Don Palmer is managing partner at Honey Creek Capital, a firm that invests in small and mid-market businesses by providing value-added services to maximize investment return. A partner at multiple companies, Don has over 30 years of experience in business, organizational development, entrepreneurship, private equity investing, and service on numerous corporate and non-profit boards.

Don’s passion for education has led him to be in residence and serve as a board member and instructor with five universities.

Full transcript:

Ray: Hello, this is Ray Hilbert. I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith and we’d love to welcome you back to another episode of the program where we get the opportunity to literally go across the country and interview some of the most amazing followers of Christ in the marketplace. As you know, we interview CEOs and owners of businesses. We have interviewed celebrities and sports figures and so forth. But our real theme here at Bottom Line Faith is this is about the intersection of faith and business and leadership. And we love to learn how these top leaders, how their faith affects them on a daily basis. How they lead with their faith as the foundation, how their trust in Christ gets them through their difficult times and so forth. Here’s a really cool thing about today’s program. Today on our program, this is one of my long time friends and spiritual heroes. Folks, we are talking today in our studios here at Bottom Line Faith with Don Palmer who is a partner at Honey Creek Capital. Don, thanks for joining us here and welcome to Bottom Line Faith.

Don: It is an absolute delight and pleasure to be here, Ray.

Ray: Don, I was thinking about this before we went on the air and have we known each other, what going on 20 years now?

Don: Probably. I would say every bit of that. Yup.

Ray: Yeah, when you and I met you, you had auto dealerships and a number of things. We’re going to talk about your history and so forth, but as I said on the opening, you really have been just like the spiritual hero and mentor of mine for a number of years and it really is an honor to have you here, so thanks. Thanks again.

Don: Thank you.

Ray: Well let’s jump right in. You’re ready. So tell us a little bit about what you’re doing, about Honey Creek Capital. I know you’re also a professor at a major university. Let’s get to know Don a little bit.

Don: Yeah, I am enjoying the Butler way. I’m a an adjunct professor at Butler. I teach MBA students, entrepreneurship and organizational leadership and that has been an absolute blast. I also am a leadership development coach for MBA students in terms of helping them get where they want to go. And that has been a fun journey as well.

Ray: That is exciting. And tell us a little then about Honey Creek Capital and then I want to walk through kind of your business career and kind of how you got to this point in life.

Don: Yeah, so Honey Creek Capital. They make investments in time, in money, in small to mid market businesses. Occasionally we will buy the entire business, but a lot of times we’re providing growth equity, we’re backing entrepreneurs, we look for management teams to back. And that’s been fun.

Ray: How long have you been a partner in Honey Creek?

Don: That has been about nine years. Nine years.

Ray: Yeah, so as I mentioned earlier, when you and I met, gosh, two decades plus ago, I knew you when you were in the car business and just help us walk through your entrepreneurial journey.

Don: Yeah, well, when I got out of Purdue, it started with the Xerox Corporation in sales and I always knew that I wanted to be in small business. I didn’t think I’d be a very good corporate guy. So I thought going to work for Xerox, calling on small businesses give me a good window into that world. So after doing that, we had a family business that was in the automobile business and I was the only son. So at some point in time I needed to decide was that going to be the journey for me. So I went and worked for a competitor, a large Chevrolet store, and then I went down to Cincinnati and was a controller for a heavy duty truck dealership. And there was a real pivotal time where my father said, you know, I’ll buy this dealership, I’ll allow you to buy it over time. I’ll give you a mentor. But after that you’re on your own. And so that was a really jumping off point.

Ray: And how old were you at the time?

Don: I was 26 years old.

Ray: Sure. So what was that scary?

Don: You know, I don’t think I knew enough to be scared and I had no net worth. So I really didn’t have much at risk, but it did feel like burning a bridge. I had just gotten my MBA at Xavier. I thought I had some other options and to go ahead and do that. It’s like I didn’t have any choice. I had this someway, somehow be successful cause there weren’t a lot of people looking for somebody that had worked in their family business, failed or had just been in the car business. So I felt pretty committed.

