This episode of Bottom Line Faith features Tom Phillips, CEO & President of Diversified Conveyors.
“God spoke to me in that time and He said, ‘You be faithful where I’ve called you and you don’t know the direction and I will show you how I’ll use you.”
Ray: Well hello everyone. This is Ray Hilbert, your co-host at the Bottom Line Faith program. Our co-host, Adam Ritz, is not with me today, as I am on the road in Memphis, Tennessee, in the beautiful deep south and some of the most beautiful part of our country. And as you know, who listen to our program here at Bottom Line Faith, what we seek to do here is we, the metaphor we like to use is we like to lift the hood and tinker around the engine of Christian leadership in the marketplace, where we talk with top Christian business leaders and owners, even athletic celebrities and coaches and top organizational leaders to learn how they live, how they think, how they solve problems, all based on their Christian faith. And I am incredibly privileged and honored today to be interviewing Mr. Tom Phillips, the COO of Diversified Conveyors, here in Memphis, Tennessee. Tom, welcome to Bottom Line Faith.
Tom: Thanks, Ray, I’m glad to be here.
Ray: And Tom, we’ve had a chance to talk a little bit before we went in here for this recording for this interview. And you’ve got a special story about how God has brought you to this place. And so would you just take a few moments and give us your background? Folks, hang on, this is going to be a cool story, and you’re going to be very blessed.
Tom: My story really starts out in 10th grade. Basically, in the 10th grade, there was 12 or 13 of us, we were best friends, we hung around together. And somehow the Lord got to us. And one at a time, we all became believers, and we started studying together and doing everything together. But as we went off to college, each one in different places. But one at a time, each of my friends started to claim that they were going into the ministry. There was about, like I say, 12 of us, and one of us didn’t do it. And I was the one that didn’t go into ministry, and I struggled with that for a long time, because I didn’t want to be a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom. And I wrestled with it.
And when we actually moved to Memphis, I was praying and asking God for clarity, and I didn’t want to be a second-class citizen. I wanted to serve Him and honor him with what I did, and as we were moving to Memphis, I was praying in my car, and I stopped. And when I got back in the car after praying, and I turned on the radio, and just starting on the radio was a folk ballad called Once Upon A Tree. There were three trees who wanted to serve God. One wanted to be made into a palace for kings. One wanted to be made into a sailing boat to sail the world and bring back treasures, and one wanted to just stand tall and point to God. And each one of them, the first one was cut into wood, but it was made into a feeding trough. The second one that wanted to be made into a ship to sail a world was actually made into a fishing boat. And the third one that wanted to stand tall was cut down and laid in the corner of the lumberyard.
And each one of those trees had a dream, but the one that was made into a feeding trough became the manger and basically, the one that wanted to be a house for kings, now held the King of kings. And the second tree wanted to be made into a sailing boat to sail the world and bring back treasures was made into a smelly fishing boat. And one day there on the sea of Galilee, there was a preacher that got up into that ship and preached from the ship, pulled out away from shore, and that ship now held the greatest treasure that the world would ever know. And that one that wanted just to stand tall and point to God was now made into a cross. And Jesus was nailed to that cross. And whenever we see the cross today, we think of God’s sacrifice for us, and what he did upon the cross. And God spoke to me in that time. He said, “You be faithful where I’ve called you, and you don’t know the direction, and I will show you how you should go.”
Ray: I love that story. And I love that fable or allegory, right? And so I took a note on something you said, though, I want to come back to it. And we’re going to learn more about the company. But you said something that I want to follow up on. You said, “I didn’t want to be a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom.” What does that mean?
Tom: Well, it meant at that time my theology was bad, but I thought if I didn’t preach from the pulpit, an ordained minister, I thought I was a second-class citizen. And when I was praying to God, he said, “With a voice like that, you don’t need to be a preacher.”
Ray: And let’s talk about that just a little bit. We were kidding a little bit off-air, and you said, “Hey, I want to share a little bit about the voice and that you strain sometimes to talk, and tell us a little about that.
