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Q&A: Randy Russ, Executive Director of Operations, Christ United Methodist Church

Making the transition

Coffee CEO now director of operations at church

Randy Russ is executive director of operations at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson where he leads the church’s “business as mission” work for African coffee growers. He is the former CEO of Louisiana-based Community Coffee and self-described “teacher at heart” who recently transitioned from teaching future entrepreneurs at Belhaven University. Russ also has a background in semiconductors who studied industry management and marketing at Louisiana State University. Russ is 54. He and wife, Lisa, and have three grown daughters.

Q —  Tell us about your entrepreneurial background.
A —
My parents are from Mississippi (Laurel and Lamar County). My roots go back to the 1830s but my dad after World War II became involved in the oil industry, so we lived all around the world — in Houston, Texas, where I was born, in Venezuela as a young boy then in Louisiana where I grew up.

In my dad’s career he would go into new territories for his company and start a sales force and usually a blending plant to provide chemicals to the oil industry.

He encouraged me at a young age to be entrepreneurial. My very first job was washing dishes in the high school cafeteria. I got a quarter a week for that, and I took that money and bought penny candy. I marked it up to two cents and sold it in my neighborhood to kids who couldn’t go to the store.

All the companies I have worked with have been very entrepreneurial. I graduated from LSU, and I went work in the semiconductor industry in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and worked for three startup companies including Apple computer. I went back to LSU to do doctoral studies in marketing.

So after finishing my coursework at LSU in 1988, I was teaching at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette in marketing, and a consultancy that I was doing part-time work for asked me to join them full-time. Community (Coffee) was one of our clients. I joined the company in 1994 as director of HR and then moved into operations then became president and CEO in 2001.

Community is a closely held family-owned company. The Saurage family are the owners. The Baton Rouge Business Report recently reported they were $150 million in sales.

Q —  What was Community Coffee like?
A —
When I was there, we grew from a couple hundred to a couple thousand employees. The family is a very encouraging. The family wants to do things right. The motto there was, “Everything we do has to be as good as our coffee.” There was no compromise on quality or integrity. The Saurage family members are quiet Presbyterians with a deep faith, but not in-your-face. (When I stepped up to lead the company) I said I promise I won’t stay too long. I’ve always thought there’s a time and a season for everything.

Q —  What trips up a lot of entrepreneurs?
A —
They don’t take the time to study and research the industry. They think their idea – they’re the only person who thought of it. They end up investing a lot of time and money and then they find somebody’s already doing it, or they’re doing it better. And then they fail because they didn’t take time to do the research.

Q —  Ethics in business translates into profit?
A —
All people have an inherent sense of justice and when business leaders treat their employees in unjust ways, the employees get even, and the business owner is probably leaving 20 or 30 percent revenue on the table because of the way they’re treating their folks. That’s something that I talk with entrepreneurs and students about – you think you’re in charge, but you’re not. It’s your employees who are in charge, so you need to treat them with dignity and respect, pay them fairly, pay them on time, do the right thing for your customers. It may cost you a little bit in the short run, but in the long run you will reap huge rewards for that.

Q —  Tell us about your “business as mission” work on an African coffee farm through Christ United Methodist Church.
A —
Developing sustainable relationships in other parts of the world. Community Coffee was the first company to export coffee from Rwanda after the genocide and also started an industry-leading model in Columbia, South America for coffee supply from a growers’ cooperative … Growers got 10 cents per pound of coffee for social development. The first thing they voted to do was to build an agricultural high school.

My work in the church is really to bring business and mission and ministry together. It’s a movement called BAM — business as mission — where you’re bringing the needs of the world into the business community and seeing if there are profitable ways to accomplish both the Kingdom work as well as business objectives.

We’ve just started a home for street children in Nakuru, Kenya. In February that property was purchased with our partner church Lakeview Africa Gospel Church.

I always tell entrepreneurs, first, do no harm to yourself or others, and begin with the end in mind. … The business as mission model begins with the end in mind, and that is to self-generate funds in order to provide the cash flow to run the ministry.

Nakuru is a town of about 1.5 million. There are thousands of children on the streets. Due to HIV, their parents have died. Due to lack of economic opportunity, the parents can’t feed them, so they turn them out.

We felt called to go to the next level and build a residential community for them to go to school, to learn a trade and to graduate and go on to a productive life. So we purchased 12 acres through the generosity of the people of Christ United Methodist Church, and with that acreage, there will be room for about 80 children. Kenya is still very agricultural. I like to describe it as “Mississippi 100 years ago with cell phones.”

Q —  Would that work in the Mississippi Delta?
A —
Hand outs lead to dependency, and we see that in the Delta where it’s a dependency culture. And in Nakuru what we hope is that through a business model, we can generate 50 percent or more of the ongoing expenses to maintain this ministry. What we’re researching right now is high-value crops and foods that can be grown … The feed themselves by eating the food from the farm, and produce is sold in the marketplace. One entrepreneur and Christian business man … in another part of the country is our advisor … He has been doing this (model) for 20 years. We’re also talking about auto mechanics because it‘s on a main highway . … All the goods that pass into East Africa go right in front of this place. So we’re thinking about a training school for auto and diesel mechanics.

Haiti is an example of a country that 95 percent of their gross domestic product is aid. In the long run, it does not work. We see that, in 50 years in the Delta, what do we have to show for it?

More on Russ:
Favorite Book:
Bible
Favorite Movies: Jane Austen films
Favorite Food: Greek and Lebanese

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About Amy McCullough