Ray: And so you’re 26 years old, you find yourself now in business. What were those early years like for you, Don?

Don: Well, I felt very green. I felt overwhelmed, but I was really energized and incredibly excited about the opportunity and then kind of what happened after that. So I had the opportunity out of profits to buy that store. And a lot of times the marketplace, when the market’s going up, you look brilliant. You’re not that brilliant when the market’s going down. You look absolutely stupid. And so back then Chrysler wasn’t doing well. That was the franchise they had. They invented front wheel drive, the K car, and then they buttoned the convertible. And then lo and behold, the Dodge Caravan, they invented front wheel drive mini van. And that helped stabilize the company and a good profits and brilliant. All of a sudden, boy, you’re a lot smarter now. You gave me some really good product to sell.

Ray: So you had the one Chrysler dealership and what happened from there?

Don: So then we had another, a store that was kind of in an urban area that we ended up moving out to the suburbs, moved into Carmel, Indiana. That was a great adventure. And that was the Nirvana of retail, when you can go where people have strong incomes, where there’s lots of jobs, where we’re just growth is going. That was a wonderful place to be. And again, we look really smart, but really we just moved to the right location. So I eventually had multiple locations, had a couple of Chrysler stores and then picked up Hyundai. And had that for about 12 years.

Ray: Yeah. So did you grow up in a Christian home or how did your faith become such a central part of who you are?

Don: Yeah, I grew up in a Christian home. I was the kid that was always drawing cartoons and laughing and passing notes to my cousins that was sitting in church with me. So certainly I had the underpinnings. I had incredible grandparents that had strong faiths. So I had a great example of what it meant to not just attend church but to follow Christ. I did get baptized when I was 12 years old. I was very aware that I was a sinner, that Jesus died on the cross for me. And that the power of accepting him and you know, following him. It wasn’t until Young Life was kind of the vehicle in high school where I met a guy that was Young Life leader. He drove an orange Z28 and had the greatest laugh and really seemed to just, you know, Christ said I came that you might have joy and it might be full. And I thought, you know, that’s the kind of Christian I want to be. I want to know that Jesus. And so that was a real turning point for me.

Ray: Okay. So grew up in a Christian home and in the high school years. Sounds like a real foundational lock in on your faith. Go off to Purdue. Get out. As you’ve talked about, first few years in sales and so forth, eventually become a business owner, then multiple locations in a dealership. And at some point you had a low point, some difficult times came about in your business. Tell us about that. And specifically, how did your faith get you through some of those difficult times in business?

Don: Mm, well, I was in a retail area that was really probably one of the top retail areas back in the 1970s. It quickly turned into one of the highest crime areas in Indianapolis. And as a retailer, all the retailers flew out of there. So that was, so you’re really swimming upstream as a retailer if you’re in the wrong location. It’s just extremely difficult. I think if I’d maybe had something too easy, if I’d had Honda on the North side of Indianapolis. My level of arrogance, my level of just feeling superior reading my own headlines would have been terrible. So in some instances it was a gift to have a tough franchise in a tough area because you had to rely on the Lord.

Ray: And did you see it that way or at the time, or are you speaking now from reflection or did you really, you know, get up each day, and would you say you were really, you know, trusting God with that? Or was it more of a battle than that in those difficult times?

Don: Well, I felt like I was in a battle in terms of surviving in the business. But I had been walking with the Lord and so I had a friend, you know, the old saying that, you know, a person that has too many friends can come to ruin. But when there was a friend closer than a brother, and I had that, and have that now. And I think that really helped a level of accountability, intercessory prayer and drew great strength from that. So if you were going to slide completely off the cliff, there was a guy who said, oh no, you’re not going to do that. So that really helped a lot.

Ray: Walking right along with you. So how is it that you kind of exited out of that part of your business career, the dealerships and stuff? What happened with that?

