While there are many business leaders there are few that can leave a legacy beyond their lifetimes. Steve Green seeks to do just that with the creation of the 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC which opened in November of 2017, three blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The museum was built at a cost of $500 million. Steve seeks to increase the relevance of the oldest and most historic book in the world, uncovering unique historic artifacts and showing how the past is relevant to the present with strong values and ethics. Outside his philanthropy, he is best known as a business leader and President of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the world’s largest privately owned arts and crafts retailer. Founded in 1972 by his father, David, in 600 square feet of retail space, the chain has grown to more than 950 stores in 47 states. Today, Hobby Lobby and its affiliates including Mardel Stores have combined annual sales of more than $7.7 billion and employ some 43,000 people.
Steve and his wife, Jackie, have been married for 38 years and reside in Oklahoma City, where Hobby Lobby is headquartered. Their family includes a son, five daughters, a daughter-in-law, three sons-in-law, and six grandchildren.
Tell us about Hobby Lobby and the story of how your family founded and built the company.
My dad started his retail career when he was in high school, when he started working at a five & dime store, and then eventually went to work for a company called TG&Y, a general merchandise company. While he was working at TG&Y he saw a design trend, where people would put together a collage of small frames on the wall. He saw a need for these small frames and borrowed $600 to start a manufacturing company making mini frames. That was in 1970, two years later, in 1972, he leased a space measuring 1200 square feet, placing a small Hobby Lobby store in the front and the production business in the rear. He liked the name after seeing a Hobby Lobby store in Houston and decided to utilize it. They are no longer around. It took him three years to finally give up his day job at TG&Y. He left TG&Y in 1975 and took a half a cut in pay to go full-time on this new startup called Hobby Lobby, and it has been growing ever since. I started working full time in 1981 when we had eight stores. We ended 2021 with 956 stores in 47 of the 48 contiguous states. We’re not looking at Alaska or Hawaii. We will open in the 48th state probably sometime next year in Vermont, the only state that we don’t have a store in right now. And we’re adding 30 to 40 stores a year. We can put about fifteen hundred in the 48 contiguous states. So, we are about two-thirds of the way there, we will open store 1000 next year. We have been working hard to get to 1500 stores as quickly as we can.
What obstacles did your family face building the company, and how has the cyclicity of the oil business affected you?
When we started the business, it was just about making ends meet- you’re trying to survive and you have bills coming, taxes and invoices to pay while trying to grow the business. It was the oil boom-bust cycle that created one of our largest challenges back in 1985. That is the only year we lost money when the oil boom busted and affected Oklahoma and the surrounding states. It had a huge impact on our business. During the spring of 1986, my dad invited the family over to his house to let us know, he didn’t know how we would survive. We made all of our profits at the time in the fourth quarter, we were going into the slow time of the year, the summer months, when he was having banks call our credit line and vendors calling, it just didn’t look promising at all. He had always been able to figure out how we would be able to pay the bills. But in the spring of 1986, he didn’t see how we could. It was a challenging time. He’s written about this in his book called More Than a Hobby, where he talks about how he spent a lot of time just crying out to God. As a Christian family, we would pray and ask God to intervene and it felt like God did intervene because 1986 wound up being almost double the most profitable year that we had ever had. He has taught the family that part of the lesson from that particular experience was the idea, the concept that our business isn’t ours, we are only stewards of what God has entrusted to us and blessed us with. This is fundamental to the way we operate our business. In 1985 everyone was going out of business here in the oil patch, and we easily could have been one of those that would not have been around. But we do believe God helped us through that experience.
Please tell us about some of the obstacles and challenges you have had to face and how you got through them.
