By Andy Dula
This article is adapted from an address to the Lancaster MEDA Chapter. Andy Dula, a 1991 EMU graduate, is chief financial officer at EG Stoltzfus Construction, Lancaster, Pa. In June 2010 he began a three-year term as EMU board of trustees chair.
Andy Dula, a 1991 EMU graduate and current EMU board of trustees chair, is chief financial officer at EG Stoltzfus Construction of Lancaster, Pa.
Like many people in business, I live in a world of doing, producing, constructing, expanding and sometimes just surviving. We are often judged by financial metrics and measurable results, as in, "What have you done for me lately?"
In the larger scheme of things, however, a more important question is, "Who am I becoming?"
And to answer it I need to take account of all the influences that have shaped me. Each of the acts and scenes of my personal narrative impact who I am becoming in this theatre we call life.
Born across the globe
I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My mother, a missionary nurse, met and married my dad, an Ethiopian – no small feat in the 60s. My early years were spent in Indiana where my father attended Goshen College.
After he graduated we moved to Philadelphia and spent four years living next door to Germantown Mennonite Church while he attended pharmacy school.
My formative years were shaped by the overwhelming generosity of that community. People cared for my brother and me while my dad studied by day and my mom worked the night shift as a nurse.
Generosity of the church
In 1975 we moved to Lancaster, Pa., where my father accepted a job as a pharmacist at the St. Joseph Hospital. Here too I experienced the generosity of the church, first at North End Mennonite and later Blossom Hill.
I have been fortunate to spend all of my life in a church setting that has been life giving and faith infusing, and has included the witness of people from a wide array of professions and life experiences.
The generosity I received had very little to do with anything I had done, but remains a part of who I am becoming. I am who I am today because people along the way have mentored me in word and deed.
Foray into business
In 1991, fresh out of Eastern Mennonite University, I helped to start an Ethiopian restaurant with my father and another partner. My first foray into the real world of business was an adventure in finding my own way. No boss to learn from, no previous knowledge, no experiences of best practices for running a restaurant, no established policies for accounting, managing costs or handling employees.
All I had was an education in business and the liberal arts. It was my first true immersion into doing whatever it took to keep a business alive.
I had come out of college wanting to be a mover and a shaker in the world of business; instead I was washing dishes one night and waiting tables the next. One moment I was performing payroll and the next I was dealing with an angry customer.
But learning to do whatever was needed was shaping who I am becoming.
Business can be a noble enterprise
My restaurant experience stripped me of any notion that business was a glamourous adventure in self-serving motivations and profit-seeking indulgence.
Rather, it showed me how business can be a noble enterprise of service and teamwork to develop communities that are life giving to customers, employees and society in general.
My next career move was as improbable as my first. I took a position in the drafting and design department of Elam G Stoltzfus Jr Inc. Again a real logical move – business degree, restaurateur, construction.
I spent my first spring working on a framing crew carrying 4×8 sheets of plywood one day and sitting at a drafting table the next.
‘Doing’ but also ‘becoming’
Once again I was "doing" but at the same time I was more importantly "becoming." I had no idea then how having a broad understanding of the construction industry would benefit me in the years to come.
By 1994 I was doing estimating and project management, and in 1996 started running our accounting department.
Today I carry the title of Chief Financial Officer of EG Stoltzfus and along with four others provide leadership to EG and its 25 subsidiary companies.
About EG Stoltzfus
Our companies are involved primarily in residential home building and renovations, general commercial construction, historic adaptive re-use of under utilized buildings, work force housing, land acquisition and development, mortgage brokering, and title insurance services.
Each year we build 200-300 homes, renovate 75 residential properties, and construct and renovate 20-30 commercial projects.
Titles mean nothing to us. Our founder never liked them, nor do I or the rest of the senior management staff. Titles merely identify our structure to those outside of the organization.
We believe in a flat non hierarchical structure, which empowers persons to unleash their own entrepreneurial spirit at all levels of the operation. It is one of the mechanisms by which we affirm each individual’s unique contribution and gifts.
My daily work involves providing leadership and support to staff, leading and participating in senior management team meetings, acquiring capital for our multiple companies from banks and individuals, starting and monitoring individual land development companies, assessing the viability of various land projects from both a marketing and financial standpoint, and providing counsel to fellow team members both at the work and personal level.
The social opportunities of business
Business truly is a social science and there are few things more draining and more rewarding than dealing with the human spirit on a daily basis. You have countless opportunities to practice Christian virtues at times when it is least expected and may even seem stupid to do so.
Why would anyone extend grace and forgiveness when someone at best has had a lapse in judgement and at worst has been deceitful in a way that wastes significant resources. It happens, and has happened to us.
Recently our company’s entire staff and spouses had the opportunity to go away to a beautiful historic resort to celebrate our 40 years in business. As we were eating dinner one evening, Colleen, who handles our Human Resources, told us about the process leading up to the retreat.
The resort had given her a list of the best rooms and asked which people from the guest list were senior managers. He wanted to make sure that we got the best rooms.
"No, no," Colleen told him. "Give the senior management team the smallest, least desirable rooms."
There was a pause and the dismayed resort representative said, "You want to give your top management team the worst rooms?"
Colleen explained that some of the people coming on this trip would never again have the opportunity to stay at a place like this. "We want them to have the best rooms," she said.
The manager later told Colleen that his staff had been impressed by the unusual room arrangements. "No one has ever requested that before," he said. "Your company understands what makes a really good company."
Contrast that with some executives who send pictures of themselves in advance so the resort staff will recognize them and give them special service.
Not ‘business as usual’
This isn’t business as usual. The ongoing opportunities I have had to be part of discussions and ultimately make decisions that are at times counter-cultural have had a profound effect on me.
Stories of making just choices, going the extra mile, treating employees as partners, emphasizing our interconnectedness instead of untamed individualism, and practicing moderation instead of excess are part of who I am becoming rather than anything I am doing.
Any so-called success I may achieve will always be more attributable to what I am becoming than to what I am doing.
The particular lens that I have been given via my childhood, my faith and my work experience, continues to shape my inner journey.
‘Vocation is a calling’
Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak says, "Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am."
That thought undergirds my daily work. Truly the integration of work, faith and life has to come from a place of truly knowing who you are. And upon knowing who I am, I can ultimately do and eventually become who God intends for me to be.
Andy Dula, a 1991 EMU graduate, is chief financial officer at EG Stoltzfus Construction, Lancaster, Pa. In June 2010 he began a three-year term as EMU board of trustees chair.