Tom: It’s been that way ever since I’ve been born, I’m an Arkansas fan, I go to a game, and I lose my voice about three or four times a year. But to me, it’s sort of like that thorn in the flesh, keeps me humble, and it’s been that way forever. And it just lets me know my limits. And it’s just one of those things I’ve come to appreciate it and accept that it’s one of God’s restrictions he gave me to keep me humble.
Ray: We all need those things, don’t we? Just to remind us of what God’s wanting to do with our humility. So tell us a little bit. You started the company in 2001. So help our audience understand what you do here at Diversified Conveyors and what’s your vision? Or what vision has God given you for the business? But help us understand what y’all do here.
Tom: I came to work for a construction company building conveyors. And I did that for 17 and a half years. But during that process, God trained me; he put me through every position for that company. I started out as a gopher, driving trucks and cleaning equipment, doing all kinds of stuff. And then I went to an estimator and a project manager, then a senior project manager, then account manager, then a vice-president. And so I worked my way through the company and did everything I had done.
And I was very happy there. I was very loyal, I would have probably never left the company. So I almost forgot about that calling and that was back there. But at that time, the company sold out to a company in the United Kingdom and it became different. It wasn’t what it was before. And through that process, God was working on me. And I considered starting, well, I actually considered leaving the company. And I went to 10 godly advisors I had at that time, and 10 for 10 said, “You ought to start your own company; God’s blessed you to make money.”
So I went home to my wife, lovely wife, and I said, “Okay, let me lay out a scenario for you. I want to give up our life savings and pour it into a business, I want to hawk our house and, you know, put it as collateral for our business. I won’t have an income for a year, 80% of all businesses go broke the first year. Do you want me to do it?” She did not blink her eye. She said, “Do it.” I found out later, God had already been dealing with her, and telling her in a side way when she was praying about how blessed we were and how much that God has given us, she said he was telling her – and she had never told me about this – he’d been telling her, “Wait and see what I’m going to do.” And when I said that, she just knew the answer immediately. And so then I turned the table on her, and she’s 81% owner. I won’t work for anybody else.
Ray: In fact, as we’re sitting in your office, I’m looking into her office and she is CEO and you’re COO, is that correct?
Tom: That’s correct.
Ray: And folks, if you are fortunate enough to hear this interview, we had to strike a little deal. Tom agreed to do this interview. But he said before it goes on the air. Beth has to bless it. She has to give full approval. Tell us a little bit about that. I love that. But I’m interested in hearing more about that.
Tom: One of our calls we feel is to talk about business, talk about how God’s blessed us, and my wife has always been concerned that we will get the glory that’s due to Christ alone. And sometimes when I’m talking, I don’t think about what I’m saying. I’ll say stuff that she will interpret as giving the glory to us and not Christ, so we made a covenant years ago, anything that was published or anything that I spoke on, she would have the opportunity to review it before it got there to make sure Christ got the glory, and that’s our responsibility. She’s got a tough job to keep me straight, but she tries.
Ray: From what I’ve seen, she’s doing a terrific job. Folks, we are talking with Tom Phillips. We’re in Memphis, Tennessee at the headquarters of Diversified Conveyors, Incorporated. So tell us a little bit more, then, about what the business does.
Tom: Well, we build conveyor systems, sortation systems for people like UPS, Federal Express, airport, baggage, you know different things like that, but it’s basically conveyors. So we’re a turnkey provider. We provide concepting, manufacturing, installation, commissioning, start-up, and turnover, if you ship packages with any of the major carriers in the country, your packages will probably cross our conveyors.
Ray: That’s kind of a neat story, right? You’ve got your hands literally on everything. That’s exciting. And so Tom, you were talking about kind of what led to the starting of the company. And you said you had a 17-and-a-half-year training ground, right? You started out; I think your words were you were a gopher, and you worked your way up at every level in the company. Now we’ve got some other questions we’re going to go through on Christian leadership and business. But at each step of the way, did you sense that God had something else, beyond what you were doing at the time at each stop in that company? Or did you always feel like he was preparing you for something bigger and larger?
