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A Workplace Revolution
U. S. A. | APOSTOLATE | NEWS
How Regnum Christi member Peter Freissle’s personal conversion led him to reorganize his company around Christian principles.

Peter Freissle
Peter Freissle, CEO of the Polydeck Screen Corporation.

This is the fifth article in a series entitled Inside the Apostle.

December 30, 2011. As the New Year rolls around every year, many of us dream of making a fresh start. But for Peter Freissle, the “fresh start” that revolutionized his personal and working life was not a goal of his own making. It was a gift from God that he has since capitalized on, multiplying it by ten like the good steward of the Gospel.

Originally from South Africa, Peter Freissle is the CEO of Polydeck Screen Corporation, a company that makes screen panels for coal, aggregate, and mining industries all over the world. His father had started the business in South Africa in 1959, and Peter was instrumental in building up the US branch that had been established in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1978. Thanks to his hard work and dedication, it grew quickly, expanding from 30 employees to over 200 and attracting clients from some of the biggest mines in the world.

As much as the business was growing, Freissle could not escape the nagging feeling that something was missing in his life. He was a practicing Catholic, happily married with four children, and doing well at work, and yet he still felt that something was off kilter. So when he heard about a local Ignatian spiritual exercises retreat offered by the Legionaries of Christ, he decided to give it a try.

That was when the revolution took him by storm.

Paradigm shift

During the retreat, a series of simple questions set Peter Freissle on a journey that has since changed his life. One of those questions was “Is God the center of your life and do you allow him to influence all the key decisions you make?”  Another was “Have you compartmentalized your life in such a way as to exclude God from certain rooms in the house of your soul?” And “Are you prepared to let God enter the house of your soul and have unconditional access to its locked rooms?”

Within the silence of that retreat, an intense conversation began, together with a profound experience of being personally loved by the same God who created the universe.

It was in that personal conversation that Freissle had two fundamental insights: first, that he was not the owner of all the gifts he had received, but their steward before God, just like the servant in the parable of the talents; and second, that the commandment to “love your neighbor” had to take concrete form in the way he treated those closest to him, including his wife and family, employees, suppliers, competitors, and clients.

“That’s where this whole paradigm changed for me, when I no longer saw people as there to be used for my own selfish needs, but for me to serve them,” he said.

The concept of servant leadership struck him deeply.

“I realized it’s not about leading others for your own sake, but asking how you can serve others through your leadership role. That’s where I really realized that my role in the company was far greater than just making a profit. I was there to serve others. I also realized that God would not ask me how much money I had made but rather what good I had done with the money and talents he had given me,” he said.

And just as strong was the realization that he had been personally forgiven by God.

After experiencing the mercy of God, “I knew I had to give back. I wanted to
old me new me
Two radically different ways of envisioning God's presence in one's personal and professional life.
share the incredible story of God’s love and forgiveness with everyone I could come into contact with. Then I realized God has given me an incredible opportunity of the company as a platform for ministry,” he said.

He also realized that, like many men, he had been compartmentalizing his life, giving the lion’s share of the pie chart to work, the rest to family and social outreach, and a tiny sliver on Sunday to God. In the retreat, a new idea occurred to him: what if the pie chart were radically restructured so that his relationship with God lay at the very center, irradiating its influence to all of the other parts of his life?

It was a different way of thinking of his faith, a more integrated way of living it. A more real way.

Insights into action

After returning home, Freissle immediately began looking for ways to act on the insights he had received. He began by asking his “neighbors,” starting with his wife and kids and moving into the business world,  what they thought of the way he had been treating them, and what they would suggest for improvements.

“The feedback came fast and furious,” he recalled. “It was a huge eye-opener for me, and in many ways it was embarrassing for me to hear what people really thought of me.”

Based on conversations with employees and on his own reflection, Freissle realized that preaching a message of love could not be done by words alone. In fact, he wanted to be careful not to take a “Bible-thumping” approach, which he foresaw would only alienate people who had never experienced the love of God in a personal way. Instead, he realized, the key was to make God’s love present in the workplace through the way he treated other people. If the workplace was to be his new platform for ministry, the pulpit had to be acts of true Christian charity, day in and day out.  He had to be a living witness of the message of God’s love.

“In order for people to believe in an invisible God, they seek visible signs of his existence and of the fruits of his love in the real world,” he said.