Don: Well, it’d be like walking in a cross walk and you get hit by a bus. It was quite a calamity. It was when Chrysler and General Motors both went bankrupt through the federal government. And Chrysler ended up selling to the UAW, basically. And then to Fiat. So there was one of, there was 800 dealers that were eliminated and both of our Chrysler stores were on that list. So it was, I kind of expected my career to work to 65, to tip the hat to the crowd. Everyone give a great round of applause, great, great career, and we’ll see you on the other side. And that was at the age of about a 54. So that was quite a turn. And it was a really, it was a wilderness time alive.

Ray: Yeah, absolutely. And so actually that’s probably a great, great time to just stop and on and say, you know, there’s probably somebody listening to this conversation right now, even if it’s just one person and maybe they’re at that difficult stage, like what you were just describing, you know, it’s dark and it maybe seem hopeless and the currents are against them and so forth. What word of encouragement would you have right now for that person who’s listening and maybe they don’t see a way out. Maybe they don’t know how they can trust God with it, but why don’t you just encourage someone right now because you’ve been through it. You know what they’re feeling.

Don: Yeah. You know what I came to realize? It didn’t make logical sense to me that the Lord could love me in an extraordinary way when I was successful and abandoned me or not love me when I had this happen, and there was a Scripture that stuck with me and it was what someone else intended for harm, the Lord used for good. And I did not feel that way. It was not an emotional thing like, Oh yeah, I’m good on that. It was just, I have no idea why I’m claiming the Scripture, but I am claiming the Scripture every day and I’m going to keep just putting one foot in front of me. I think the other thing was the 23rd Psalm and just saying, okay, maybe this as I’m walking through the Valley, but you promised that you’re going to lead me by still waters and you know, the whole analogy of the rod and the staff and then beating that away.

And so I guess again, I tried to take solace from that and I also had some friends that were willing to listen. I realized I needed some pity time. I needed some time to say… I just was with a guy this morning says, you know, I’ve known you for 30 years. And he says, that was really, it was a bad hit. His words were things we won’t put on the air. And it was bad. But I think to have some people around that say, I feel your pain, I understand, and to let me kind of work through that. But then also to say, you know, you’re not, you weren’t that; just an automobile dealer. The Lord gave you that opportunity in that season. And so let’s start envisioning what could the future be?

And it’s been amazing how good it’s been for my marriage, how it’s been. I have time for friends. I mean there’s so many silver linings, wouldn’t have the opportunity to be at Butler or able to start the National Christian Foundation of Indiana. I mean, just things that you thought, you know, maybe I was comfortable in that situation. If the Lord had another assignment, he says, you know, the only way I could have gotten you out of that is day jerk. Out. And so to know that you’re still kind of in the Lord’s will and you say, Hey Lord, I’m still trusting you. But you know, if you’re a soldier in battle, you’re still trusting him. You’re not necessarily having fun. Right? There’s some intensity and a lot of emotion that go with it.

Ray: It’s just a powerful story. And you know, as I was listening to you walk us through that, Don, I was thinking about Job. You know, he went through, lost everything and he just had these guys that just sat with him. They didn’t advise him, they didn’t give him his solution. It just says his brothers just sat with him and mourned with him. And that’s what I just heard you describe the power of that. And so I think there’s a great couple tips there. Is, first of all, it is a chance to trust the Lord. Secondly, and that’s obvious to trust the Lord. Secondly, you need to have a group of men or women to come around you and walk this journey with you. They don’t have to have the answers, but they just need to be there and let you know that you’re not alone. I would assume you’d agree with that, right, Don?

Don: Yeah. I think it takes some humility to just say, I’m not this strong. I cannot do this alone. And I kind of wonder in terms of accepting some other people’s love and concern that if I had not done that, I would’ve shut those things up. I wouldn’t have been aware of it. I’ll never forget this kind of friend closer than a brother. And I thought, do I have enough money to, you know, just survive, you know? And he says, Hey, come on out. Let’s go out to dinner. And I’ll never forget him turning over a napkin and said, all right, show me what you got here. Show me how much. Show me what you own. Tell me what you got. Come in there. I mean, yeah, and I’m supposed to be the guy giving the advice, right? And I’m supposed to be the, you know, guy that’s been so successful and here I am vulnerable and just saying, Hey, here it is here. Here’s the whole story. But I’ll never forget just that back of the napkin kind of friend that was powerful.