We have had many challenges over time. The most recent one was COVID. We had all of our stores closed early in 2020 and were being shut down state by state. There was a two-week period where we had all of our stores closed. We didn’t know if we would survive with huge leases payable every month and no income coming in, that couldn’t last for very long. Many people experienced the same thing and didn’t survive COVID. Once we were able to start opening our stores we started doing very well, because our industry was a winner from COVID. We have been experiencing a significant increase in our sales for the last couple of years which have been very good years. This period was kind of a feast or famine, where we thought we would not be able to survive to having a very good year. Another time we didn’t know if we would survive, was when we were being told by the government that we had to provide abortion products to our employees for free under our health plan. This violated our Christian belief that taking a life is wrong. We believe that being a part of the abortion process would be the same as taking life. We had to sue the government which we never imagined doing. We travel frequently overseas and appreciate the freedoms that our government gives us. Our government is not perfect, our nation is not perfect, but it has been a force for good in our world in many cases. Thus, when we were told we had to provide abortion products, we felt like the only option we had was to sue our government. The fine, if we did not provide those products, was $1.2 million a day according to our calculations. It was an evolving law as everybody is familiar with. We are thankful that ultimately our case went to the Supreme Court and we won. Hopefully people will ultimately realize that it was a win for all Americans because it was based on religious freedom. And while it may be what I believe today, it maybe what somebody else believes tomorrow, so it is a win for everyone in our nation. We had three times in our history that we were challenged with our survival – 1985, Covid, and the Supreme Court case, and we were fortunate to get through them all.
Please tell us about the history of Hobby Lobby philanthropy.
In the mid-90s, when I was overseeing a lot of the accounting functions I was curious as to how much we were doing in the way of giving as a company. It was just a part of what we did as Christians. We tithe, or give 10% of our income personally to our church. I wondered if our business was giving a 10th of its income. When it was analyzed we fell short. I thought it would be nice for us to increase our giving. It was during that time, in the mid-90s, when we were introduced to a ministry we were excited about and came up with a five-year plan that would accelerate our giving in a significant way, to a point where dad was concerned the goal couldn’t be met . It was an ambitious five-year plan. We did end up meeting that goal and at the same time we were giving over a tithe of our income. We have continued to accelerate our giving of Hobby Lobby’s profits with half of the profits today going to charity.
What’s been the focus of Hobby Lobby’s philanthropy?
Our philanthropy covers a variety of things. However, a lot of our giving has to do with the Bible, it could be translating the Bible, the Bible Museum that we put in DC, or the distribution of Bibles around the world. The first ministry that expanded our giving would give Bible portions in over 100 countries around the world. We grew up in a Christian home, my grandfather on my dad’s side was a minister of the gospel, he pastored small churches, and my grandmother, on my mother’s side, would serve in youth camps at the church she grew up in. We have had this love for the Bible that has been passed down. We believe the Bible has had a great impact for good in our world and we want to encourage people to consider it and to have a copy of it in their own language. We want them to be inspired by it. That’s why a lot of our giving has focused on the Bible.
How are decisions made for your philanthropic giving? Is it a team effort with your family?
The capital sits in a donor-advised fund and a Hobby Lobby Giving Committee was set up. It is composed of seven family members who meet once a month to analyze and evaluate opportunities that have been approved. Once something has passed our initial evaluation, we are presented with a one-page summary sheet the committee analyzes and then votes on. Our 3rd generation, my parents’ grand-kids, are not part of the decision making however they can attend the meeting and observe the process, to see how those decisions are made. The majority of our giving is to a few as we prefer to have more impact and give more to a few rather than give a little too many.
How have you engaged your children with the value of that philanthropy and giving?
In addition to being able to observe our monthly meetings, we also have given the 3rd generation consisting of my kids and my brother’s kids a small fund to learn about philanthropy. They get together to make giving decisions on their own. They have been able to present what’s on their heart and organizations or ministries that they have vetted and are excited about to the larger Giving Committee. In some cases, we’ve supported their initiatives. We have gotten them engaged by letting them observe and by letting them make decisions for themselves.
What inspired your family to start Museum of the Bible? What are your expectations from the museum and how it will influence people and society?
