tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Too much faith, not enough reality?

A while back, the local alternative weekly newspaper ran this interesting feature about a woman who opened up a storefront Prayer Center in North Minneapolis. The article describes the center as a spiritual oasis in an otherwise rough-and-rumble part of the city. I read it and thought, "good for her," referring to Jariland Spence, the woman running place.

Earlier this week, this little item ran on a local TV station. Seems the Prayer Center fell behind on its rent and the landlord is evicting Ms. Spence. Understandable, but seems kind of sad.

I think this is an interesting story, because so often non-profits divorce themselves from financial reality. It works for a while, but reality always catches up with you.

I have been involved with non-profit organizations where the mindset was "We are doing God's work; God provides." They used that thinking to avoid developing a viable business plan -- one that limited expenses to actual revenue, or raised enough revenue to cover expenses. I would argue that we needed to work harder to match expenses and revenue, only to be accused of lacking faith. I don't really know whether my faith is sufficient, I just know that you can't outspend your revenue for very long and expect to stay in business.

So I wonder about Jeriland Spence's case. Did she not take the fund-raising aspect of her venture seriously enough? Is the landlord a bad guy for booting out someone who is doing God's work? Did Spence rely too much on faith and not enough on donations? Can you have too much faith? Is God not providing in this case? Or does He simply have some other plan for Spence and that store front?

I don't have the answers but I am fascinated by the questions.

Friday, November 28, 2008

An afternoon of college football

Last weekend, my sixth-grade boy and I accompanied the 9th and 10th grade boys of Chesterton Academy to the Notre Dame football game in South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish lost to Syracuse, 24-23. Maybe they will do better tomorrow night at USC.

What a tremendous thing game day is on the campus of the University of Notre Dame! We arrived on campus about five hours before the 2:30 kick-off. Sounds like a lot of time, but it flew by.

Professor Charles Rice, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame law school, serves on the Chesterton Academy advisory board; he greeted us with donuts and shared a few kinds words.

We then visited the campus book store, which was abuzz with fans buying sweatshirts and memorabilia. The scene was as busy as Wal-mart at 6 a.m. this Black Friday. I found tranquility in the part of the store where they actually sold books. What a selection! Someday I really need to return to do some serious book shopping.

Coming out of the store, we ran into the Notre Dame cheerleaders, who were bundled up to accommodate the 26-degree temperature. They visited with our high school guys and we got a picture to commemorate the moment.

We toured the administration building, famous for its gold dome which supports a gold statue of Our Lady. Inside, the first-floor hallways are adorned with murals. I saw several depicting the life of Christopher Columbus. We visited other buildings before entering the Notre Dame Basilica, a wonder of church architecture. It is absolutely beautiful inside. Then we visited the Notre Dame grotto, located behind the church. It is a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, France. The place was buzzing with football fans, many of whom took a few minutes to kneel and pray.

We had lunch at a tailgate party, courtesy of the father of the Chesterton headmaster. A long-time Notre Dame fan, he clued us into some team history and accompanied us into the game. But before going in, we waited for the Fighting Irish marching band, which must number in the hundreds of members. We followed as they marched into the stadium from the center of campus.

My boy and I had row-six seats at the 5-yard-line in this bowl stadium that seats 55,000. By kick-off, every seat was filled. We watched a great game with Notre Dame getting out front to a 23-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Syacuse score and then scored again with only 43 seconds left in the game to go ahead, 24-23. Notre Dame had a chance to win the game. With seven seconds left, they tried to make a 53-yard field goal but the ball missed the uprights and the Irish lost.

It was a great experience, although our feet grew cold from the snow and ice that were packed on the ground. It has snowed 10 inches the day before the game and although they had shoveled the seats off, the ground was covered with frozen precipitation. We left the game with about 10 minutes to go, running to the Basilica where we warmed up and waited for Mass to start. Apparently, they always have Mass 30 minutes after home games. What a great idea for Catholic football fans!

We slept well that night, staying in an economy hotel some 40 miles way in Chesterton, Indiana. For all of us, it was a great experience; and for my boy and I it was the source of memories we will carry with us forever.

