A Billion-Dollar Family Business Built on Unshakeable Beliefs Hobby Lobby’s Lauren McAfee
It’s not too far-fetched to hear about a business that began in a garage and grew to become the largest of its kind in an industry. Companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Disney, Amazon and Hewlett-Packard lead the distinguished group of entrepreneurs with meager starts. Mattel founders started out making picture frames before switching to wood doll furniture and then shifting their focus to toys. And the same is true for Hobby Lobby, the billion-dollar chain of arts & crafts stores started by David Green in his garage assembling and selling miniature picture frames. While there may be commonalities among the bunch with their beginnings, Hobby Lobby remains a private, family-run business. In fact, Lauren McAfee, Green’s granddaughter recently became the company’s Corporate Ambassador. Today with over 750 stores in 48 states (and growing!) she may be third generation into the company, but she unequivocally reflects the strong core of her family’s values and beliefs. Risen sat down with McAfee who candidly shared about the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby over the Department of Health and Human Services mandate that went against the faith of her family. She talks about the understanding of generosity she’s gained from a solid legacy as each year the company gives fifty percent of its profits away to faith based non-profits, and openly shared an intimate look into her experiences growing up in the Green household.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine, at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California
Risen Magazine: Your grandfather founded Hobby Lobby and your dad works for the company. What was your home life like growing up and what role did faith play?
Lauren McAfee: Growing up, I was always a part of a Christian home. My grandparents who founded Hobby Lobby, as well as my parents, have always been in church. Every Sunday and Wednesday we were in church.Faith was always a significant part of my growing up. I grew up being homeschooled. I was homeschooled until eighth grade and then I went to a small, Christian high school.
RM: Your parents, your mom did most of that?
LM: Yes. My mom taught us all of our subjects except for math. My dad would teach us math in the morning, before he went to work.
We [siblings] would have to get up at like 6:00 in the morning and go downstairs and do math with dad before he left for work. We had math time and then we had a break. Then we’d start our school. That was really significant in my homeschooling and growing up it played into my faith. As I would get up every morning to go down for my math lesson, I would walk downstairs and my dad’s study light was on. He had already been in there reading the Bible. Seeing my dad, every morning as I was getting up to do my math lesson with him, knowing that he was already there for however long, reading the Bible, I understood the importance that scripture played in my family’s life. Seeing the dedication. This was a father of, at the time, four kids. He was a leader in a growing company, but he was still making time to read the Bible every day.
RM: That’s great. How many siblings do you have?
LM: I have five siblings. The first four of us were all really close in age and then there was a gap with the younger two. One boy, five girls.
RM: I read that when you were eleven you had your first job at Hobby Lobby. Growing up in a family, that’s a family-created business, it’s difficult to take another path. How easy or how difficult was that for you to decide what you wanted to do?
LM: Great question. Growing up, to me, Hobby Lobby was just where my dad went to work. I didn’t really think of it much in the aspect of realizing that it was the family’s company. It was just where my dad went to work every day. When I was eleven, I would start going to work with him after the holidays doing some of the accounting and inventory that he had to do. He’d bring (us) kids along because we were all out of school. It was just a fun experience, getting to go to work with dad. Then as I got older, beginning in high school, I wanted a job to help pay for gas and contributing to saving toward college. I would work in the Hobby Lobby stores in the summers and also worked in the corporate office.
RM: Being in the store and then in the corporate offices afforded you a very valuable opportunity.
LM: Exactly. You know, through all of it, I never felt pressured to work in the family business, which was always a blessing. My grandparents and my parents always said, “Whatever it is that God calls you to, we’ll support you in whatever that is as long as you’re serving the Lord and following His calling.” That is what they cared about. In my generation, we’re the third generation of my family, there are about four of us working in a family-related business; the rest are off doing different things.
Having a good work ethic, having integrity, and working hard wherever we’re at…those are the big things they instilled in us…
RM: How many (third generation) grandchildren are there?
LM: There are ten, two of which are still young and in school. There are eight of us that are working-age. It’s about half and half of us that are working, that have actually gone into the family business versus haven’t. It’s great. We love the work that God has called to my siblings or cousins too, that’s outside of the business. They’re doing really great work. I’m really grateful that my parents always encouraged us to seek to find what the Lord was calling us to and what His giftings are in us and then follow that. Then, wherever we landed, work hard. That was really important. Having a good work ethic, having integrity, and working hard wherever we’re at…those are the big things they instilled in us and said, “Wherever it is that you go, just follow those [guidelines].”
RM: When you were working and doing those things in the store or the office, did people treat you differently than other employees, thinking, Okay, this is the owner’s granddaughter, this is the daughter, either being more lenient or harder?
