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CAREERS / The Soul at Work | PROFILE

It Comes Naturally

Tom's of Maine founder says that doing right by employees, customers and the environment can enhance profit.

April 06, 1998|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly three decades ago, when Tom and Kate Chappell moved to Maine seeking a simpler life and a deeper connection to the land, they began using natural foods and products.

But they found little on the personal care rack to suit their lifestyle. The solution? They founded Tom's of Maine and, in 1974, launched the first toothpaste made entirely from natural ingredients.

The company, based in Kennebunk, Maine, expanded into other products and soon grew quite prosperous. But within a few years Tom Chappell realized that something was missing from his American dream. He felt stale and unfulfilled as an entrepreneur.

His midlife crisis came to a head when the new team of MBAs he had installed to propel the company into the mainstream pushed him to add artificial sweeteners to jazz up the taste of the signature toothpaste.

The suggestion, which so sharply opposed his original philosophy, riled Chappell, and he fought tooth and nail to keep additives out. But the battle was so bruising that he set out on a search for, literally, the meaning of life.

That search was conducted for three years at Harvard Divinity School, where he completed a master's of theology while remaining as Tom's chief executive. (The company has grown to 90 employees and annual sales of $28 million.)

Chappell, 55, now views Tom's of Maine as a ministry of sorts, where he espouses the philosophy that doing right by employees, customers and the environment can enhance the bottom line. In 1993, he published "The Soul of a Business: Managing for Profit and the Common Good" (Bantam Books). He speaks often on the topic of how mind and spirit can work together to build market share.

His mantra: "You don't have to sell your soul to make your numbers."

Question: What does spirituality in the workplace mean to you?

Answer: I think spirituality really is a connectedness of the self with others vs. the kind of isolation and control that we have come from--that single-mindedness of profitability. If we get too focused on our private hopes, we become isolated and disconnected from one another, from our environment, from our communities, from the world at large. Spirituality is a process of opening up to one another and to creation, whether you think of it as creation or just the inherent worth of nature or human beings.

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Q: Can a corporate leader be a capitalist and a "moralist"?

A: Yes, I do believe that we leaders can integrate those things we expect of ourselves as decent and responsible human beings and those things we expect of ourselves as equity builders and profit makers. It means you have to develop a whole-minded approach to business rather than a single-minded focus on bottom-line decision making. You have to have a more holistic approach, which begins with yourself [as] the agent. We have more than a mind. We have a heart and a soul and we need to entertain our business considerations and make choices during the day that embrace the more enduring aspirations we have as people as well as the private aspirations we have as businesses building market share and profit and return on equity.

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Q: How can big business adjust to achieve a more spiritual orientation?

A: The method that really works is to ask yourself: Who are we as a company, [what are] our convictions and beliefs? By examining collectively what it is you believe in as a company, you get down to the deeper level of what you care about and you start tapping into deeper human concerns and aspirations. Out of the process of identifying your beliefs, you can turn that into a service mind-set. . . . Having a mission statement that's rooted in the [company's] set of beliefs--it has to start there. Otherwise, your ethics are always according to the arbitrariness of the people on the top. [A company must attempt] to have a set of values that has a more enduring cultural identity. In the case of Tom's of Maine, people associate the company with environmental concerns. We use natural ingredients and [recycled, recyclable or reusable] packaging, and we donate at least 10% of our pretax profits to charities serving the environment, education, the arts and human needs. You can't say one thing and do another. It's not always easy. It's easier to return to the tangible bottom line and numbers rather than long-term sustainability or the decency of human beings and diversity. They constrain you on one hand but enrich your strategy on the other.

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Q: How can an individual apply these principles in a hostile environment?

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