That visible sign is the Christian’s sincere effort to “live the message through practical acts of caring, generosity, kindness, respect, and love in the workplace before you begin to declare Christ,” said Freissle.

Freshly humbled by the awareness of his own failings and God’s forgiveness, Freissle set out to demonstrate that love in a quiet way, with actions, and also with the attitude of one who strives not to be perfect, but to give his best every day.

One of the first things Freissle did at Polydeck was to gather the leadership team and tell them that the company’s core vision and mission statement needed to be updated to reflect Christian principles.

“I got up and said, ‘I’m the President of this company and this is truly what I believe in my heart and what I believe God is calling me to. And this is not an option. This is the direction that our company is going. You have a choice to follow or not,’” he said.

As radical as it sounded, the team was able to see that he was speaking from a deep conviction, not from a whim. So they sat down together and drafted this new “core values statement”:

We are a company grounded in Christian values of honesty, integrity, kindness, respect, and a sense of social responsibility. We strive to honor God in all we do. This is reflected in how we conduct our business and how we care for our employees-our greatest asset.

After defining the vision, Freissle and the team began implementing practical measures to begin ministering to the employees and helping them with their spiritual, human, and material needs. They instituted the corporate chaplaincy program, hiring a full-time corporate chaplain to give the employees someone they could talk to in confidence about their personal problems and questions. Jeff Brown, the non-denominational Christian chaplain, knew everyone by name just a few weeks after arriving. His mission is to spend time with employees, open all meetings with prayer, give marriage counseling, lead prayer groups, and even assist with financial issues, such as teaching budgeting skills.

Next, Freissle and his team started a “Caring Committee” with representative members from every rank of the business. The Caring Committee is allotted a portion of the company’s revenue and is given the authority to use them for external charities or to meet the extraordinary needs of an employee. For example, when the janitor’s house burned down and he had nowhere to stay, the Caring Committee passed around an envelope for donations, then matched the employees’ gifts 4 to 1. They gave the money to help the janitor rebuild his house.

Initiative followed initiative: Freissle and his team also began the “Caught you caring” t-shirt program, which awarded a “Caught you caring” t-shirt to employees who had been “caught” doing a good deed and received nominations from fellow employees.

In addition, the Community Charity Fund was established to give employees control over a certain amount of money which they could award each month to an external charity of their choice. The employees also donate their time to work at charities: with the “Polydeck dollar concept,” employees get 13 Polydeck dollars for every hour of time they donate to a charity. If they earn 80 Polydeck dollars, they get the day off with pay. Many employees now offer their Saturdays to do something for others.

As another “visible sign” of God’s presence at Polydeck, Freissle had an interfaith chapel built on the premises as a place where people could stop during a break and touch base with God.

Although Freissle himself is a devout Catholic and an active Regnum Christi member, he felt it was important to present Christ first.

“I feel God has called me to encourage as many souls as possible, into an intimate loving relationship with Him,” he said.

“In our company we have many faiths and Christian denominations, of which only about 30% are active church goers. In our community, only about 3% are Catholic.  Accordingly, my approach is to be seen firstly as an authentic Christian, and secondly as Catholic.  I would put a lot of people off by trying to force Catholicism down their throat. In many ways, the Protestant and non-Christians don’t understand the fine details of my Catholic faith and so I feel it is important to first introduce them to Christ through authentic acts of Christian love and caring and then later, when the time is right, to discuss the details of my Catholic faith,” he said.

“At Polydeck what we first try to do is “display Christ” through acts of love and kindness and then once we have gained their trust that our intentions are authentic, we “declare Christ” by sharing the Good News of Jesus in a non-threatening manner and provide an environment that encourages them to form a loving relationship with Christ. In our multi cultural and diverse workforce we try to follow the example of Mother Teresa who said we should encourage everyone to be the best human beings they can be. If they are Christian, we encourage them to be the best Christians they can be. If they are a Muslim, we encourage them be the best Muslims they can be by loving God with all their heart and serving their neighbors.”

“When you don’t try and force things on people but rather encourage them with acts of kindness and love, it’s amazing how over time they are drawn to the source of that love, Christ himself,” he said.

Fruits of God’s presence at Polydeck

These initiatives, which are only some of the many charitable and faith-sharing activities at Polydeck, only describe the outside of the changes taking place at the company.

