Traveling the backroads of the Holmes County Amish settlement, it's hard to miss the signs of a thriving entrepreneurial community.
Long known for their skills on the farm, in recent years Amish have opened small businesses by the bushel, easily recognized by simple signs proclaiming "No Sunday Sales." There are an estimated 9.000 Amish-owned businesses in North America, many of them centered here in the country's largest Amish settlement. Some of these firms employ up to 30 or more people, and have multi-million dollar annual sales.
Furniture-making is the most dominant Amish industry in the area. Visitors find everything from the one-man hickory rocker shop to behemoths of the business such as furniture builders Homestead or Country View, both located near the hamlet of Mount Hope. Many Amish furniture makers ship their product coast-to-coast.
Homebuilding and manufacturing are two other industries where Amish thrive. Pioneer Equipment in Wayne County is the leading horse-drawn equipment manufacturer in America, with a surprising 1/3 of its clientele non-Amish - often hobby farmers and horse enthusiasts.
Amish construction crews travel to Cleveland and Columbus to work on jobs in upscale neighborhoods. While many businesses are oriented to a non-Amish clientele, some firms, such as buggy makers and plain clothing sellers, cater mainly to an Amish customer base. A few even operate in what one might consider "non-Amish" fields, such as accounting, auctioneering, or alternator and engine repair.
What about the women?
Amish females play key roles in the running of firms and sometimes operate their own businesses as well. Crafts, baking and quiltmaking are common businesses for Amish women. One local Amish woman runs an apple butter business with her husband. Women are an integral part of the home and business and are often closely consulted on business decisions by their spouses.
While some farmers plow on in the community, Amish have been driven into business by a combination of large families and high land prices. While farming was the first choice of occupation a generation or two ago, more young men nowadays have their minds set on opening a shop or starting a construction crew than picking up a pitchfork.
Because the Amish population doubles every 18 to 20 years, (and, as the Amish say, God isn't making any more farmland) it's likely that business will remain the most viable way for Amish to make a living at home.
Amish businesses have shown a five-year success rate above 90 percent - dwarfing the non-Amish rate of around 50 percent. Their entrepreneurial success has allowed them to support families which average seven children in size.
Amish businesses are important for another reason - they allow the father to work at home with the family, replicating the at-home dynamic of the farm. Working with their children, parents can pass along a solid work ethic, as well as values of honesty, frugality, and cooperation that have helped Amish society prosper.
There are a number of reasons for Amish business success, most of which don't require you to ride a horse-and-buggy.
A Shared Work Ethic
Let's clear one thing up first. Amish don't love every job. You'll still hear the occasional grumble at getting up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows or to get an order of furniture out the door. On the whole, the Amish perception of work may be a bit different from what non-Amish are used to. As local gazebo maker Ruben Detweiler explained it, the chance to work is rewarding - a gift, even.
"I got two hands, I'm healthy and I love getting up in the morning knowing I got a job to go to," he explained. "That is a blessing in itself."
Detweiler's attitude to work helps a lot. A positive attitude to work makes the job go faster. When you enjoy what you do, you tend to get better results.
Humility guides the Amish manager's approach. Anyone used to a job were they've had to do all the dirty work, the Amish approach tends to be different.
"I'd never ask an employee to do something I'm not willing to do," is a statement often heard from an Amish boss.
A humble leader will take the time to join his employees and even do the "dirty work" from time to time. Many Amish bosses are full-time workers themselves in the shop or on the construction crew. Working so closely with the boss causes workers to respect them, and better appreciate company goals.
In Amish society, home and business are intertwined. Upon visiting home enterprises of the area, you'll notice the children are often involved in some way.
Amish wouldn't have it otherwise. Work is a way to teach children skills and values that have carried Amish society for generations.
An Amish child of just five or six will often have a small task - tending animals or sweeping up in a shop, for example. As children get older, they'll handle more difficult tasks, until graduating from school after eighth grade. Amish children are granted an exemption from schooling past age 14 in most states, thanks to a Supreme Court decision (and if you ask them, you'll find most are excited to be done by then).
By the time he's in his mid to late teens, a male Amish youth may be working full-time at a business and may even have some management duties. Amish females work out as well, often as waitresses, babysitters or hired help. For women, this typically ends at marriage or at the birth of the first child.
Amish business owners also stress getting spouses involved. Many Amish wives take care of a business' accounting, or contribute raw labor when time is tight. In a few cases, roles are reversed - with a husband even working in his wife's company.
Above all, Amish stress the importance of keeping the family together, and they know that family and business go hand-in-hand.
"If you're gonna be unhappy at home, you're gonna be unhappy at work, too," explained one furniture maker. "That's just the way it is. Whatever's inside your heart's gonna come out."
An Emphasis on Quality
Most buyers of Amish products agree on one thing: the quality. Whether it's the finish on a bedroom set or a fresh-baked pie, Amish pour their full effort into what they make. Amish bishop and furniture maker Menno Graber explained the simple reason why: it's the right thing to do. When it comes to cutting corners, he acknowledged that "some people (think), 'Well, this won't hurt, they won't see it.'...Well, then, if you buy it, would you want it that way?"
When it comes to the Amish business story, we've only scratched the surface. But one thing is for certain: the Amish aren't reinventing the wheel when it comes to business. Sticking to common-sense principles and time-proven values has been a winning business formula for Amish in Ohio and in other communities across the nation.
Erik Wesner is an Amish researcher and writes the Amish America blog at www.amishamerica.com. Find out more about Amish business in Erik's new book, Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive, in local shops or online at www.amishbusinessbook.com.
This story was first printed in the May 2010 issue of Amish Heartland.