We were somewhat tricked into it, and the reason why I say this is that it wasn’t something we were planning on doing. My brother opened a Christian bookstore which sells the largest selection of Bibles in the country. He had mentioned from time to time that it’d be neat to open a Bible Museum. This wasn’t something that we were actively doing or planning. Then a group of guys that wanted to put a Bible Museum in Dallas asked if we would help them acquire a building for a museum. We were looking for a while, but nothing developed. Then they mentioned an artifact that we could buy at a real good deal. We offered to buy that artifact for their museum which started our collection. As a result of the downturn in our economy in 2008 and 2009, our collection expanded quickly. From a single item that Cambridge’s University was selling at a Sotheby’s auction to a whole 10,000 piece collection that belonged to a collector who had been collecting for 30 years. As our collection grew, we simply had a feeling of obligation. We had the resources to get started and a collection that was rolling. Those guys had the expertise, but they had neither the resources nor a collection. This just became our project. Then we started to think what if God did not want the museum in Dallas. I felt the museum needed to be where it would have the most impact. I looked at the largest 10 metros and the other two cities that stood out to me were New York City and Washington, DC. Thus we were looking at all three cities, Dallas, DC, and New York City. We conducted a survey, and the survey showed it would be best attended in Washington, DC. We focused on DC when the building we are in became available and it was acquired. We bought the facility for $50 million a few blocks from the National Mall and started renovations in 2015. It was a rapid and exciting journey to our opening in November of 2017.
What are some of the highlights of the museum and the most significant artifacts that you have?
We look at the Bible in three ways, the Bible’s history, its impact, and its narrative. One of the visitor’s favorites is our Thea award-winning, 30-minute experience, where visitors encounter significant narratives from the Hebrew Bible, including the stories of Noah’s ark, the burning bush, and Passover. So it is not an artifact, it is an experience, a walkthrough, built by designers that build exhibits for Disney. The exhibit has won many awards and prestigious awards for that industry. Our museum has different floors with different exhibits. The narrative floor gives the visitor an idea of the Bible stories. The history floor is where we have more of the artifacts. There are some significant artifacts including some of the oldest portions of the Bible, including a portion of the book of John and the book of Romans. We have a significant codex of the Pentateuch that is one of only five known in the world. There are some significant artifacts, but in my mind the most emotionally significant artifact is a replica of an artifact- the great Isaiah scroll, which is a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The second floor is the impact floor where we show how the Bible has had an impact around the world. And a particular item on that floor that I would point out would be a replica of the Gutenberg Press.
We have heard Elvis’s bible is popular and shows the influence the bible had on the former King of Rock ‘n Roll.
Yes we have Elvis’s bibles on display with his original notes. One of his favorite quotes was, that to judge a man by his worst deed is like judging the ocean by a single wave. So, a lot of his comments were in the Psalms and we have the notes he made in the bible and it clearly had an impact on his life.
What’s your mission? And how would you like to be remembered?
The museum’s goal is to present the facts of the Bible. On the history floor we look back at the oldest evidence for the Bible. The earliest evidence starts with the archeological record. Then we move into the manuscript evidence and on to the print and digital age. We end the history floor by looking into the future, the effort to finish translating the Bible into every language. The impact floor shows how the Bible has had an impact in every area of life. We don’t hide from the fact that some have manipulated this book to justify what they wanted. For example, we had a slave Bible exhibit. A bible printed for slaves where Exodus was taken out. That is the book that tells of the children of Israel being freed from slavery. My argument is don’t blame the Bible for man’s misuse. When the Bible has been followed as designed, it has been good for mankind in every area of life. The third way we look at the Bible is its narrative. We want people to know what the Bible story is.
The mission of the museum is to inspire all people to engage with the Bible. If after a few hours in the Museum our visitor leaves and as a result engages with their Bible, we will have accomplished our goal and I believe it will serve our visitor well. This book has blessed our family, it’s informed our business and served our nation well. None are perfect, but to the degree each has followed its principles it has served each well. My personal mission is to first raise my family to believe and follow the principles that God’s given us in His Word because I believe this book is what it claims to be. Secondly I want to encourage as many people as I can to consider it and hope that they would accept and embrace its message of a loving God. It’s a gift that’s offered to those that accepted that.