LM: Yes. It goes both ways. Sometimes they expect more of us, which I think can be a burden in and of itself. Then there are other times that I feel like we may be treated differently, where they let us do more. Others might expect us to not be as dedicated or to have a privileged perspective. There definitely is that aspect of working in the family business and people knowing that I’m the owner’s granddaughter and the president’s daughter. You know, I feel like that’s something that I’ve had to grow and come to just process through as I’ve grown up in the business. Seeing that is a part of the story that God has put me in; that is a part of the challenge. It may not be the same challenge that other people have, but other people are going to have different challenges in whatever work they’re placed in. I just have to continue to trust in the Lord to guide and direct me to do work that is good and to not ever take advantage of the fact that I could be treated differently because of who my family is. Just really wanting to work hard. I do think that it can be a temptation to want to take an easy route, thinking that we are owed a job in the company or that we, for whatever reason…
RM: Can’t get fired?
LM: Yes, can’t get fired. We can just take it easy and we’re set. That’s not the case. My grandpa made it very clear that he will treat us the same as he does any other employee, if not to a higher standard. We can get fired. Just because our last name or my maiden name is Green doesn’t mean I’m not going to get fired if I’m not doing my job. We have to show up, we have to work hard, and we have to try to be leaders in the areas where we’re in the company.
RM: Where did you go to college and what was your major?
LM: I went to the University of Oklahoma. Boomer Sooner! It was a large, state school and I loved going there. It was a great experience. I majored in Letters, which means I studied History, Literature, and Philosophy. It was a Classics degree and then minored in Religious Studies. I didn’t necessarily know what area of work I wanted to go into so I just studied something I was interested in.
RM: Did you get married while in college?
LM: I did. My husband [Michael] and I met when we were seven years old.
RM: Wow! Were you in the same homeschooling?
LM: No, he went to the public school, but we were at the same church. We met in Sunday school. We started dating when we were seventeen. It was the summer before our senior year of high school, then we got married the summer before our senior year of college. We dated for four years, got married and finished our senior year together, married and working. I was at Hobby Lobby and he was working as a youth pastor at a church nearby.
RM: Is he a pastor now?
LM: He is a pastor on staff at church now, and leading the young professionals at our church, and is in seminary, graduating in May with a Master’s of Divinity. He works for the church as a staff member leading the lay leaders as well as preaching every other month from the pulpit. Then he’s also a full-time employee of Museum of the Bible.
If we decided not to comply with that and not follow the mandate and follow our faith, then we could be fined $1.2 million a day by being out of compliance.
RM: Sounds like he’s a busy guy. How has that journey been? It’s a little bit different being full time in ministry and a pastor’s wife… that’s another role that you have.
LM: Yes. For the first five-and-a-half/ six years of our marriage, he was a full-time youth pastor and I loved that. I always was really involved with Michael in our church. To get to work alongside him in his role as youth pastor, was a lot of fun and actually, I really felt called to that. I got a Master’s in Pastoral Counseling while I was working full time at Hobby Lobby, just so that I could better serve the youth and the young girls that were coming to me in the youth group with different problems and things they were working through that I just didn’t know how to counsel them through. I love, love, working in the church and being an active part in our church community. That’s really important for both of us.
RM: That is amazing and exciting. I’m going to jump now to an event that put your family in the world’s spotlight. Obviously, what I’m talking about is the religious freedom stand that took you to the Supreme Court. Tell me about the decision-making process for your family.
LM: In 2012, a HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] mandate was put into place. As a family, we began to try and figure out what that would mean for us. We realized that based off of the twenty FDA approved drugs and devices that the mandate was saying every insurance had to cover and pay for, there were four of those that we did not agree with. They went against our faith to cover these abortifacient drugs and devices that we considered had the potential to take life. Because of our belief in Scripture, what Scripture teaches about life, we honor and want to respect the sanctity of life, and that was not going to be the case if we offered those four drugs and devices. When we realized that was what the mandate was, that we had to pay for these things, we had to come together as a family and decide what are we going to do. There were about twenty of us in the family, across three generations, in 2012. We had a family meeting to talk about what the situation was and make a decision about how we were going to move forward.
RM: So, your grandfather called a meeting of the family and you met at your uncle’s house?
LM: Yes. It was a really interesting evening; I’ll never forget it. We were there for a couple hours and those that had young kids had gotten babysitters so that it was age eighteen or older family members involved. My uncle, who oversees insurance and benefits, explained the situation that we either had to offer these four drugs or, if we decided not to comply with that and not follow the mandate and follow our faith, then we could be fined $1.2 million a day by being out of compliance. By not offering and paying for these four drugs and devices that can, a lot of them, be purchased over the counter for not too much. We began discussion by my grandpa saying that he wanted every person in the family to talk and share what their thoughts were, and speak into the situation. He wanted to start with the youngest and work up in age.
