John Zeiser has served as President of Southern Champion Tray since 1993. One of the leading manufacturers of paperboard packaging, the company serves customers throughout the USA, Canada, Mexico, Central America and Europe. They employ over 650 people with the aim to be “easy to love and hard to love.” Christian principles have guided the company since its beginning in 1927.
LMW had the opportunity to sit down with John to learn more about his history with Southern Champion Tray and how his faith impacts his leadership.
1) Walk us through your vocational journey.
I graduated from Virginia Tech in 1982 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I had no desire to go to work for the family business, having worked there summers and Christmas breaks since I was 15. I interviewed around the southeast, but I didn’t like the locations where jobs were offered. As a result, and without a clear sense of what I wanted to do, I accepted the “consolation prize” offer of returning to Chattanooga to work for Southern Champion Tray. In my mind, it felt like returning to a summer job.
Then, unexpectedly, several months before graduation, my dad called and asked, “how would you feel about moving to Ft. Worth, Texas?” I think I said yes before I heard the rest of the story. I moved to Ft. Worth following graduation and joined the 7 person operation as Plant Manager. I was fortunate to learn the business in the setting of a small plant where I had to do a little of everything. I was mentored by a longtime executive from our Chattanooga office. We grew slowly but steadily and two years later, we purchased a building in nearby Mansfield, TX and moved the operation there.
In 1989, I began grad school at SMU in the Executive MBA program. I graduated in 1991 a month after the first of our four children was born. At that time I was given my next assignment as VP of Operations working at the corporate office in Chattanooga. I’m not sure if the MBA was the real reason for the promotion or if my parents wanted their first grandchild close-by, but it was a good time for a change of role. By the time we left Mansfield, I had seen the TX plant grow from an unprofitable 7 person operation to a profitable 75 person operation. It was a wild ride at times, but I loved it.
In 1993, my dad made the decision to move me into the President role and my brother, Bruce, became VP shortly thereafter. I was 33 at the time. Dad was 57 and in the prime of his career, so it was an unselfish decision on his part. Bruce and I both benefitted from the opportunity to take on more responsibility while Dad was still available to answer our questions. He did a great job of letting us lead, never once grabbing the reins, and he was a great encourager and advisor. Now that I am the age my dad was then, I marvel at his willingness to trust us and to play more of a support role for our benefit. He felt it was for our good, and the company continued to grow and prosper, probably to the surprise of Bruce and me and many of our associates. All I can say is, God is good. Dad was modeling unselfish leadership and a reliance on God to provide.
2) What was it like stepping into your role at Southern Champion Tray with the history of your family’s involvement?
Any time you go to work in a multi-generation family business, there’s an awareness that you are carrying the baton for a lap in a longer race and you don’t want to be the guy that drops it. There’s also a natural sense of family pride and desire to maintain the good name that my grandfather and father had built in the marketplace and in the local community.
I’m grateful that I was able to work at a distance from the headquarters and report to a non-family manager. That provided a great education and allowed me to experience some independence while still developing a love for the business. Most family business experts suggest that children be required to first work outside the family business for a period of time, and I think there is wisdom in that, but for me, spending my first 9½ years with SCT in Texas provided a sense of independence and was a wonderful blessing. It’s also where I met my wife, so I’m extra thankful for the time in Texas.
During those early years, my long-distance relationship with my Dad was great. He was my #1 encourager/advisor/sounding board, and I learned a lot from him. Had I been reporting directly to him, I suspect my own pride would have prevented much of the transfer of wisdom that he was seeking.
3) How are ways you have seen the Lord work in your vocational journey?
Too many to count. I can summarize it in two words – God Provides. Not always on my schedule, not always the way I expect or want, but always on time and better than I could have planned. He has blessed my imperfect attempts to honor him in the business. I’ve especially seen it in his provision of people to help with the business, whether as employees, managers, advisors, or counselors. There have been lots of great “God-stories,” I’ve seen God’s protection of the business through near circumstances that you really can’t explain except that it was God’s provision. As I look back over my 36 years with SCT, most of the growth in the business and the success we’ve had is hard for me to explain apart from God.
The great thing about a family business is the opportunity you have to impact people’s lives. On occasion that may be through a direct relationship, but primarily, I’ve seen it in giving gifted people the opportunity to serve our customers and each other by living out the values we have built the business around. We have a high trust environment where people who have demonstrated an understanding of the desired culture are pretty free to act for the benefit of our customers and employees. We’ve also been able to use the profits to support organizations whose work is in keeping with the mission and ministry of Jesus.