Tom: I wish I’d been that wise, but I wasn’t. Now I look back, and I see God’s fingerprints all over it. I didn’t see it then, but yet, it’s so clear now that he moved me through each step and prepared me through, you know, estimating, through gophering, through welding, through all the things I did. And I understand our business complete from top to bottom, and it makes me so much better leader that I understand each employee and their system. I tell our guys that are employees, there’s nothing in our company that I haven’t done or won’t do. It was a blessing to be a part of that and to learn every aspect of it. And as I look at it now, God really was, I was a university student at that time. And He was preparing me for His call to me.
Ray: What a great lesson we can all learn as leaders there, that really to just be faithful and humble and obedient wherever we are. Because that is two things. It’s preparation for, perhaps something beyond, but it’s also great learning for where we are in that moment. And so now, literally, probably you can relate to every person in the business, you probably can relate to about everything that goes on in the company and can speak to it from not only just opinion but from experience, is that right?
Tom: That’s correct. It’s really good because I’ve actually had to experience the time when I go out to the field, and somebody would be welding and not doing a good job. And I would talk to him about it. One day, one of the guys had me, he said, “Why don’t you show me how?” And I actually did, and it’s amazing. But from that point on, I had the respect of the guys in the field. They knew I could do it.
And when I’m going out, and another thing I try to do as a leader, when I’m out in the field, our guys are working hard, and they’re getting dirty, and I’ll try to shake the hands of all our employees that I can. When I reach out to shake their hand, they look at their hand like it’s dirty, and I reach and grab their hand and shake it and say, “Man, I’m for you.” I want them to feel the dignity of their work, because God called them to work, and it’s something that God’s called me to do, and it’s dignified work.
Ray: I love that. And that’s back to that; they’re not second-class citizens in God’s kingdom either. And we talked a lot about that here on the Bottom Line Faith program. So Tom, in preparation of the interview, I shared that there were a few questions that we love to ask our guest and we like to learn from them. So can you think back, it was amazing. You said, “I came home to my wife, Beth, I’ve got I’m going to do this. If you’re okay with it, honey, we’re going to start this business, hawk the house,” everything that an entrepreneur is going to do, right? But along the way, there’s had to have been a really hard time, a hard decision. Walk us through one of the hardest decisions you’ve had to make in business, and what role did your faith play in it?
Tom: It’s interesting, you heard it already. The hardest decision was to start DCI. I was a faithful employee. You know, I felt called where I was, I was serving there, you know, I was engaged with them, and, you know, I had no reason to leave. You know, I was paid well, you know, I had a good position. And that was one of the hardest things, and my faith played a huge role. Because when I started feeling God’s urging to do something different, that’s when I went to the godly counselors, the men, the godly men who had wisdom that I’ve been walking with for years, and each one of them listened and had a different perspective on my story.
But all 10 of them said, “God has blessed you; you ought to start your own business.” And to hear that kind of confirmation from men like that was really what made me do it. Because at the start, I’m not a risk taker as it is, you know, and my wife would understand that. But because they did it, it gave me the confidence to do what God called me today. And I still thank those men that day for speaking my life in that way.
Ray: I love it. I love hearing those faith stories. And so you’ve now been blessed, roughly 16 years in business. Sounds like business coast-to-coast, God has allowed you to work with some of the largest companies, global corporations, what are some of the biblical principles that you use? You’re smiling, so I know you’re fired up to answer this question. Tell us about the biblical principles that you use to lead the organization.
Tom: I’ve got three listed. The first one’s stewardship. That’s all it is. Basically, we treat things differently, you know, and if it’s his, and you’re taking care of it, and you’re only been in it for a period of time, and you’re a steward of his, it’s like the parable that talks about a wise steward. When he gives him the money, they multiply, I’ve used a story. It’s not mine. So I don’t make a decision what’s in my interest? I’m making a decision of what’s in the Kingdom’s interest? And it’s stewardship. And you know, then the blessings that come are not my blessings; they’re His. The success are not my successes, but His.