The University of Minnesota, where I went to college, is moving into a new outdoor football stadium next season after have played more than 25 seasons at a domed stadium in downtown Minneapolis. I hope that the U of M is able to recapture some of that great football atmosphere that makes college campuses so special on fall afternoons.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thoughts on Chesterton Academy

Chesterton Academy opened in September and is off to a very promising start. The school has received a lot of attention; yesterday Chuck Colson featured The Chesterton Academy in his Breakpoint broadcast.

Here are some of the things I was looking for in a high school for my children. These are some of the key features we have built into the Chesterton Academy.

First, I wanted a school that thoroughly integrates the Catholic faith into a college preparatory curriculum. A good high school should teach teenagers math, science, literature, the arts, history, etc., and good study habits so they can legitimately apply for acceptance to any of this country’s top tier colleges. A good school should teach these subjects in the context of faith. While it is good to learn how to count when you study math, it is also important to learn what you are counting, that is, God’s creation. While it is good to study stories in literature class, it is better to study those stories in context of the overarching story of man’s relationship with God.

Second, I wanted a school that manifests that faith in a concrete way, in addition to the curriculum. For a Catholic, daily Mass and a faculty pledge of fidelity to the Magisterium are obvious manifestations.

Third, I wanted a school that is meaningful and socially relevant. I want a school that will prepare students to make a difference in the world, not merely get along in the world. Attacks on human life pose the greatest social injustice of our time. The Chesterton Academy is intended to be a shining affirmation of human life. We are preparing students to build a culture of life.

And we are preparing our students to take their knowledge and faith out into the world. Our goal is not to create a separate subculture, but to change the culture of death into a culture of life.

And, fourth, I wanted a school that teaches entrepreneurship, resourcefulness and leadership. So often people think school is the place you go to prepare to get a job. Well, I’d like to prepare students to create a job. I want a school that teaches students they can create their own future; they don’t have to look to a big company or the government to give them a future. The Chesterton Academy is a lesson in itself, along those lines. It was started by a group of parents who identified a need and figured out how to make it happen. Nothing is guaranteed; we are not getting any government funding. People can make things happen, but they have to try. I want a school that will encourage people to try.

The Chesterton Academy operates in a very modest facility. I wish it had better, but the facility it has is sufficient. The no-frills environment of the school teaches an important lesson. We live in an area where there are ample community resources. They should be used. We don’t all need our own private facilities with the latest bells and whistles. Let’s use what’s available to us, and be creative about identifying those resources.

Perhaps the biggest trap we set for our teens in today’s world is unrealistic materialist expectations. Kids are so surrounded by opulence and wealth that they get a false idea about the importance of “stuff.” By conducting classes in a modest environment, we are trying to promote gratitude, which I believe can be an effective antidote to excessive want.

The modest facility also helps us to keep our tuition relatively low, which I believe is very important. Typical schools that include Catholicism in their curriculum average around $10,000 per year, per student. For a family of four or five, relatively closely-space children, this tuition rate presents a sizeable obstacle to Catholic high school education. At Chesterton Academy, the tuition is $5,500 per year. I acknowledge that is still a sizable about of money, but at least it creates a more affordable option.

Nearly all schools offer students various levels of financial aid if their family cannot afford the entire tuition bill. This is laudable, although I have never been comfortable providing the personal financial disclosures necessary to request such aid. Furthermore, I suspect it would be difficult for parents to work collaboratively on school policy issues when, despite assurances of privacy, decisionmakers know which families have paid less to attend the school.

Every high school offers parents a set of trade-offs to consider as they decide where to send their teens. Some schools offer excellent opportunities for sports and extracurricular activities, but no catechesis. Others offer great facilities and curriculum, but at high tuition costs. Others, like Chesterton Academy, offer great teaching and curriculum but fewer amenities in the areas of facility and extra curriculars.

If you ask an eighth-grader “where do you want to go to high school,” they will typically identify a school that is pleasing to the eye, or a school to which most of their friends are going. I think parents have to consider the decision much more seriously. You only get one opportunity to educate your teenager. What lasting message do you want them to get during those high school years? You can judge relatively easily what your kids will learn from the curriculum, but consider also what they will learn from the environment of the school.

Dale Ahlquist and I started talking about forming a new high school in spring of 2006. We hired a magnificent headmaster and he has put together a stellar faculty. Several people have made generous donations to get the school going. Nine families have come together to send their kids to the school this inaugural year. Tonight, we are hosting a parents’ meeting regarding new students for the 2009-2010 school year. There are a lot of people who want the kind of school described here.

