Business as Kingdom work

Dave Hataj believes business can be redemptive, Kingdom work.

Wisconsin firm succeeds by helping its workers thrive

Dave Hataj started working in his father’s gear manufacturing shop at age five, cleaning up around machines. 

When he finished his apprenticeship at the Wisconsin company 17 years later, working for the family firm was the last thing he wanted to do. 

“I couldn’t figure out how making gears, and the work world in general, had anything to do with my faith,” Hataj said in a keynote talk at MEDA’s annual convention.

He did some short-term mission work in Mexico and in inner-city Los Angeles. He worked in campus ministry and pastored at a large church.

Trips to work with the rural poor in Honduras led him to realize that giving aid to lower-income communities created dependency.

 “We learned that if we are serious about addressing the roots of poverty, and the health of any community in the world, we need to go deeper to help folks become independent.”

People need the opportunity to thrive by creating their own wealth, he thought.

Seven years after leaving Edgerton Gear, Hataj had a different understanding of the value of business. He returned to the company with a sense of mission and has been there for 30 years since.

Hataj is the second-generation owner of a 60-year-old business that makes gears for the machines “that make every aluminum can on the planet,” as well as for machinery that produces boxes, construction equipment, logging equipment, food processing, and textile equipment.

Business can be a force for helping workers to express their God-given creativity, he said.

This idea goes all the way back to the creation mandate in the biblical book of Genesis.

“I have been a big fan of MEDA for years. I think you all know something much of the world, and I dare say the church, hasn’t figured out yet,” he said.

“Business is one of God’s primary vehicles to usher in the Kingdom of God. It took me a long time to figure this out.”

“Business, and giving a person the dignity of a job, providing for themselves and their families, is truly kingdom work. It’s redemptive work. It’s everything that MEDA stands for.”

Edgerton Gear as he knew it growing up was a difficult place to be. Hataj’s father struggled with alcoholism, a dysfunction that made its way into the family business as well, leading to chaos. 

Screaming matches on the shop floor, pornography on the walls and a quarter barrel of beer in the lunchroom fridge, “guys going out at lunch and getting drunk, and not coming back” were all too common.

When he worked at the firm as a teenager, he was content to drink with co-workers. Returning to the firm as a mature Christian, he pushed for the removal of alcohol from the shop and other changes that were met with “sabotage and resistance.”

For 10 years, nothing seemed to be working. “It takes a long time to rid a company of its demons and dysfunction.”

Eventually, when choosing employees, he decided to hire for character rather than skills.

Hataj made it his mission to get enough good people on board to outweigh the bad people, because “making gears is easy. Fixing people is hard.”

At the 20 year mark, he realized “this is where I need to be.”

He now believes that “we are most reflective of God’s nature when we work.”

People are called to be agents, reflections of God’s goodness, “and to have our workplaces become known as places where goodness resides and is demonstrated every day,” he said.

Hataj believes that workplaces and businesses “are the lifeblood of our communities.”

“Can you imagine if we had a pandemic of goodness?”

God cares about quality, supply chains, plumbers, electricians, store clerks, truck drivers and all the other jobs that are necessary for civilization to exist and flourish, he said.

Hataj modelled that character when a supplier accidentally quoted him an order at 50 percent less than a previous month’s delivery, something that would have led to them suffering a loss.

Instead of pocketing the windfall, he brought the error to the supplier’s attention. “The (Holy) Spirit kind of prodded me and reminded me to treat others as I want to be treated, because that’s what goodness looks like at a business level.”

“On the individual level, meaningful work is God’s gift to us, to express our uniqueness, to reflect his goodness and creativity.”  

Hataj has come to realize that “perhaps the greatest impact I can make in a person’s life is to give them a good job and treat them with the dignity they deserve as children of God.”

The word philanthropy means to love mankind, he noted.

Almost one thousand years ago, Jewish scholar Moses Ben Maimon described eight degrees of ranking charity, which became known as eight levels of giving, or the golden ladder of philanthropy. 

For Ben Maimon, the highest level of giving is providing money to help people not become poor, by giving them a job or teaching them a trade or setting them up in business so they won’t have to ask for charity, Hataj said.

