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Business Secrets Of The Trappists, Part 1

Agust Turak

Forbes.com is currently featuring a must-read essay by August Turak on selfless service, a core value of the American Armed Forces. Military families understand the challenge of translating the spirit of service into the practicality of everyday actions. It is learned through real life experience and sacrifice, and reinforced by communities sharing common ideals that help build strength, unity and success, whether in a family or in defense of a nation.

In our current economic upheaval, business leaders are also returning to this fundamental concept. In his essay, "Business Lessons from the Trappists," Turak examines the remarkable results produced by a monastic community abiding by the principles of Service and Selflessness, providing a field guide for organizations everywhere seeking to instill meaning and purpose into the core of their operations. Championed by Fred Allen, editor for the Forbes.com Leadership Channel, this essay inspires our highest aspirations of service to the greater good.

August Turak, 04.14.09

Their business model embodies an invaluable 1,500-year-old management paradigm.

This is the first part of a four-part series that ran over four consecutive days.

For more than 12 years I have been going to a Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, S.C., called Mepkin Abbey. As a monastic guest, I wear a habit and temporarily live the life of a Trappist monk. I go primarily for spiritual reasons, but as a businessman and entrepreneur I am fascinated by the worldly aspect of the monastic life.

Mepkin, like monasteries the world over, runs a business. These monastic businesses are invariably based on just the kind of low-margin, highly competitive "me too" commodity products--cheese, fruitcakes, eggs--that any first year MBA student would "wind down" and "exit" as fast as possible.

Yet these monastic businesses are hugely successful. The demand for their prosaic products far outstrips supply, giving monastic businesses the kind of pricing flexibility usually associated with dominant brands or patent protection.

Most important, the monastic business model is far more than a curious anomaly. My own experience applying the monks' lessons demonstrates that the magic behind monastic businesses can be universally applied with equally impressive results. Business executives everywhere should be learning from the monks.

First, some background.

An essential part of the Rule of St. Benedict, the founding and still-definitive guide to monasticism written by St. Benedict in the sixth century, is that all monasteries must be self-sufficient and self-supporting communities. Trappists accomplish this primarily through manual labor. Indeed, the Rule of St. Benedict calls monks to manual labor as an essential part of the monastic experience. Orare est laborare--to pray is to work--is a principle that new monks quickly learn at Mepkin.

Mepkin Abbey has several thousand acres of woods, pastures, gardens and forests. Until recently, the monks ran an egg business with 40,000 chickens; they recently transitioned into the mushroom business. The manure from chickens is collected, processed, bagged and sold as compost, and the trees that cover much of the monastery are managed as a renewable forest.

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