Ray: And God rewards that, that authenticity and that transparency and all kinds of verses come to mind around that. So that’s fantastic. Well, Don, if our listeners want to learn more about you or about Honey Creek, what’s the best way for them to check you out?

Don: Yeah, is my website. And, I’m on LinkedIn and pretty easily available.

Ray: So let’s talk in a little bit about the living out of faith in business. You know, as you look back over the course of, what may have been one of the most difficult decisions that you needed to make in business and what role did your faith play in it? And it might be just getting through this scenario you talked about, but what comes to mind?

Don: I had a business partner for probably 25 years that it’d be like having an incredible marriage where you think I’ve got the best wife in the world. I really had a best partner, that a person could imagine. And then when the business experienced those calamities, there really wasn’t enough money, gross profit to have both families to stay in the business. We tried to turn into a used car business, independent service business. So really difficult decision was the right thing for me to do, was to step out of the business to allow this guy who had served me so well as a minority stake holder, stockholder, shareholder, and allow him to do that. And so I think that was, I still feel right about the decision. I still, in terms of just saying that that was the right thing to do, but it was difficult.

Ray: And what biblical principles would you say were at play or what biblical principles did you use or do you use as you go about your business career, living out your faith in the marketplace?

Don: I think it kind of goes back to that whole, trust the Lord and lean not to your own understanding and he’ll direct your paths. I think the number of years that I’d gotten to know him, that level of intimacy that might say these next few years or few months or weeks might be really difficult. But I really sense that he was with me. And you know, one of the things that almost brought, did bring tears to my eyes as I went back to my folder where I had my written prayers for like for over 20 years. And to see the number of answered prayers, it was just powerful. So I would really suggest if folk to write your prayers down. And a lot of times you forget that God answered them. Yeah, he didn’t answer him in a week. He didn’t answer them maybe in three months. He might answer them in three years or five years. But he can be trusted to honor that.

Ray: I love that. And that reminds me when we see time and again, particularly in the Old Testament, where God delivers the Israelites out of a scenario or a situation, he says, now build a monument here. Build an altar so that as future generations come along, we can attest to the of the Lord. And I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about there, right? In those prayers, those answered prayers, and then you can go back and reflect on them. So that’s really good. Really good. So let me ask you this. Can you think back to a time when you were attempted to maybe do something that you knew wasn’t consistent with your Christian faith? You know, maybe it was a hard decision and your faith brought you back to the dead center on it, but can you think about a time when you were attempted to maybe not live out your faith in business?

Don: Yeah. I think one of the big challenges was being like perhaps, some of your competitors say in advertising or some areas were over the line in terms of the way it should work, our way. The laws would be to say, wow, how do I compete with, you know, kind of like being in boxing and someone hits you below the belt. So I think certainly in that, I think there were, I was in the used car finance business cause I was in an urban area and a tough area for new cars. Everything I was doing was legal, but I was doing a lot of work in urban work and trying to help people help themselves. And there’s very few things that say, Hey, the Lord really just said go this way or go that way. And that was an area that I thought that I got out of the business cause I thought, you know, I’m just feeling led to not be there. I’m not making judgment. Anybody else that’s there. It was just something and that through that, then I ended up picking up the Hyundai franchise. So I think it’s sometimes if you had, you know, two apples in your hand and I’m going to throw you an orange, you’re going to have to drop one in order to pick up the better things. So not letting the good standing in the way of great.

Ray: Oh that’s a really good example because you know, God was speaking to you and you didn’t know what was around the corner. But back to your Proverbs 3:5 and 6, you’re going to trust him. Lean not on your own understanding, but he directed your path to better opportunities. So as you look back then, a kind of a similar question, can you think back to maybe a big mistake you made in business and what might you have done differently if given a chance to do it again?