My grandpa and grandma had a pretty good feel for what their kids, the second generation of our family, would feel about the situation. They were less certain what my generation, the third generation would think. There were ten of us, some of us were married, so extra people too. They just weren’t quite sure where we would land. Grandpa knew that we needed to all be in unity if we were going to move forward with this significant decision.
My sister, Danielle, was the youngest one there and she, I think, was about nineteen at the time. She talked about the conviction that we have, about life and how important that is, and why it’s so important to continue with that conviction and not set that aside for something we feel like the government was forcing us into. We continued on up the line [ages]. Some of us had questions, just logistically trying to figure out, is there another way that we could go about this where we wouldn’t have to be doing either one or the other? In the end, there was really only our two options and we all landed, in unity, that we had to stick with our convictions and our faith and move forward with the lawsuit. The next day, we filed a lawsuit against the government, which was a very weird thing because we love our government.
We love our country. It’s provided us the opportunity to build a company and to be in family business. This was a time when they [government] were trying to force us to do something that was against our faith, and we have to put our faith first. That was the decision-making process that night, coming together as a family and discussing it, praying about it, looking at Scripture and seeing examples of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Scripture. When they were being told they had to bow down to worship an idol, they said no, and they stood against the king’s orders. They were thrown into a furnace, but Jesus met them there and delivered them. Then, same later in the Book of Daniel, Daniel was told to not pray. He continued praying as he always had been and ended up, because of that, being thrown into the lion’s den and God delivered him from that. We also considered the real possibility too that we see these great examples of people standing for faith and being delivered, but there is also the other scenario that we may not be delivered from losing our company. We looked at Christ’s example. Christ sacrificed everything. He really did have to walk through the suffering and die on a cross. We may have to go down the road of actually losing the company and that we have to be willing to embrace that, and realize the significance of that, but still say, “Yeah, but whatever the cost.”
RM: There’s a lot with that because with that comes all those people you employ, all those families that are supported by their livelihood.
LM: Exactly. We had about 25,000 employees in 2012. Honestly, that was one of the harder things about it for us, knowing that this didn’t just affect us, this affected 25,000 employees and their families. That’s significant.
RM: Well, on June 30, 2014, the decision was announced. What was that day like for your family? Was your family all together?
LM: A lot of us were in Oklahoma City in our corporate office. Those that were there, gathered. The way you find out [about a decision coming down from the Court] is by following along on a Supreme Court blog where people are sending updates of what the announcements are. We had this blog up, just waiting for it to refresh to see what the decision is. All our family was together in the corporate office that could be there. Me and my husband and my parents were in England when the decision was announced. We were there for a conference that my dad’s work was hosting. Because there’s a time difference, it was in the morning that the announcement was made in the States, but it was in the afternoon in England.
The four of us snuck into a little office where we could get some wifi and we were following along crowded around my dad’s iPad trying to watch and see what the decision was. The conference that we were hosting, the people knew the decision would be that day, so they were giving us our space. When the decision was announced, we could hear our friends outside the door cheering and celebrating for us. We had skyped with our family that was all gathered in Oklahoma City and everyone’s jumping up and down and cheering and we had a time of prayer. It was a really significant moment.
We also considered the real possibility, we see these great examples of people standing for faith and being delivered, but there is also the other scenario that we may not be delivered from losing our company.
RM: Anybody that’s ever gone through a court case, depositions, it’s just so stressful. Did you have to do that? Did you have to be deposed?
LM: No but it was stressful. I got to be at the oral argument in Washington, D.C., at the Supreme Court. For a lot of the other aspects of it, we didn’t have to be in the courts or a part of it. It is a long journey, and ours was actually rather quick. Ours was just about two years, even less than two years, from the time that we filed to the time that we had our decision from the Supreme Court. That’s pretty quick. I know some families, who are in similar situations, fighting for the ability to follow their faith convictions in their business in a different area, and they’ve been in a court lawsuit for nine years and they’re still in the middle of it.
RM: How many court levels did you have to go through?
LM: We went through three. We started in the Oklahoma-level court. Then it went up to our Circuit Court. We lost at the Oklahoma court, we also lost at the Circuit Court. Then we petitioned the Circuit Court to have a panel review it. We got an injunction, which meant the fines wouldn’t begin until our case went through all of that. We weren’t going to be fined, which was great. We got a pause on that while we continued to pursue the actual case, which then went up to the Supreme Court. When we lost, [at the lower levels] we appealed and won. A lot of cases go up to
the Supreme Court but aren’t chosen to be heard. It was great that our case did go. [While] we assumed that a case would go to the Supreme Court that was having to do with this issue, because there were a number of other companies that were pursuing the same legal process that we were, we just didn’t think ours would be chosen to be heard. It could have been any of those other companies that ended up with their case in the Supreme Court, but it was ours.
