prayer mats, sit cross-legged or cross themselves in
centuries-old rituals that signal time with their God. Their prayers
reaffirm their faith. But for many, it goes beyond affirmation. The
workplace timeouts are an expression of their ethics and principles, a
part of the way they conduct not only their personal lives but also
their business dealings.
Attorney Atta turns away clients who want liquor licenses because his
Islamic faith prohibits alcohol. Architect William Wenzler, a Christian,
turns his back on lucrative commissions because the proposed projects
might house stores his faith considers pornographic.
Medical College of Wisconsin psychiatrist Ashok Bedi uses Hinduism's
teachings regarding mankind's place in a Supreme Universe to help
counsel clients. And Cedarburg architect Tom Kubala designs integrated
buildings that spring from his Baha'i belief in the oneness of mankind
and oneness of religion.
Catholic Norman Yerke, chief executive officer of Mega Construction Inc.
in Elm Grove, said he runs business decisions past his "spiritual
He also refuses to let his employees work on weekends, especially
Sundays. "If your workers are working more than 50 hours in a week --
why you are doing a disservice to them and their families," he explains.
"God expects us to have a balance between our home and work lives."
"The Holy Bible says there are certain things you should and you
shouldn't do, and that means more to me than anything else in the
world," says Edward L. Watson Sr., 55, who owns a painting contracting
business and also is an associate minister at Jeremiah Missionary
"I'm not caught up in doctrine. I'm caught up in what the word says. And
if we do that, then we have to run our businesses that way."
Todd Miller, an Orthodox Jew, also looks to his faith for professional
guidance. "When it comes to how I behave in business, I go by our laws
-- a higher standard than the secular laws," says Miller, 40, who owns
Miller's Carpet Co. in Milwaukee.
To him, a moral decision is much more important than a legal one. When
in doubt, he abides by the ruling of his rabbi. He did so recently when
a client, displeased with the way Miller's shop had laid a carpet,
refused to pay a bill.
Miller protested that his workers had followed the explicit demands of
the client's maintenance staff. Miller's lawyer said he was correct to
do so. But Miller's rabbi said he knew the proper way to do the job --
and should have done it correctly regardless of the demands of the
So Miller waived the $6,000 owed him for the job.
"The Torah gives us our rules. It is a blueprint for our lives," he
explains. "My ego and my best sense said I did what I thought I was
supposed to do with the carpet. But if I'm wrong, I don't want to live
with what's wrong."
Honesty, fairness, proper treatment of employees are all of paramount
importance to Miller and others like him, no matter what their faith.
They don't pad estimates or bills. They don't cut corners. They won't
let their employees lie on the telephone. "Sorry, he's not in," when
someone is in, is a no-no at these companies.
Nabil Salous, 36, a Muslim who runs Salous Mens Wear in Milwaukee, said
he refuses to lie even to cater to his clients' vanities.
If a customer is considering a higher-priced suit, even though it isn't
made much better than a lower-priced one, Salous says he will tell the
customer which suit hangs better on him. If that means he sells a less
expensive one, that's how God wants it, Salous says.
Some Milwaukee Muslims have abandoned their grocery store businesses
altogether rather than survive by selling alcohol and pork, which are
prohibited by Islam.
Yerke, of Mega Construction, trying to follow his Catholic faith's
humanitarian principles, regularly counsels troubled employees. Staffers
say he loans money to needy employees, does the paperwork for the
business of a former worker whose wife died, and contributes heavily to
charity. In 1981, he kept a secretarial job open for two months when a
woman he had just hired broke her ankle just before she was to start.
Ethical behavior and principled decisions, however, are hardly the
prerogative of those in organized religions.
Take Alterra Coffee Roasters Inc. on the east side. When buying coffee
beans in Guatemala, the company visits farms and chooses those that use
not only environmentally friendly farming practices but also pay and
house their workers well and treat them respectfully.
Ward Fowler, president and an owner of the fast-growing coffee firm,
says he "does not have a whole lot of interest in church." But he and
his partners are willing to pay a premium for coffees from these special
farms because of their own principles.
"Morality was on deck long before Christianity was dreamed up," says
Anne Gaylor, president of the Madison-based Freedom from Religion
Foundation. "Business people don't have to be religious to be moral."
Running a business according to one's moral or religious tenets is far
easier in a smaller, private firm where chief executives do not have to
answer to public shareholders.
Yet, despite the obvious conflicts between capitalism and religious
tenets, experts say the two are compatible.
"Religious principle is the basis of modern or democratic capitalism,
which depends on trust," says C. Edward Weber, professor emeritus of
strategy and business ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"It's not easy for either public or private business to make the right
decisions. They often have to go against the tide. It takes courage and
In his 1995 book, "Stories of Virtue in Business," Weber recounts
incidents -- many from the Milwaukee area -- of ethical decisions made
by individual men and women in large companies, decisions that sometimes
cost them careers or friendships or good will.
He recalls the Wisconsin bank executive who declined a windfall from the
sale of his bank so the money could be used to help those who might lose
And in Milwaukee, several individuals have formed the "Favre Forum," a
group that meets monthly at the exclusive University Club to discuss
ways to balance work, family and faith.
Gaylor, of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, says right action based
on religion also is open to interpretation. "The Bible is a grab bag
that you can reach into and pull out a rationalization for any conduct."
So, Christian managers of a strong company can rationalize large layoffs
by saying their future survival is at stake. So, too, Catholic-run firms
can ignore that faith's social teachings and prevent workers from
Gene Laczniak, professor of marketing at Marquette University who writes
and lectures on business ethics and competitive strategy, says his own
work leads him to believe that the typical business manager operates
"from economic utilitarianism."
"They have one set of morals for their marketplace and another for their
personal lives," he says. "They look at the economic advantage and the
economic disadvantage, and they choose the action that maximizes their
own advantage as long as it doesn't violate the law.
"They believe it's economic gamesmanship and this is gamesmanship to be
played competitively, fiercely, and intently."
Saying too many business people forget that the true purpose of
capitalism is economic efficiency for the common good, Laczniak says
religious principles "re-establish the centrality of the common good in
Small, private firms can remember that far more easily.
Even in such firms, though, religious practices sometimes depend on the
good will of others -- as attorney Atta has found.
His partners do not complain when he declines drunken driving and some
criminal cases for religious reasons. "This is a big positive in my
firm," Atta says.
There was one nearly touchy incident, however. Atta did not want to
serve alcohol at the firm's recent open house. His partners wondered if
lawyers and clients in beer-loving Milwaukee might think them cheap.
There was much discussion. In the end, Atta's partners chose to respect
him and his Muslim guests and family.
They left out the beer and beefed up the hors d'oeuvres.
©Copyright 1998, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel