Al Erisman – Tension between People and Profit, Learning from ServiceMaster
Tension between People and Profit, Learning from ServiceMaster
By, Al Erisman, CFB Fellow
ServiceMaster was known for its work in janitorial, disaster recovery, pest control, and many other services generally associated with “low-cost labor.” But they had another idea. The first five leaders of the company between 1929 and 2001 were committed Christians who held to these ideals: all people are image bearers of God and worthy to be treated with dignity and respect, and the work their people do is meaningful and important. They established these distinctives in the very fabric of their company through four objectives: to honor God in all we do, to help people develop, to pursue excellence, and to grow profitably. Ken Hansen, the second leader of the company was one time asked, “How do you manage the tension between people and profit?” He likened this to pulling an elastic exercise strip to the point of tension. “It’s hard to do,” he said, “but you had better hold on to both ends. If you don’t, the tension will be released, and you will get hit on the head!”
As the company continued to grow and add new services to its mix in the 1980s, it passed $2 billion in revenue; it continued profitable growth year after year ultimately reaching $6 billion in revenue as a globally traded company in 40 countries by the year 2000. When Bill Pollard took over as CEO for the company in 1983, he brought in Peter Drucker, the noted author, consultant, and business professor. Drucker asked the leadership team what business they were in. Many made suggestions, but Drucker told them they missed the key point. “You are in the people development business,” he told them. Pollard continued to remind the leaders of ServiceMaster of this truth while he remained in leadership.
In the 1980s and 1990s, ServiceMaster was rated as top service company in the country by Fortune, and in 1997 was named one of the most admired companies in the world by the Financial Times. Harvard Professor James Hesket wrote two case studies and said, ServiceMaster “has broken the cycle of failure in the services business by reengineering jobs, providing training, and delivering a level of self-esteem that many workers have never had in the past. Their starting point for financial success was adherence to shared values.”
Pollard wanted to avoid turning care for people into a profit strategy by reminding his team, “People need to be the subject of work, not the object of work.” He was not denigrating profit, stating, “Profit is a means in God’s world to be used and invested, not an end to be worshipped. It is an essential source of capital.” And then he added, speaking to those who would view a leadership position as a status for themselves: “There is an awesome responsibility in leadership. A leader has only one choice to make—to lead or mislead.”
 Albert Erisman, The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating Tension between People and Profit, Hendrickson Publishers, 2020, p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 137
 Ibid, p. 96
 Ibid, p. 158
 Ibid, p. 10
 Ibid, p. 158
Al Erisman is a writer and speaker, chairman of the Theology of Work Project Board (www.theologyofwork.org), and a founding board member for KIROS (Christians in Business in the Seattle area). He is a senior fellow of the Center for Faithful Business at Seattle Pacific University and the Institute for Marketplace Theology. He was an inaugural Senior Technical Fellow and the director of technology for The Boeing Company and emeriti faculty member at SPU. He has authored numerous books including The Accidental Executive: Lessons on Business, Faith, and Calling from the Life of Joseph; The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating Tension between People and Profit; and the forthcoming book On Assignment: Biblical Insight for a Polarizing World. He and his wife Nancy live in Bellevue WA and they have three children and seven grandchildren.
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