Don: I think I leaned on my own understanding in spite of having the principal. Right.

Ray: Are you saying you were challenged with that?

Don: Not that I would be a sinner, right?

Ray: No, it’s just a challenge for all of us.

Don: So I think a mistake that I made was not being more proactive about seeking out wise counsel.

Ray: Wow.

Don: To to go to someone maybe 10 years my senior or somebody that I respected both their accomplishments in the marketplace and their faith. Not to wait for them to come to me and not on a scattered basis, but to, if I had created some structure or Hey, here’s some issues. Even if I had been, I should be willing to even pay that person. I think that I would have had, you know, sometimes like if you’re a player on the field, you’re an interior lineman, you can’t see how the line, how the play goes. But if you’re up in the press box, you can see how the play unfolds. And I think there was a lot of times I was working so hard in the business that wasn’t working on the business. And if I had somebody that had a pure motive that cared for me, that said, well, let me give you a little perspective on that. Or have you considered these alternatives? Have you prioritized feeling overwhelmed? Give me the top two priorities. We can’t boil the whole ocean. You get 10 things that you’re trying to do. What are the two most impactful? I think that would have really, really helped me.

Ray: I think that’s fantastic. And of course Don, you know, here at Truth At Work, that’s really what we attempt to do with our round tables, right? Is place followers of Christ in an environment where they have that safe place and it’s confidential and get perspective. That’s such a powerful word. And you were talking earlier about going to dinner with that friend and he asked you on the back of the napkin, tell me the real deal. But you said something in that part of your story that I thought was powerful. I was like, you know, I’m supposed to have been the guy with the answers. None of us are that guy always with the answers, right. So what I’m hearing you talk about is humility. I’m hearing you talk about submission to some brothers or to sisters and is that something that as you have gotten older, you better understand that or is that something that you just kind of had to be taught the hard way? Well, how would you answer that?

Don: I think a little combination of both. Someone said, you know, it’s easy to connect the dots looking backwards, kind of hard looking forward. And so I think you do see some things that, you know, at this season of life to go, yeah, I get that. I could have done better there.

Ray: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, you might recall, you and I had a chat. You and I had a chance to go see Bill Pollard, former CEO at ServiceMaster and I remember him saying, it will never leave me. He said that life is lived looking forward, but understood looking back. That was an experience you and I had together. That was wonderful. That was three days up there at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. So if you could go back and advise the 20 year old Don Palmer looking back and you could give advice to the 20 year old you, what, what kind of advice would you give?

Don: Well, I like that 1 Corinthians 3:6 that I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the increase. So I would give the advice that, kind of like no matter what, if God doesn’t build house, you’re laboring in vain. That I would put that Scripture on my desk and say, no matter how good you are, how slick you are, how brilliant you are, you remember that God gives the increase. So don’t give up your prayer life. Don’t give up your accountability partners. Continue to seek him in the marketplace. So that for sure. I would also, I think there’s a lot of times that you feel like you have to do everything and as you’re getting, you know, Hey, I should do this over here. I should do that over here. I think too, if the 20 year old Don Palmer would be make me determine what I am not going to do each year versus more on the to do list. Tell me what you’re not going to do so that you could double down on the things that are really bringing you greater fruit.

Ray: Well that’s great wisdom.

Don: And I think the other thing would be I was just so scattered, I think and involved in a lot of civic things, community things. I was in the retail business, Dan Sullivan, a strategic coach, you know, has a concept of your top 20 in a farm club and to choose the 20 most results producing relationships that may be your Christian brother, that may be somebody you’re mentoring, that may be your best relationships, you know, from a customer or key employee. But if I could tell that 20 year old Don Palmer think about the who, not the how. Because most of my successes, if I’m around the right who good things happen.

Ray: I live it. I was told when I was 20 this: that you will become in life a product of the books you read and the people you hang out with.

Don: Charlie T. Jones.

Ray: Life is Tremendous, right?

Don: I use that all the time.

