A Divine EncounterStories
This is a story of an encounter I had in my workplace that changed my life. It highlights one man and how his ingenuity, generosity, humility, and heart for people have impacted my family and the lives of many others. I tell it as well as I remember it from over 4 years ago, with the help of my notes which I took to not forget the experience.
Before the Meeting
To provide a bit of context before I dive into the details of the moment, you should know that I am from a really small town. Twenty-three thousand people, a lot of vineyards and hazelnut orchards, and a string of quaint coffee shops are among the defining characteristics of my hometown. Another defining characteristic is a large, local manufacturing company which employs many of the city’s residents.
My mother’s family has lived in this town for four generations. It started when my great-grandparents settled there after traveling the West as migrant workers with their 10 kids, picking whatever local crop was in season. After settling down in my hometown, my great-grandmother, Martha, ran into unfortunate circumstances and found herself raising her large family mostly alone. She held various cleaning jobs and a job as a machinist at the local manufacturer I mentioned earlier to support her family. This company would later employ my mother, stepfather, and myself.
After working at this particular company four times in 3-6 month stints before and after college, I called myself “the serial intern.” I loved working there and was happy that I could even collaborate with my mom on some improvement projects at the company.
Towards the end of what would be my last internship at the company, I became interested in interviewing the company’s founder to glean a bit of wisdom on how to start and grow a thriving business. I had heard about his knack for business and his heart of generosity and had written down some career-related questions I wanted to ask him while I had the chance.
It was a meeting I will never forget. Here are some of the questions, responses, and reflections from that day, August 20th, 2013 at 2:00 pm in Newberg, Oregon.
Approaching his office, we were greeted by his secretary. I walked into the room, notebook in hand, alongside my mother who had helped me arrange the meeting. The founder was tall, elderly gentleman with a kind smile and a quick wit. He welcomed us warmly into a sitting room with a few couches surrounding a coffee table. It was the perfect place for a good conversation.
I pulled out my spiral notebook and flipped to the first page, and after thanking him for taking the time to be with us, I began by asking the first question scribbled at the top. As the kind gentleman went on with his answer, my eyes welled up with tears. It was a completely irrational and incredibly inconveniently-timed reaction to have in front of a person I was trying to impress, but I recognized the feeling. It was an unexplainable feeling of vulnerability and freedom I had experienced in moments of worship in church. In a way, I knew there were other plans (God’s far greater plans) for that meeting than what I had sketched out in my notebook.
Attempting to collect myself, I sputtered out a few words awkwardly and apologized to the man who was concerned that something might be wrong. My mom had some idea of what was going on and handed me a tissue and encouraged me to continue with the interview. For 30 minutes, we spoke in this manner, me asking questions between wiping my eyes and blowing my nose, a feeling of God’s tangible presence in the room. As much as I tried to stop myself from crying, the tears continued. My mother eventually teared up and finally, the man did.
While he kindly answered the questions I had prepared (which I list at the end of this story), I think the most meaningful answers came from questions had not prepared.
He started out saying he is a very blessed man. He told of how he found God in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and learned to trust in someone greater than himself. He said that God had helped him through some of the toughest times in his life.
When I asked about generosity, he described that when he was a boy, his neighbors would walk over to their house to get milk. His family had cows and had more milk than they could drink. The other family had no cows nor milk, so his family gave. He and his late wife had more than they could live off of, so they gave also. Now a wealthy businessman, he explained his three personal guidelines on giving:
- Support those close to home, within a 15-mile radius of Newberg.
- Support groups instead of individuals.
- Get the “best bang for your buck” by investing in trainers of coaches who will influence large numbers of other people.
- Look for a track record of success; find someone who has already done something to help themselves instead of someone who just wants money.
He asked me what my plans were after my internship and I told him that I was moving to Denmark to start my Masters’ study in Copenhagen. He then told me not to let the Master’s degree go to my head; he said a piece of paper doesn’t mean that I am better than anyone else. As if having encountered some proud graduates over the years, he urged me to not demand a higher starting salary nor hold my degree over people’s heads. I nodded in agreement and noted this down.
The overriding theme of the discussion was that business and life is about people. He said that he could not tell me the best plane ride he’d been on nor the best dinner he’d had, but he could tell about times where people had touched his life or where he had taught them something.
My great-grandmother at her lathe (c. the late 1970s)
He went on to recount a story about my great-grandmother, Martha. Having only a 4th-grade education level from a small Indian reservation school, she was having a difficult time reading the technical drawings for the parts she was making on the lathe at his company. His company noticed this and taught her how to read them so she could understand the different machining callouts, dimensions, and tolerances. Then one day as the man was walking through the factory, my great-grandmother ran up to him excitedly with a part drawing in hand elated that she could finally understand what it was saying. On the date of the interview, my great-grandmother had been retired for 24 years and he still remembered and treasured the moment. His words echoed my great-grandmother who had told our family about her good experiences at the company.
There was no doubt in my mind that I was talking to a man whom God loved very much. In the midst of everything he said, I felt in my heart to tell him that he was a father for this generation, one who has “gone before” and laid the groundwork for others to grow and build off from. This moment touched him deeply; he became teary-eyed and said he had never thought of himself as a father for others. Thinking about this moment, I later prayed quietly to myself, “Let his ceiling be our floor, Lord.”
At the end of everything, he asked my mom and me for advice; I said to keep loving God. The tears that had started the meeting had continued to flow. The three of us then sat there in silence for some moments, as if reflecting on the special conversation and acknowledging the hand of God at work in the room. It seemed the natural response to end a meeting that was more like a divine encounter, or moment of fate. God had taken something as planned and practical as a career advice interview and transformed it into something unexpectedly beautiful and unforgettable. As we left, I remember him saying that he wished every meeting could be like that one, that it was a very special meeting with mom and daughter. I couldn’t agree more.
The “Planned” Interview Questions
Q: What inspired you as an engineering?
A: Talking to others, like his wife; get someone to listen to your “what-if’s.”
Q: What are daily practices you had as an engineering/leader?
A: Continuously improving (4-H slogan: Make the Best Better); Explain your expectations of people, lead by example; if you say there is a better way, then show them so they get the “A-ha” moment; Treat others the way THEY want to be treated.
Q: What shaped the culture of the company?
A: Don’t make anyone do something/a job that you wouldn’t do. He described how he and his wife prioritized soundproofing the area surrounding a punch press after they realized that the sound could lead to hearing loss.
Q: How did you balance business and family?
A: Ask yourself, “Am I doing something for me or for us?” Avoid EGO, which can be said to stand for “Edging God Out.”
Q: What advice do you have for young engineers?
A: Find something you enjoy. Follow your passion and give it your all.
Q: What do you wish the school would teach that they don’t already?
A: Productivity; just like the other things on the earth, the more they produce, the better they are; deliver work per day instead of time per day.
Further reading about Ken Austin