Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity

Author: Turak, August
Publisher: Columbia University Press (30 July 2013)
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN-10: 0231160623
ISBN-13: 978-0231160629
RRP: £19.95

“It’s a quirky title. I don’t know what it is about, but it could be interesting.” This was my introduction to an unusual book, the cover of which portrays a Trappist monk holding two types of mushrooms. When I worked for Vatican Radio’s English Programme, I conducted a memorable (and highly amusing) interview with a Canadian Trappist. “My community has an irritating habit”, my interviewee remarked. “They eat. They need at least one meal on the table per day and we have to find the money somewhere, so we started refilling and selling old printer cartridges.” Within a short time, the monks were financially self-sustainable, had more orders than they could comfortably manage and were looking to franchise out some of their work. At the same time, they refused to compromise on their rigorous monastic vocation and long hours of daily prayer.

The same Trappist spirituality has inspired this fascinating and thought-provoking book, which deserves to be read by people with and without business interests. The author, August Turak, describes himself as “a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive, and award-winning author who attributes much of his success to living and working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey for 17 years.” Turak’s varied career in business, unexpectedly led to his close involvement with the Trappist community at Mepkin Abbey in Berkeley County, South Carolina, as a guest. Praying and working with the community changed him from being a student of Zen, to being deeply inspired and energised by the simplicity and generous service offered by the monks, a service which opened his eyes and his heart. Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity is partly the tale of Turak’s journey, but it is also a thoughtful reflection on their goal of self-transformation in order to become unselfish and to serve others.

According to all that Turak knew from his training and business experience, the Mepkin community’s methods of survival by raising chickens, selling eggs, gourmet pickles and jars of home-made jam should have been a total disaster. Almost nothing that the monks did could fit into an established, familiar and thriving business model. The abbey website declares, in the words of St Benedict, "The evil of avarice must have no part in establishing prices, which should, therefore, always be a little lower than people outside the monastery are able to set,” so that in all things God may be glorified." Turak describes one occasion when the monks threatened to withdraw their supplies to one outlet precisely because the owner thought that, to benefit the Abbey, their eggs should be sold at a higher price. Yet in spite of reducing their profit margins below those of other producers, the monks are amazingly successful, so much so that they are able to support themselves and the poor people living nearby.

As Turak watched and worked with the monks, he began, gradually, to understand their system: it was all a question of putting people, rather than profits, first. Everything flowed from that. Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks contains beautiful word-portraits of individual monks and the ways in which they put their spirituality into practice in their work, touching hearts rather than pockets.

Turak’s first major discovery was the importance of personal growth within and through a common mission. Each person was just that: a person with his or her own needs, desires and goals, so that everything else became of secondary value. He comments: ‘Selflessly serving the community is critical to Mepkin Abbey’s business success. All too often what cripples a business is too many people anxiously worrying about their own success and keeping a watchful eye on anyone who might threaten their position... the shortest route to achieving these individual goals is by serving the overall community and its mission.’ He uses Habitat for Humanity to show that, ‘It may seem, for example, like the end user and primary beneficiary... is the needy person who gets a house. But the other, very real, beneficiaries are all the people being transformed, one nail at a time, by the communal experience of building a house for a worthy mission. This is a benefit that merely writing a cheque can never bestow.’

A theme which runs consistently through Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks is the conviction that all businesses should strive for ‘excellence for excellence’s sake’. In other words, everybody, whether employer or employee, should, at all times, offer the very best of which he or she is capable, never being satisfied with slipshod, second-best standards which could easily be improved. People should aim ‘beyond the target’, energised, not by money, but by the desire to contribute to the wellbeing of the whole workplace and of the customer.

Turak offers many concrete examples whereby the reader can see the principles as practised in a Trappist community and then applied to the business environment. He is an American writing about America. Some of Turak’s commercial examples, such as ethical ‘cold calling’, might not immediately resonate with a readership in Britain where ‘cold calling’ generates considerable negativity amongst prospective clients. His reasoning and advice, however, are applicable anywhere as he stresses the importance of allowing staff to ‘own’ their own work environment through feeling valued and heard.

The Trappist community at Mepkin Abbey gave Turak such a living example of what a workplace can be with a bit of faith, community, concern and prayer that he and a few like-minded individuals decided to see if their principles might be applied beyond the Abbey. It was difficult, but, in 1988, he founded the Self Knowledge Symposium, a non-profit organization “reaching out to people from all walks of life looking for something more than a paycheque  from their life’s work”... and it worked.

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity is fascinating, easy to read, practical and inspiring. It could equally be for students and practitioners of business administration and for those who are simply interested in finding out what makes a Trappist community ‘tick’. Turak describes his own spiritual journey, but his conversations with individual monks give a heart-warming insight into a life lived for God. Thus Fr Christian, now in his nineties, who was a Franciscan friar, found himself asking what it would be like to give himself totally for God and thereby found that he had a vocation within his original vocation. He became a Trappist.

Perhaps the best way of summarising Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity is in Turak’s own words:

“If we want to introduce the magic of service and selflessness in our secular organisations, we must change the daily experience of the workplace. We need corporate missions every bit as powerful as Mepkin’s, and the kind of bottom-up culture that lives this mission every day... Above all we need the faith to begin, the commitment to continue, the self-knowledge that reveals how much we need others, and the trust that everything will turn out as it should.”

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