 The late Christian scholar Eugene Peterson wrote: “I am prepared to contend that the primary location for spiritual formation is in the workplace.”

That assertion has led Hataj to realize that the best thing he can do is to try to develop a mentoring culture, “where young people can find a place of belonging, and a community, and a sense of purpose.”

Dave Hataj is committed to mentoring.

He developed a class called Craftsmen With Character, which allows high school students to job shadow older machinists, four days a week. He also had the students in a classroom one day a week “to explore their worldview, to explore their innate gifts and talents.”

“We try to provide a safe place for them to heal, and to be seen and heard.”

Some of these students join Edgerton’s apprenticeship program, while others find work in other local businesses.

This program has helped Hataj to avoid the worst effects of the “hiring crisis” that is hampering the trades and manufacturing sector. In many machine shops, the average age of workers is mid-50s. At Edgerton Gear, the average age is now 28. 

Turnover at Edgerton is “virtually non-existent.” Hataj has employees that have been with the firm for decades.

“Mentoring is definitely hard work. But the payoff is so incredible on so many fronts.”

Edgerton Gear has run its Craftsmen With Character program for eight years. “The course has transformed our business, as all of us have come to realize that we’re not just in the gear business. We’re in the people business, helping young people to grow and flourish as well as helping all of us have a deep sense of community as we spend 40 to 60 hours a week together.”

“…meaningful work is God’s gift to us, to express our uniqueness, to reflect his goodness and creativity.”

— Dave Hataj, Edgerton Gear

Part of that sense of community involves empowering workers to make decisions. “I’m not smart enough to make good decisions for 40 people. I need 40 people making good decisions for us to thrive as a company.”

Hataj has team leaders through the shop, constantly trying to push decision making down as far as possible.

He lets employees decide which machines to buy and what customers they will take on.

The company has regular meetings where sales numbers are shared. Hataj provides random bonuses several times a year and is in the process of selling the business to his employees.

“For nearly 30 years now, God has been putting me through a huge paradigm shift, from bad theology to a deeper understanding of Kingdom work.”

Spiritual life is key to the ability to lead, Hataj says. He finds that his time with God each morning is the most important time of day. “You just have to literally pray every day for guidance, and peace and wisdom.”

Several free online videos tell the story of Hataj’s faith and business journey:
To view Turning, from the Faith & Co. series click here
To see Windrider Institute’s short film about Edgerton Gear, Forged, click here
For a discussion of the documentary Forged, click here


The Craftsman’s Code

The Craftsman’s Code is a central part of Craftsmen With Character, a course Edgerton Gear offers for students who may not have done well in high school, says company president Dave Hataj. He calls it an effort “to deconstruct their world view and give them a new one.”

“We really want to impress upon them that they are uniquely created, and they have a skillset. They are smart in different ways, and the world needs them.”

1) I am not the center of the universe.

The trades stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, who learned and contributed to the body of knowledge. (The Machinery’s Handbook). Great accomplishments and advancements have happened, and will happen, because of a commitment to the collective good of the trade. I am always respectful and appreciative of the past and present, recognizing I am part of the great fraternity of practitioners of my trade. 

2) I do not know everything, nor nearly as much as I think I do.

I am always learning. I value and respect those who teach me. This includes even those who are learning for the first time, as they, too, can teach me new things. No one person can know everything, but collectively, our trade continues to grow in knowledge and skill.

3) There is dignity and purpose in knowing my trade.

There is nothing better in work than to engage my hands, head, and heart.

My head learns knowledge, but my hands test if it is true.

My hands do the work, but my heart gives it meaning.

My heart has passion, but my hands and head give it expression. 

4)The world needs me.

The world as we know it would not function without my trade. From basic necessities to extravagant luxuries, my trade supports them all. Therefore, I will commit to giving my best efforts.

5) Pay is a reward for my efforts, but not my main motivation.

I need money to live, but I do not live for the money. I do not believe in the lie that money will make me happy. Rather, my reward is in the journey—in making something of quality, that is right and that benefits the world, something that uses my creative talents.

6) Every person has unique gifts and talents.

There is only one me. Although I am always learning, I bring a unique skill set and perspective to every job. It is my responsibility to discover my talents and to apply them in meaningful work.

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