“If I had asked them what they wanted, they would’ve said, ‘Faster horses.’”
At least that is the way Jason Ballard explained his decisions about products at TreeHouse, the home building company in Austin, TX. It is honestly incredible what they are trying to do. After two years they are still in business, which is its own triumph—as that is not the story of most entrepreneurial hopes.
As they go further up and further in to their vision of being “a Whole Foods version of Home Depot,” they are learning their business. Like in all of life, we don ‘t know anything from the outside; it is only as we enter in that we begin to know. That is as true of the marketplace as it is of marriage, as it is of any other dimension of our complex vocations as human beings.
The great question will be whether Austin, and America, buys into their dream. The quote from Jason is reportedly what Henry Ford said about his plan to build cars. No one thought we needed them– faster horses was about all anyone could imagine.
But the TreeHouse people are committed to a healthier life for everyone, and their store reflects that. With questions about health, performance, sustainability, and corporate responsibility written into their reason-for-being (see attached photo), they are asking harder questions about what they sell, and why they sell it. And to their great credit, they are doing their darndest to make sure that caring about life and the world isn’t just for those who “can afford it.” With remarkable creativity they are reimagining point-of-sale realities that make even the most “far-off” seem possible. Ask them about financing solar power for your house!
Push-come-to-shove, most of us would choose more responsibility than not. In our better moments we understand that shortsightedness is just that; it isn’t good for us, or for anyone or anything. But to live that way? To buy that way? To sell that way?
Seeing TreeHouse at work reminded me of a conversation I had with Wendell Berry several years ago, along with my son Elliott and two executives from a global corporation. After listening to us for a day, presenting to him as we were a very different way to do business—we called it “the economics of mutuality” that some years later is actually making its way into the world –he said to us, “If you want to make money for a year, you will ask certain questions. But if you want to make money for a hundred years, you’re going to have to ask other questions.”
Jason and his TreeHouse colleagues are asking those other questions. What will be fascinating to see is whether the rest of us are willing to step in and step up, with our own hopes and dreams, willing to make choices about the way we live. Will we make choices for “a hundred years,” not merely the one we are now counting, on this last day of October in the year 2013.