And it’s a real great way not to get prideful. God has blessed what’s happening here, and he’s blessed with great employees He’s blessed with financial resources, he’s blessed us with great clients and great stuff and growth and opportunities and stuff, but it’s simply his. When I originally planned the business, my 10-year business plan was $20 million. God had a bigger plan, and I didn’t know about it. Luckily, I didn’t, because I might have been scared to death. But he did. We blew through $20 million in seven years. It’s amazing what God did. In fact, we went to $72 million in seven years, and God just continues to bless us. So for me, stewardship is a huge principle that I think is out there. We just got to understand it’s all His. None of it belongs to us. We’re lucky He gives us 90% of it. We got it, but we have to steward it for His Kingdom.
The second principle that I think is important is Kingdom impact. We’ve always looked at it, when Beth and I were led to start DCI, we want to have a Kingdom impact. We want to do something for those less fortunate than us. We want to honor our God in our business. So the first thing we started doing was seeking the peace and prosperity of the city God called us to, was Memphis, Tennessee. So we started out supporting local ministries, we actually hired from some poor zip codes in the inner city of Memphis, we encouraged our employees to be engaged in tutoring in the inner city. Today, we’re involved with Barnhart downstairs. There’s an underperforming elementary school just down the street, and we encourage our employees to go tutor and help those children get back on grade level. So kingdom impact was big for us. We also encourage our employees to be engaged in ministry and as we support ministries for them to advocate for those ministries for us. So for us, our second biblical principle is Kingdom impact, to use our business to influence the world for the Kingdom in every way we can.
Ray: Alright. So two huge ones there. Stewardship and understanding it’s all his in the first place, right? And then secondly, Kingdom impact, and it sounds like you’ve been quite intentional, engaging employees not only here in Memphis, but I took a look at your website, and you guys are doing some amazing things. God really has blessed the ministry aspect of your company. What would you say about that?
Tom: I’d say absolutely. But the thing is, to me it’s so much more of a blessing for us. You know, God didn’t call me to be a preacher. With a voice like this, that just didn’t happen. But yet, I’m involved through DCI; our employees are involved through DCI in ministries around the world. We touch literally millions of lives every year, because we support Hope International and Opportunity International, Third Millennium Ministries, and on, and on, and on we go with all the different ministries. I say, a lot of times in our meeting, when I start our meetings, I say, “God, you realize today, we’re involved with feeding 5,000 children around the world?” That’s exciting. I mean, getting a paycheck is good. But this is beyond success. This is significant. This is impact.
Ray: Did you see all that when you came home 17 years ago and said, “Beth, this is what I think God wants me to do?” Did you envision all of that at that time?
Tom: Absolutely not. I don’t think I had the faith and grace to handle it at that point. God has revealed it; He still is today. And as I walk in life, He still revealing more and more what God’s plan is. You know, if anybody had said that we would be you know, $160 million company considering going to Europe, considering all kinds of things that we’re doing, I would have never imagined, I would have been scared to death because I know me, I’m not that good. But God has brought around – and we’ll talk about in a minute – God has brought around godly men who had the same vision we do to carry on the work that’s going on here. And through that team of godly people, we’re able to accomplish more than I ever imagined we could.
Ray: I think that is directly related to the principles, though, of stewardship and Kingdom impact. When we’re faithful there, God is so much bigger than anything we could foresee or imagine. You just talked about some of these godly men, some of the advice, some of the council, okay. So I’d like you, just for a moment, imagine there’s somebody right now, listening to this program, there’s a business owner riding along in his or her car. They probably, you know, have questions, frustrations, all those sorts of things. What word of encouragement would you have for them? What word would you speak into their life as a person trying to be faithful to what God is calling them to be in business?
Tom: First thing I always say, if God’s called you, He’s going to bless you. The illustration I like to use is Haggai. Haggai was, you know, there, prophesying, but that’s not the beginning. And so the Israelites were shipped back in 537 BC to rebuild the temple. That’s what the king sent them to do. And they laid the foundation in 536, and they quit. Haggai comes in 520 BC, and he says, “You’re living in your paneled houses, my house lies in ruins. I’m not blessing you.”
