ANN ARBOR, MI—(October 9, 2005)—News Business Reporter
When most commuters are still fighting traffic, the programmers at Servant Systems are already at work writing code, debugging software, calling on customers and managing their payroll.
And when the work day is through, three of the five employees at Servant walk the 50 yards or so from their office to their home. There, they join four other men who eat, sleep, pray and study Christian scripture, all under one roof.
“We’re not technically monks, but we sort of are,’‘ said Bruce Franson, vice president and chief technology officer, who doubles as the pastoral leader of the household.
“We’re brothers with a small ‘b,’” added Don DeSmith, Servant president and a 30-year member of the order.
The attire may be business casual instead of Franciscan robes, but managers and software technicians at Servant Systems say they are no less devout. As members of Servants of the Word, an all-male religious order founded in Ann Arbor some 35 years ago, they’ve have taken vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience to God.
For the last dozen years, the men of this ecumenical group have endeavored to make quality software to support their way of spiritual life, which includes Catholic and Protestant worshippers. The name Servant reflects what the group believes is their call from God to be servants of Jesus Christ.
And like other monks of Buddhist or Christian traditions, they’ve lived a life that is mostly hidden from view.
Business among ‘brothers’
At the tranquil 170 woodland acres the Servants of the Word owns near Chelsea, faith and technology have found a quiet balance.
From the outside, their office is a mirror image of their nearby home. Inside, Servant workers type away on Dell flat-screen computers, sometimes two machines to a desk. Software manuals line the walls. Employees handle the occasional call for tech support.
At the conference room is a board table surrounded with card table chairs, a PowerPoint presentation projector and screen, and all the marketing accessories for a trade show.
Franson and DeSmith, who began running the company in 1992, refer to themselves as “monks in the marketplace.” Both have MBAs from the University of Michigan, proudly display their plaque designating them as a Microsoft Certified Partner since 1992, and speak the high-tech language of software makers.
The firm is focused primarily on helping franchisees run their businesses more efficiently.
“What our software does is help (customers) train in the best practices of their franchise, and to audit those best practices,” Franson said.
Most of those applications are for back office functions, such as managing worker schedules, projects and inventory.
Their largest customers are members of Service Brands International, the Ann Arbor parent company to such franchise companies such as Molly Maid, 1-800 Dry Cleaners, My Handyman and Two Men and a Truck.
The Servant managers say they understand the industry and how best to help both franchise companies and franchisees see everything happening in their business.
“You cannot wait for weeks to find out something’s wrong,” DeSmith said.
For one customer, Ann Arbor-based Domino’s Pizza Inc., the software measures how long it takes from the point a pizza is ordered to the time it’s out the door. By Monday morning, after the typically busy weekend period, Domino’s executives are able to view how their franchises performed, DeSmith said.
Similarly, Two Men and a Truck franchisees can analyze how efficiently their crews are managing each move.
“The franchise industry as a whole is built on integrity and trust. It’s like a partnership,’‘ Franson said.
Servant Systems is a privately held, for-profit enterprise. It pays taxes just like any other business, and managers attend trade shows and conferences in the franchise world.
But the salaries of all three members go back into the Servants of the Word ministry and to support the order’s households in this area. Any excess company profits are similarly divvied up and cycled back into the order.
Software in the soul
Once a year, Larry Hunt and other Servants of the Word members go to monasteries, sometimes in Iowa or upstate New York. They meet monks who make cheese or candy to support their way of life. Those monks are often surprised to find out how the Servants make their money.
Raised Baptist, Hunt had always gravitated toward becoming a missionary, but technology has also been close to his heart.
“I saw the (the missionary) lifestyle and said that may be me,” said Hunt, now a practicing Free Methodist and the company’s main software designer. “Word gifts weren’t my skills. I was more of an engineering guy, more of a geek.”
As he pursued an industrial engineering degree from U-M, Hunt joined the Servant brotherhood in 1976 after speaking with one of the members the U-M campus. He’s been with them ever since, living in local households and working for General Motors Corp. and later for a Christian publishing house in Ann Arbor that has since closed.
Their way of life doesn’t seem to bother most customers one way or the other, according to group members. But during a demonstration of their software at Two Men and A Truck headquarters, DeSmith and Hunt mentioned that they were monks.
“They all started laughing and we said ‘No, we’re serious. We’re monks,’” he said.
Hunt said most Servant customers get over his religious affiliation once they see the work and because the company has next to no turnover.
“After the initial three-second shock, it’s not a problem,” Hunt said.
Servant customers who returned calls to The News agreed. John Eggenberger, vice president for business development at Service Brands International, said Servant’s “Toolbox” software is in use by 175 My Handyman franchises, which employ 620 people – including 440 technicians – in the United States and Canada. The software tracks the time technicians spend on jobs and even allows franchise managers to send them text messages on new job assignments to their cell phones.
Eggenberger didn’t pick Servant Systems because of its religious bent.
“I’d rather work with a competent nonbeliever than an incompetent Christian,” Eggenberger said, noting that is not the case with Servant Systems. “You have excellent expertise and the comfort of knowing they’re going to be honest and competent, and true to their word. We could rip that contract up and still not miss a beat.”
He said their software has helped Molly Maid and My Handyman go to the “next level” and avoid the perils of scheduling hundreds of workers.
Members of the brotherhood say they want to expand the company slowly and have no ambitions to go beyond their core customers in the franchise industry.
They also choose to contract only with companies they believe act ethically, in terms of corporate honesty and treatment of their workers.
“The companies we prefer to work for, they don’t have to share our faith,” Franson said. “But we look for people who share our values.”
Origins of faith
Servants of the Word trace their roots to 1971, when the religious brotherhood was founded by Stephen Clark. Clark was also a founder of what was known as the Word of God, an ecumenical community made up of both Catholics and Protestants, which in the 1980s grew to 1,500 members who lived in clusters of homes throughout the Ann Arbor area.
Today, Servants of the Word count 90 members of their order and run two households in Ann Arbor, along with homes in Maryland and Minnesota. They also operate households in London; Manila, Philippines; and Monterey, Mexico.
Other members of the local brotherhood include a civil engineer, a Word of Life Christian administrator and an international finance manager for the brotherhood.
Even to the ecumenical community, which encourages Christians of varying tradition to work together on charitable causes such as feeding the poor and helping the sick, some find it difficult to understand the brotherhood, says DeSmith.
“People have a hard time understanding how you can be committed to your church or particular theology and yet support each other as Christians,’‘ he said. “We focus on what we have in common, which is very substantial, rather than focus on where we differ.”
Most days begin at 6 a.m. with a half-hour breakfast, followed by an hour of prayer and study. Most members work a standard work day, ending at 6 p.m., which is followed by fifteen minutes of prayer before dinner. Each day is spent with at least three hours of prayer and time spent with volunteer work.
On Saturdays, the brothers work on chores in the home, including gardening, shopping and taking care of the bills. The men take individual courses in scripture for their own denomination, and for other denominations. And although they enjoy a Saturday evening meal, similar to a Jewish seder, come Sunday they each go to the church of their choice, be it Lutheran, Catholic or Free Methodist.
After a day spent praying and working, DeSmith said he winds down like many people in the business world.
“I read the Wall Street Journal and go to bed,” he said.
Scott Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or at (734) 994-6843.
©2005 Ann Arbor News