I certainly will write more about the Chesterton Academy as this venture develops. In the meantime, check out the school’s web site.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lunch with Mr. Bernstein

I had lunch with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Carl Bernstein on Friday. He was in town to address a business group and I had the good fortune of sitting at Mr. Bernstein's table, along with 6 other people.

Bernstein said the job of a journalist is to present the "best obtainable version of the truth." With the emphasis currently on celebrity, sensationalism and gossip, he said journalism is falling far short of its responsibility.

He said the press and politics are part of a civic breakdown in this country since Watergate. The press and politics, he said, are supposed to exist for the public good. "We have seen a failure of the system, of incompetence overwhelming competence," he said. "We've had a failure of accountability, and it didn't start with the Bush administration."

He said congress has completely abdicated its responsibility to provide oversight of the presidency. He said the "biggest story of the last 25 years is the wholesale corruption of our Congress and our state legislatures."

He blamed the state legislatures for gerrymandering congressional districts so that most seats are "safe" for one party. He said that in any given election, only about 100 of the 425 House seats are truly competitive.

Bernstein noted that it costs $100 million to run a campaign for senate in a large state such as California, Florida, New York or New Jersey. "That's $50,000 per day," he said. There is a big difference between a fundraiser, which is what a politician needs to be to finance a campaign, and a leader. A fundraiser, Bernstein said, says whatever is necessary to please the group in front of him so that they will be inclined to contribute money. People who are trying to raise money don't take unpopular positions on issues. They can't afford to. Therefore, we end up with a Congress full of people who don't take solid positions on issues, people who don't provide leadership. Bernstein criticized the press for not calling politicians on this deterioration of leadership. Bernstein said public financing of Congressional campaigns would solve this problem.

Bernstein is more philosophically liberal than I am, but I greatly admire his work. He started his career as a reporter at the age of 19 and has covered just about everything in the span of several decades. In addition to breaking the Watergate story in the 1970s and writing All The President's Men, he has written a book on the life of Pope John Paul II, and a book about Hillary Clinton. He has written a memoir and a book about John McCain, in addition to several big time magazine pieces for the likes of Time, Vanity Fair and The New Republic.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thanks for the recognition

Due the the thoughtfulness of four dear friends and colleagues, I was among 10 people honored by our local Archdiocesan newspaper this past week for leadership in business. You can read about it here.

The Catholic Spirit hosted a very nice luncheon for us on Wednesday. With nearly 300 people present, MC Tom Hauser of KSTP-TV, associate publisher Bob Zyskowski and Archbishop John Nienstedt presented the awards, which were given in three categories: large company, small company and non-profit. I was one of three honorees in the small business category.

Dick, who has become a valued friend in the nearly three years we have worked together, and his wife Anne, came up with the idea to put in a nomination for me earlier this summer. They immediately approached Jackie about putting together a nomination. Jackie and I had worked together for more than a dozen years before she spun off her own business venture this spring.

At the same time, unbeknown to this trio, Christina was also putting my name in nomination. Christina has worked with me for about a year on a magazine called Family Foundations. Christina is a former Catholic Spirit reporter, so she was thoroughly familiar with the Leading with Faith awards program.

Both the nominations must have been well-written because I was notified on August 11 that I was among those selected for recognition. Within a couple weeks, Maria Wiering, a Catholic Spirit reporter, came to my office to interview me for an article. Photographer Dianne Towalski took a series of photos. I have been a reporter since my college days and have interviewed hundreds of people; for the first time, I was on the other side of the notebook. I am a bit of a ham, so I have to say I kind of liked it.

Mostly I liked it because of the story I got to tell. I have always been blessed with great employees who seem much more like friends than FTEs. Before the company can make money, everyone in the company has to make a life, and I have always been happy to help my colleagues do that, to the extent that I can. Sure, in 17-plus years of business there has been a small number of folks who didn't work out, but even those employees won my respect and best wishes for future success.

My father taught me most of what I know about entrepreneurism, and I am very grateful to him. Whatever I am in business is due to him. I also need to thank my dear friends in businesses, particularly the folks at Fredrikson and Byron, and Premier Banks, who took the extra step of congratulating me with advertisements in the Catholic Spirit. Wow. And again, thanks to my friends who took the time and made the effort to nominate me. Wow, again.