And I think if God’s called you and you’re faithful to that call, He blesses you; it’s just a principle in Scripture. There’s no promises you’re going to get rich, and there’s none of that kind of stuff. But it’s a principle in Scripture throughout it. And I see it very clearly in Haggai. that if we’re about what He’s called us to, He’s going to bless that effort, and I see it happening here. He is blessing it. We were sinners saved by grace, and we failed miserably, but we’re trying to be faithful to the call He’s given us on our life. And He is blessed that beyond what we ever imagined.
Ray: I love it. That is, I’m just encouraged listening to you. I can just, I can sense in your voice. You mean this. You have lived this, and you believe this, right? And so in preparation of our interview today, what other thoughts, comments or insights were you prepared to share with us today? Because we’ve got an audience of Christians in business and in leadership who want to learn, and this really is kind of our learning laboratory in best practices. What other thoughts would you like to share with us?
Tom: Best practices, I would have to say, for me, hiring the right person. And I think for that it’s got to be a cultural fit. I remember, I used to hire the best talent, and that’s always important. Get good talent; you’re not after wrong people. But if they’re not a cultural fit, they don’t fit in with our culture, who we are, our giving, our stewardship, all the things that we do here. It’s a bad decision. And we’ve had people who we paid a lot of money to, and they simply were a cog in the wheel. They just didn’t get it, because they didn’t buy into our culture.
So for me, hiring the right people. And that means our core values, and who we are, and our mission statement: to serve our material, handling customers, to contribute to our community, and to have a Kingdom impact. Those are who we are. And if they don’t fit into that, they’ll never fit into who we are and ever be a part of our thing. So the first thing I always say is how the right people that fit the culture here. And that’s a practice that is very, very important. Then I’d also say, managing the growth is important. I will say, one of the mistakes I have made is we grew too fast for a couple of years, put a tremendous amount of strain on our employees. And, you know, I was the first one to say, when I hired somebody, what are our priorities? God’s first, family second, church is third, work is fourth, and if the first three are right, you won’t have to worry about the fourth.
But yet, because of that growth or my desire to grow the company too fast, many of those people were sacrificing quality family time, were working too many hours. It was not the kind of balance, and we backed up and regrouped and said, “We’ve got to fix that.” So that was another mistake I made. So I would say, manage the growth. Go for it, grow, because God can use it. Go for it, do it. But as you do it, grow it in a reasonable way to respect the employees that you’ve got, and let your faith show them that you care about them, too. Because even though I have a witness to the world, I have a witness to my boys, I have 180 employees right now, that I get to once a month, have a corporate update, share the Gospel with. That’s a great opportunity, and I got great employees, and I love it. So manage the growth well, and hire the right people that fit the culture and have a good solid Christian culture in your business.
Ray: Well, that last principle that you’re talking about is very much related to what you were sharing with us from back in Haggai, because we can be out growing the business out there, but if our own internal culture and company structure is not healthy, it’s not going to sustain for the long term. And as you were speaking, I’m reminded, Pat Lencioni talks about that “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” And that’s really what you’re talking about, is making sure we’re building the right kind of culture. That’s critical, right?
Tom: Absolutely critical, because as we’ve done it, I find out that some of our best employees have come because of our culture and they’re really good. They’re driven by the same thing we’re driven by, they’re focused on something, they’re intense, they’re going after it all day long because they feel called by God to do it to serve God. I think I have the greatest job in the world. I have the best employees in the world, and it’s fun to get up. I come to work in the morning, six o’clock in the morning, because I love what God’s called me to do. And I’m working with great people. And it’s a lot of fun.
Ray: That’s exciting. That is exciting. Believe it or not, we are getting near the home stretch. We’re not quite done yet. We are interviewing Tom Phillips, the COO of Diversified Conveyors in Memphis, Tennessee. And folks, you are listening to the Bottom Line Faith program. You can find us on the web at bottomlinefaith.org. And the program is brought to you by our ministry at Truth At Work. And if you’re a Christ follower in business, and you want to learn more about Truth At Work, and how we might be able to serve you in the marketplace, check us out at truthatwork.org. So Tom, what advice would you have for other Christian business leaders and owners in the marketplace? What would be some of the best advice that you could give them?