RM: The Lord’s steps, all along the way.
LM: Yes. He was in it the whole way. That’s for sure.
RM: Your family is currently involved with a project of epic proportions for the Bible – building a museum. What is the hope and the mission behind this? How did this come about?
LM: My dad is the founder and board chair of Museum of the Bible. It started when my family started a private collection in 2009, and has grown to what it is today, which is a museum in Washington, D.C., opening November 2017. The building is two blocks south of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, so it’s right there in the middle of D.C.
The mission of the Museum of the Bible is really simply to invite all people to engage in the Bible. We do want this to be something that brings people in that have faith, that have no faith, that don’t know anything about the Bible, or that are experts in the Bible. We want people from all over the board coming in and learning about the Bible. We think the Bible is significant. It is significant for us for particular faith reasons, but the Bible is significant in the world for a number of reasons. It’s influenced so many great leaders, it has impacted some of the structure of our own country’s government. The Bible has impacted different technology and advances. The first thing printed on the Gutenberg press was the Bible and there’s a particular reason for that. That was one of the most significant things for the millennia. Time magazine wrote that Gutenberg printing the Bible was the most impactful thing for a millennium. The Bible has impacted our world whether we realize it sometimes or not. We think all people should be willing to learn and engage in understanding this book. That’s the hope with the museum.
RM: Sounds exciting. What does the structure for the museum look like?
LM: We’ll have a lot of different components. It will have a research lab and a research library so scholars can conduct research at the museum on some of our artifacts or other projects. There will be galleries with three main, permanent exhibits. One will be the impact of the Bible, looking at how the Bible has impacted every area of life. For instance, Looking at even fashion, how has the Bible impacted fashion? We just bought some couture fashion dresses that were used in a fashion show that was Bible-themed in New York City a couple years ago. Things like Alexander McQueen and Gucci. We’ve got some dresses that were created with the theme of the Bible in mind.
We’ll also have a look at how has the Bible impacted family structure, the American government and our history and founding. We’ll have forty different areas saying what the Bible has impacted. That’ll be one floor. We’ll also have a history floor talking about how we got the Bible that we have? When you hold the Bible today, what is the story that brought it through history to make it what it is today? Whether you are holding [an actual copy] or it’s on an app, the Bible is so accessible today, and of course that wasn’t always the case, it’s had its own story. We’ll talk through the early writings of the Old Testament, New Testament, and walk through chronologically, the story of the Bible. That will have a lot of artifacts and more scholarly data.
Then the last one will be the story or the narrative floor. What are the stories of the Bible? Giving a high-level overview from Old Testament to New Testament, what are the stories in the Bible?
RM: Is there any such type of Bible museum anywhere in the world?
LM: There’s not. There are small, local museums in a couple places that will talk about some aspect of the Bible or have some interesting Bible artifacts. There’s nothing to this scale or to the level of production. We’re going to be one of the most technologically-advanced museums in the world. We want to be cutting edge, we want to be excellent in presenting the Bible. We really want this to be world class, excellent, in presenting the Bible.
RM: Wow! Do you have involvement with the museum yourself?
LM: Yes. I started working on the museum project right out of college, in 2010, and have worked for them ever since. I was one of the first employees with the museum. I still work on special projects for them.
RM: Before I let you get away, what can you tell me about your grandfather’s new book?
LM: It’s called, Giving it All Away and Getting it All Back Again. It comes out in April 25th. I will be helping him launch the book, which is really fun. I love the book. I just finished reading the pre-released copy. It’s a fantastic book! I really recommend it to anyone. You don’t have to be in business or be a CEO to want to read it. This is a book that is about faith and his faith journey through the different seasons of his life. It’s a lot about family and wanting to leave a legacy. He shares some of the succession plan for Hobby Lobby and what it’s looked like to run a company that has grown to be what it is today, and is still growing.
RM: What words of wisdom from your grandfather would best exemplify his legacy?
LM: I think that my grandpa has done so many things really well. The things that stick out in my mind that are really significant are to live in light of an eternal perspective. To invest in things that are eternal. For him, that is investing in God’s Word and the souls of men and women. Investing in souls and God’s Word. That’s why our company gives half of our profits away every year to different faith based non-profits.
RM: Wow…fifty percent?
LM: Yes, every year. We give away fifty percent of our profits in order to invest in these eternal things. Investing in programs like Museum of the Bible that is doing work to serve the Bible. The Bible is going to outlive all of us. We want to invest in eternal things. Also, to live radical generosity. In his book, my grandpa talks about what led him to have the generosity of giving fifty percent of our profits away. That’s generosity in every area of life, not just with finances, but with the way that we care for others, the way we care for our family, the way we serve our communities; to just live generously in order to serve the Kingdom.
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