The brochure distributed at the luncheon included a statement from the U.S. Catholic Bishops' 1986 Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and The U.S. Economy. Here's what is said:

Followers of Christ must avoid a tragic separation between faith and everyday life.

The road to holiness for most of us lies in our secular vocations. We need a spirituality that calls forth and supports lay initiative and witness not just in our churches but also in business, in the labor movement, in the professions, in education, and in public life.

Our faith is not just a weekend obligation, a mystery to be celebrated around the altar on Sunday. It is a pervasive reality to be practiced every day in homes, offices, factories, schools, and businesses across our land.

We cannot separate what we believe from how we act in the marketplace and the broader community for this is where we make our primary contribution to the pursuit of economic justice.

I'd like to think that's a fundamental philosophy at our company. I am going to hang that statement on my wall in my office.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Challenges articulated by state's economist

I had a chance to listen to Tom Stinson, the economist for the State of Minnesota, address a business group recently about some of the challenges facing our state. In the near term, he said he expects a bleak economy through the end of 2009. He said inflation in the third quarter of 2008 is likely to come in around 8 percent before falling off at the end of the year.

Stinson said the housing market is near the bottom, but “there won’t be any quick pick-up in housing activity.”

What I found particularly interesting, however, were his long-range concerns. The demographics of our state will create serious challenges that no one will be able to ignore. Stinson said demographic trends will result in significant aging of the general population.

While the number of people between the ages of 55 and 69 will increase dramatically by 2015, the number of people between the ages of 15 and 24 will drop significantly. “The number of people entering the workforce will remain flat between now and 2030, while the number of people retiring will skyrocket,” Stinson said.

Health care spending in Minnesota is $3,671 annual per capita, Stinson said. For people ages 55 to 64, that figure averages $6,694, and for people 65 to 74 it increases to $9,017 and for people older than 75, the figure is $9,914. These expenses, Stinson noted, will be supported by a smaller workforce. “Aging of baby boomers will result in huge increases in resources going into health care,” he said.

Stinson also expressed concern about the quality of the state’s workforce, which will have to make up for declining numbers through increased productivity. Stinson said 91 percent of the people in the state’s workforce have a high school degree; current graduation rates, however, are at 85 percent with growing minority groups averaging even lower rates of high school graduation.

“We are not replacing the workforce with people who are as educated as they once were,” Stinson said. “We are not replacing the skill level we already have in the workplace.”

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Chesterton Academy

The Catholic Spirit has written a nice article about The Chesterton Academy, which is set to open in less than three weeks. Here's the link. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Are we in recession? Yes and no.

That’s the answer offered by Wells Fargo economist Michael Swanson. He was speaking to a business group on June 17 in Rochester.

Swanson said the answer to the recession question is a matter of perspective. “A recession is two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction, and it doesn’t look as if we are going to have that,” Swanson explained. “But are we in a recession when it comes to real estate? Absolutely. … In the economy today, we are definitely going through a very tough spot for a lot of sectors but at the same time we are barely eking out growth in the economy.

“Debt markets and housing are holding back the economy,” Swanson said. “But there are some things that are going fantastically well. If you are in the energy exploration or extraction business; the mining business, or agriculture right now, you have fantastic results in front of you. It has been staggering the amount of export growth some of the companies have had.”

Swanson said the outlook for the remainder of the year is “very weak.” Growth will be driven primarily by trade expansion due to growing global demand and a weak dollar.

Although unemployment is at about 5.5 percent, Swanson described payroll numbers as good. He said as long as people hold onto their jobs, they should be able to repay their debts. And compensation, although it may not keep pace with inflation, is growing.

Inflation is running at 3 percent to 3.5 percent. Swanson said the Federal Reserve is confident about “tamping that back down to 2 percent or lower” but he said most economists think inflation will be higher than that.

“Interest rates are going to start to rise at the end of 2008 or early in 2009,” he said, “but they certainly are not going to be high interest rates.” The low rates will keep the dollar weak for three to seven years, Swanson predicted.

Long-term, Swanson was bullish on the American economy, referencing a Congressional Budget Office study which predicted per capita income, which is at $39,000 annually today, will increase three-fold over the next 50 years due to extraordinary gains in productivity.