Ray: That’s right. And great advice and really focused on the who and not so much the what gets done. That is incredible. So we all have a chance to leave a legacy. God’s given us a certain amount of time here on earth. And one of the questions that I always ask towards the tail end of every one of my interviews here at Bottom Line Faith is what I call my 4:23 question based out of Proverbs 4:23 where Solomon writes above all else, guard your heart for it determines the course of your life. And so Don, if you had the chance to gather your family, your friends, your loved ones, those who are most precious to you, what would be your above all else advice? In other words, fill in the blank for us today: here above all else…

Don: You know, love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your family first. And if there’s a problem, a petty, you know, my father’s relationship, that wasn’t perfect. But I leaned into the situation right at the end that really paid spades. So I think to love your family first and be grateful.

Ray: Yeah. Wow, that’s good. That’s real good. That’s about as good a closing advice as we could get. So Don, you’ve got some things you’re involved with now. How old are you now?

Don: I will this weekend be 64 this week.

Ray: Happy birthday.

Don: Thank you.

Ray: That’s fantastic. And so at this stage in your life, what’s got you excited? We’ve talked a lot about in our conversation today about your past and about your principles and your faith, but what’s really got you jazzed these days?

Don: Well, I’m involved in an organization called Empart USA. It’s part of an international ministry based in Australia. God is doing an amazing thing in Northern India and they would say they are just a small part of it, but they had their 20 year anniversary. And this Jossy Chacko who spoke at the Global Leadership Summit, two years ago said that God put on his heart to plant 100,000 churches by the year 2030. And I think they have 12 years to go or whatever it is. But they’re on track. They had an actuary and they have 5,400 church planners and you know, 20, 25 years or whatever it is, and then they’ve planted over I think, 24,000 churches. So it’s just so exciting. And I was around opportunity to national for a long time, microfinance. But this is a real holistic approach to having church planners to having microfinance. They’ve got hospitals, they’ve got schools for untouchables. They’re training pastors, they teach them a trade like cutting hair and women sewing. And you want to talk about heroes and people that just put me to shame. I mean their courage, their conviction is, and these, most of these are 16 to 19 year old young men and women on fire for Jesus. Just unbelievable. So their faith. So to be around people that are concerned about eternity, but also concerned about giving a cold cup of water right now. It’s just great fun. I tell people the things that I’m involved in, I love it. Man, I’ve got so much energy for it. I’ve got, you know, a few things here in the city and then this Empart USA. It’s just an absolute blast.

Ray: As long as I’ve known, you’ve never had grass growing under your feet. That’s awesome. But the Lord has used you faithfully and you’ve served him through the ups and downs. The good and the bad.

Don: You know, it is an, it’s an amazing privilege to be a Christ follower. The Lord can do all this work without us, right? He doesn’t. He could do it without our money. He could do without our time. He could do without our talent. And to think that we get to labor in business, you know, to me, I would just say, keep in mind that one of the greatest ministries that you will have will be in being just a great employer to provide the right culture, to provide an atmosphere of respect, to make a profit so that you can pay people well and to really understand your customer. So I think I would just keep that in mind. That you have a great privilege and that God is with you right there in the marketplace. And if it was easy, then you wouldn’t trust him. If there were challenges and obstacles you look through and go, wow, I negotiated that by my faith in Christ.

Ray: That is a good closing word, Don. Thanks for joining us.

Don: Hey, it has been a privilege.

Ray: Well, folks, I think now you’ve gotten a glimpse into why I’ve really considered this man to be just a real spiritual mentor and father to me over the last two plus decades. He is a real stalwart in our community here in Indianapolis, a real spiritual father in this community and it has been an honor to welcome Don Palmer to Bottom Line Faith. That wraps up another episode of the program here and we really hope that you’ve been encouraged today. We have seen a wonderful spike in listenership over the past few months here at Bottom Line Faith and we owe that to you, our listeners. So thank you so much. So until next time, I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith, Ray Hilbert, encouraging you to live out your faith in the marketplace every day. God bless. I’ll see you next time.