Management, Plain and Simple

The Amish have an enviable success record. Is it their lifestyle or the way they work?

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Grant Heilman / Alamy

Amish buggies traveling along Lancaster County Road in Pennsylvania

The Amish are famous for what they don’t do. That includes driving cars, using electricity and having phones in their homes. But it turns out that the Amish understand as much as or more than their English (i.e., non-Amish) neighbors do about getting businesses off the ground. A new study in the Global Business and Economics Review says the failure rate of Amish businesses is less than 10% in the first five years, compared with 50% of small businesses in the U.S. over the same time period.

How can a people whose preferred mode of transportation is a horse and buggy do so well in the modern marketplace? That question intrigued Erik Wesner, a former sales manager. His exploration of the Amish approach to business can be found in his fascinating book Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive (Jossey-Bass). Despite the group’s insular nature, Wesner was able to live and work among its members for three years. “We’re not going to become Amish,” he says, “but I think some of the cultural values that the Amish display consistently are things that non-Amish people can adopt and incorporate.”

Some of those values will seem foreign to harried urban workers. The Amish are known for their plain lifestyle, marked by simplicity. That carries over to an employer’s relationship with his employees. A typical example, says Wesner, is an owner occasionally working alongside his employees: “One thing I heard consistently was ‘I’d never ask an employee to do something that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself.’ It’s like a mantra. They will exhibit that by jumping in sometimes and doing the dirty work.” Though it’s below the boss’s pay grade, he says, “that helps align their interests with yours. It makes an impact.” A builder Wesner interviewed occasionally takes his 18 employees out for breakfast, on the clock. The result? In the high-turnover construction industry, his employees have stayed with him an average of nine years each. So do the customers, because Amish businesses value relationships over onetime deals.

The Amish also deliver detailed craftsmanship born of another era. Jonas Stoltzfus Jr., 42, and his brother David manufacture luxury leather goods for Ralph Lauren in a converted barn in East Earl, Pa. The incongruity isn’t lost on Stoltzfus. But having been a dairy farmer, he’d rather work higher up the value chain. “We’re trying to make a living,” he says.

A rigorous work ethic is another norm. Daniel Fisher, 36, painstakingly manufactures wire hairpins at his home workshop in the village of Bird-in-Hand, Pa. The hairpins are intended for Amish and Mennonite women, who keep their hair swept up. The work is “extremely tedious,” he admits, but adds, “I enjoy being with my wife and kids so we can work together.” Large Amish families provide a ready source of labor as well as a financial incentive.

The Amish have also learned to work outside their enclave–outside their comfort zone, in B-school parlance. That takes the kind of flexibility displayed by Moses Smucker, 59, the owner of two businesses in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Smucker, a big man with a bushy beard and a straw hat, starts his day a 55-mile (about 90 km) van ride away in Lancaster County, waking at 4 a.m. to feed the horses. “I come down here, and I adapt to this,” he says. “I go home, and I adapt to that.” Doling out packages of liverwurst, headcheese and beef jerky, Smucker is a born salesman. “This place doesn’t know what hit ‘em,” he says. “I yodel, I whistle, I sing.”

America is unlikely to see an Amish CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The Amish leave school after eighth grade and eschew the Internet. The pacifistic Amish also don’t believe in lawsuits. Yet, says Wesner, their success proves that “you don’t need an M.B.A. to run an effective business.” There’s life in commerce for those more dedicated to the Golden Rule than the golden calf.