4) SCT seems to truly care about stewarding God’s creation with the innovative work you all do. Can you speak into why that is so important?
Stewardship is at the core of our approach to business. It’s more than stewarding creation, although I enjoy being part of a business that uses a sustainable, renewable raw material to make products that are recyclable, biodegradable, and provide a necessary function in the supply chain of our customers. But the real sense of stewardship for me is in the understanding of ownership. My brother (who serves as our Executive VP) and I were raised from early on to understand that God owns it all. You can look at a business as an investment that you own, or as an asset that God owns and is allowing you to care for. We have always understood our role as that of a steward of God’s assets. We work hard, of course, but it’s comforting to understand that our job is to be faithful and do our best and trust Him for the results. God is good whether the business prospers or not, but having that perspective has been helpful. And SCT has prospered, growing from about 100 employees when I joined, to just shy of 700 today.
5) SCT’s values are biblically based, how has that been as a leader to faithfully follow and lead a company with Christian morals? Have difficulties ever come because of the values SCT strives to follow?
Our intent is to operate SCT following biblical principles of how to treat people. That applies to customers and employees, but also to suppliers and competitors. We’ve been fortunate to have a team that embraces the values.
Chuck Zeiser (my father) made the decision in the late 1960’s that he wanted his faith to matter 7 days a week, including through the business. Many of the practices that he started have remained, including a weekly prayer gathering, the presence of a Christian Counselor on staff, and the practice of tithing the profits of the company. We bring in outside speakers occasionally to address a topic of interest from a Christian perspective. There has been very little pushback and most people have embraced the culture of SCT, regardless of their personal beliefs.
Every leader has values and every business reflects the values of the leadership. I think most people would rather work in a place where the values that Jesus taught form the basis of how you treat each other. I guarantee you our suppliers appreciate the way we pay our bills. The golden rule works in all relationships. Biblical financial principles work. Telling the truth is never a bad business decision.
I’m not suggesting that we get it right every time, but we are surrounded by an amazing group of people who have done their best to live out our values. You don’t have to be a believer to find value in doing things God’s way. It works and it makes for a much healthier company culture. I’d even say that it creates a competitive advantage. You wouldn’t believe how often customers and visitors comment on the difference in dealing with the people at SCT. Bruce and I are very fortunate to get to work with the people who make up SCT. It’s a remarkable team.
I’m thankful we have been spared from too many difficulties related to our values. On the contrary, after decades of simply trying to live them out, we put them in writing about 3 years ago and it was gratifying to see how people not only accepted them, but truly embraced them. (You can see them on our website at https://www.sctray.com/about).
6) What does being a “Christian business leader” mean to you?
I think the question is really, “What does being a Christian mean?”. I don’t think it matters whether you are a CEO or a customer service rep or a nurse or a homemaker or a student or anything else. If you’re a Christian, you have a relationship with your creator; there is purpose and meaning in everything you do that is done in a way that glorifies God.
7) Do we need to cultivate more Christian business leaders, and if so, how do we do that?
C.S. Lewis wrote on the subject of Christian books, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.” I think the same thing applies to Christians in business. We don’t need more “Christian businesses” (I would argue there is no such thing as a Christian business anyway), but we need more Christians that are serious about representing Jesus and living out Biblical truths wherever they are. The business world is a particularly wonderful place to apply biblical principles. They work!
How do we cultivate more? Through sharing the gospel, through discipleship, and through churches that teach the word of God from a perspective that God’s word applies in all cultures and all situations at all times.
8) If you could say one thing to other Christian business leaders, or the business community as a whole, what would it be?
Can I have two?
I’d say first, spend regular time in the Bible. Read it through annually if you can. Ultimately, the only things that last are people and the word of God. There are lots of great business books (I particularly love Good to Great by Jim Collins, and Business by the Book by Larry Burkett), but there is only one book that will change you and guide you through all the situations you encounter in life. The Bible is the source of true wisdom, for life and business. Time invested in that book will return better dividends than any business venture can.
Second, remember that all of us in leadership roles are stewards, not owners. God owns your business and He owns you too. Even the abilities we have that allow us to lead a business are gifts that were given to us. The issue is whether we acknowledge that and submit to that reality. We were created to glorify Him. Business is a great platform to carry that out.