The real story, insists Freissle, is on the inside—in the stories of how employees are changing and opening themselves to God as a result of the unique corporate culture at Polydeck.

Some of the most valuable fruits in the past five years have been the personal conversion of many employees who have accepted Christ and made radical changes in their personal life outside of work. In the past five years, there have been over 65 conversions to Christ within the company.  Not all of the employees are Christian, and Freissle is careful to respect other religious traditions and not to impose Christianity on someone who is following another faith. Yet, even so, there have been conversions from other religions to Christianity.

Thanks to the marriage counseling and marriage retreats offered by the corporate chaplain, many marriages have been saved. Several employees have conquered drug addictions through an alliance with a Christian drug rehabilitation center.

And there are countless stories of individuals who felt the need to tell Freissle personally how much working at Polydeck has impacted their personal and family life, giving them new direction, hope and meaning to their lives.

It was a wonderful surprise for Freissle when at a company family event, a small boy came up to him and hugged him, saying, “Your company has helped get my dad back. He has stopped taking drugs, he doesn’t hit my mom anymore, and he goes to church with us.”

Employees have frequently commented that the people at Polydeck are not just their coworkers, but their family. Doing good things for other people and for each other has brought them together in a way that no corporate teambuilding program could ever do. Because they have taken care of each other in very concrete ways, the term “family spirit” is more than an ideal or a nice rhetorical phrase. It is a reality that they live every day.

The bottom line

Is the application of Christian principles in the workplace good for the bottom line?  At Polydeck, the answer is a resounding YES.

According to company statistics, the voluntary  turnover rate for employees in the past five years has dropped from 35% to 5%, while the absenteeism rate was reduced from 5.5% to 1%. People are staying at Polydeck because they like coming in to work every day. One employee even told Freissle that he would come to work every day even if he were paid half of what he currently makes.

Over the past 5 years, sales have increased by 45% even in the midst of a global recession, and the growth has been funded without any debt.

Productivity measured by output per person has increased dramatically, while the scrap rate was cut in half. The on-time delivery rate improved by 15%, and the workman’s compensation rate was reduced dramatically from 9% above the industry average to 16% below it.

For Freissle, these statistics point to an employee workforce that is aligned with the company’s goals because they feel that the company is looking out for their best interests.

His Way at Work: a new ministry

After seeing how powerfully God had worked at Polydeck, Freissle felt that an additional step was needed: he felt called to share Polydeck’s story and methods with other businessmen so that they could implement Christian principles in their own companies.

Together with Scott Gajewsky, a friend, successful businessman, and Christian who had been actively involved in a ministry to homeless families, Freissle started an outreach organization called His Way at Work. Its mission is to equip and encourage business leaders so that they can bring Christian charity into the workplace in ways that are bold and authentic, yet also practical and respectful.

Over the last four years, His Way at Work has helped over 40 companies, offering coaching and on-site guidance for applying the same principles that transformed Polydeck. The total number of employees touched by His Way at Work is up to 28,000. Many of the companies are small, while some have up to 9,000 employees.

For Freissle and Gajewsky, watching the ministry grow has been a chance to see the wonders God can do with a simple yes, and how he can make one initiative grow into a thousand blessings.

“It’s interesting to see what God can do with a couple guys and some things he has put on their heart,” said Gajewsky.

For Freissle, it has been an adventure he could never have predicted.

“Someone once told me, ‘God cannot steer a parked car, so put your pedal to the metal and then sit back and enjoy the ride.  And when God takes the wheel, be prepared for some amazing things to happen.’ Some skeptics may call these events ‘coincidences,’ but I have come to see them as ‘God-incidences,’” he said.

“I firmly believe that all God asks of us is to put in an honest effort and he will do the rest,” he said.

For more information about how His Way at Work is transforming businesses, visit the web site at www.hiswayatwork.com.  To view a video of Peter Freissle giving his testimony, click here.


PUBLICATION DATE: 2011-12-21


 
 

Related links

Catholic.net web site
Mission Network
Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center and the Center for Family Development
Changing Hearts
Cancun-Chetumal Prelature
Challenge
ConQuest
Helping Hands Medical Missions


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Sponsored by the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement, Copyright 2011, Legion of Christ. All rights reserved.


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