Business as Mission to End Poverty: An Interview with the President of Reynolds

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Bob Larson is the President of Reynolds Food Packaging, an industry leader in the production and sale of a full range of stock and custom products for the foodservice, supermarket, food processor and agricultural markets. He was also recently elected to the Board of Directors for Five Talents International, an organization that is fighting global poverty through microfinance and education.

Since 2009, Larson has supported Five Talents by fundraising and speaking on behalf of the organization in the Chicago area. In May of 2009, he traveled with Five Talents to Kenya and Uganda as part of a Business as Mission team, where he taught business skills seminars to entrepreneurs. I had the pleasure of traveling with Bob on that trip, and recently had the opportunity to catch up with him to talk about the high calling of his work and fighting poverty.

What has your leadership role at Reynolds taught you the most?

In order to be successful you’ve got to unleash the full potential of the people in the organization. It’s impossible for an organization to succeed unless you do that. You need to have a clear strategy and mission in terms of where you’re trying to take the business, and then make sure that you’ve communicated that well. You provide clarity of roles and responsibilities, then empower people to perform and hold them accountable for results.

What has your faith taught you about leadership in an organization like Reynolds?

I bring a certain set of values to my work, but I don’t hang them at the office door when I walk in. It also, I think, has to do with treating people with dignity and respect. Sometimes I’ve got to make some tough decisions about people and whether they can continue with the organization, and when I do it in a respectful way allowing them to maintain dignity… I think that’s the most important thing. And it’s also how I treat not only employees, but also other stakeholders in the building.

I like what you just said, and going back to how you talked about setting a clear vision and empowering people… That’s exactly what Jesus did. He set the vision with His disciples, and then sent them out and empowered them by saying, “Now you go do as I did.”

Absolutely! That’s a good point! What’s the expression? You’re not a leader unless someone’s following you, right?

That’s right! Now, you guys are going through a little bit of change at Reynolds. What's going on, and what helps you adapt to those kinds of changes?

For the most part, people wake up in the morning wanting to succeed and not fail. There’s lots of opportunity for things not to go right when you’re trying to integrate companies, businesses, and organizations. And when things aren’t going right, it’s important to recognize that 80% of the time it’s not the people, it’s the position that you put them in. So you have to have tremendous patience, which isn’t always easy. You have to remain centered because it’s difficult making decisions that affect people’s livelihood.

You’ve recently been appointed to the Board for Five Talents, and I know that that’s come out of your experience on a Business as Mission trip. What is a Business as Mission trip, and why did you want to go on one?

I met Craig Cole, the President of Five Talents, and he explained the microcredit piece of the organization. But Five Talents is also faith-based with a Business as Mission element to it. People who have some level of expertise in business can share those skills and experience with people who are trying to come out of poverty. It aims to teach people the entrepreneurial skills they need to start a business. That’s what attracted me to it. I describe it sometimes like Doctors Without Borders. In a medical crisis, physicians will volunteer to go in and treat people and train doctors in underdeveloped parts of the world. In some respects, that’s what Business as Mission does for people. We go into places of economic crisis and give people a better shot at succeeding. We help them build out a business plan that exponentially increases their odds of success.

How did your business experience prepare you for a trip like that?

I sometimes joke that if you’ve ever run a lemonade stand, then you could teach the Business as Mission curriculum. Oddly enough, Business as Mission brings in teachers who have had some level of business success. They have positional power so they bring a degree of credibility. When we come in, the students in the class say, “Hey, this is great that my teacher has actually run a business.” I also think that brings some credence to what Five Talents is doing by mixing a faith-based message with the training.

What is the most important thing that you felt like you brought home with you from the trip to Kenya and Uganda?

It takes so little to help someone improve their lot in life. The folks who were in the class were obviously motivated to be in there. In Uganda they literally walked miles to hear us speak, which is pretty humbling. But also we visited people who had received loans and been through the program, and we saw the impact of the program. I just said “Wow, if we could do more of these Business as Missions trips, and not just do them ad hoc.” Imagine the success rate we could have if we made four trips per year and if we had the money to support that many loans. But I think just holding those two-day classes… if a quarter of those people could succeed, that’s a tremendous impact!

Absolutely! So, what was your favorite memory from that trip?

We were in Uganda in a very remote village with no running water and no electricity. We were in a church that was completely overflowing with people. I don’t know how many hundreds of people showed up. At the end of the program, when we went through the graduation, each of the classes presented us with a gift. One of the groups gave us five Ugandan Shillings. I think the value was around thirty-two cents or something like that. But the note was that they were giving back five talents to us. Wow! Not only did we teach a business course, but we left an obvious message there around the parable.

How have you continued to share that experience with others since then?

I talk about it a lot. I’ve done a lot of fundraising for Five Talents. In our church we have a program called Faith in the Marketplace, and Craig will be coming to talk about his program to us. We’re looking at how we can build upon the Business as Mission as a point of differentiation for Five Talents.

You've recently been elected to the Board of Directors for Five Talents. In what ways do you hope to have more impact on the global poverty crisis in that role?

I’d like to help them build their brand better. It’s a tremendous organization. I think the microcredit, the Business as Mission, and the faith-based nature are unique, but not well understood. We can help it grow by mentoring the team. They are really good at being a non-profit organization, but I’d like to help them become a little more broadly understood and differentiate Five Talents from the billions of other microcredit organizations out there.

How has your experience fighting poverty affected you in your leadership role at Reynolds?

It’s allowed me to more easily talk about my religious experiences in a business environment without being overly religious. It’s hard to know the extent to which we can talk about religion and business in our culture. When I got back from Uganda, people asked where I had been, and I told them that I was on a Business as Mission trip. It enables you to talk about a faith-based business-related non-profit and what we do in that area in a business setting. It’s not as threatening to some people. It hooks them and helps to get people involved in conversation who wouldn’t otherwise. It’s allowed me to talk about what I’m doing to eradicate poverty in the business setting.

How do you balance everything that you are doing with your family? Are they involved in some way?

Yes and no. My kids are grown and on their own pursuing their own lives. My wife is very supportive. She’s really involved in our church in missions and outreach, so she’s been very supportive of Five Talents in the church. But Five Talents is really my thing, and she supports me running off to strange places in the world and spending time with the Five Talents team.

What would you share with others who would desire to have an impact in the fight against global poverty but aren't sure where to start?

I got involved with Five Talents after I talked with Craig. He had a profound impact on me, and I knew that I was being called to do this. I don’t think that it was an accident that I literally bumped into this guy at a cocktail party that I didn’t want to be at and started talking with him. Next thing you know, I’m in Uganda. Obviously, you have to pray about it and have some desire to have an impact. But I wasn’t sitting there thinking, “How can I help eradicate poverty in Uganda this year?” Everything just came together. But you have to have your eyes open, literally and figuratively. Think and pray about it, and opportunities will come. It may not be Business as Mission, it may be something different, but opportunities will come.

Photo by Dan King, used via Flickr.