Tom: The greatest thing I would say is watch your step. And be aware of the danger of where we are. And you know, even though there’s blessings to this, there’s also danger in what we do, you know. You take some of the idols of our world today, usually if you’re a successful businessman, you have money. Usually you have power; usually you have prestige; you have all these things that are such temptation for us to fall, so I would say find accountability partners. One of my accountability partners – now I have a lot of godly men who walk with me – but my accountability partner, we try to walk almost every Saturday morning when we’re not traveling internationally for missions, and hold each other accountable for what we’re doing. Because there is temptation.
The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Now, money’s not bad, because you can use money to serve God’s Kingdom, and that’s what we try to do. But if you start to love money and not God, that’s a danger. And that’s a problem. And the prestige. It’s fun to be the head of a corporation, to talk and stuff. But we also come up with that pride and that arrogance that we did it, we did it. It’s God who has blessed us, and that’s the story of DCI: God’s blessing on a feeble broken sinner like me.
Ray: I love it. Two more questions. If you had it to do it all over again, if you had to do all over again, what would you do differently?
Tom: Yeah, I knew you were going to ask that question. And it’s a difficult question for me because, in some sense, the question supposes that I could change it. I really can’t. You know, I learned from the pain as much as I did the blessing. Some of the best lessons I learned was late at night when I’m in my bed, and I can’t sleep, and I’m just praying to God asking for an answer or help. I’ve been in many of those situations, and yet, they were painful and hard, but that’s where I learned the most. So go back and change those things. You know, most people would change the hard things, and yes, there’s some bad decisions and like to change those kind of things. But as I look back on all the process of DCI, I’m thankful that God has taught me all he has, good times and bad times.
Ray: I love that. I think it’s a perfect answer. Because there is learning in every situation and mistake and failure if we’re trusting God. Well, believe it or not, Tom, we’re at the tail end of our interview. But this is my favorite question that I ask. It’s based out of Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it determines the course of your life.” I’ve read that there are some biblical scholars who believe that those may have been some of the last words that Solomon penned; it’s possible that he actually penned those words on his deathbed.
And so here we have, as the Bible describes, the richest, wisest man ever. He’s now saying, “Okay, I’ve given you all this wisdom. I’ve given you all these things, to live by these principles. But above all else, guard your heart, for it determines the course of your life.” So Tom, let’s now move the clock forward. We don’t know when that day and hour will come, but let’s say you now have an opportunity. It’s toward the tail end of your life this side of eternity, and you have a chance to gather your loved ones, your friends, your family, those most precious to you, and you give your “above all else” words. What would you say? Above all else…
Tom: Stay in God’s Word. Stay close to God, stay accountable, stay. You know, the people that I found as I look at history and as I look at great leaders who have failed, they went out on their own, and they pushed beyond what God called them to do. And as I look at God’s Word, as I get into God’s Word daily and I read it, it softens my heart and permeates me, so that throughout the day, I remember those words and it changes the way I respond and stuff. I’m still a sinner saved by grace, but God’s Word is such a rich tool for us to use in our lives, as we learn, as we memorize, as we study it. It’s that tool that helps us not be prideful, helps us not worship money; it helps us to be who He’s called us to be.
Ray: Incredible, incredible insights and wisdom. So Tom, is there anything else that you wanted to share or pass along as we wrap up our time together today?
Tom: Yeah, there is one thing I’ll say. There’s a gentleman that had a huge impact on me during my college years. And I remember the last thing he said as I was leaving college, going to Memphis, and actually leaving to come to Memphis, and he looked me in the eyes and said, “God has blessed you; God has gifted you. Now go out and be all that God has called you to be.” And that’s been a call on my life. Every time something happens, I think about that call, that charge from a man I respected so much, that taught me so much. As, he said that he said, “You know, God’s gifted you. Go out and be all you can be. Don’t be constrained by the past; live for the future.”
Ray: Wow, incredible. Well, folks, I know and trust you have been as blessed and encouraged as I have been in our episode today at Bottom Line Faith with Tom Phillips at Diversified Conveyors, here in Memphis, Tennessee. Tom, where can our listeners learn more about the company? How can we find you on the web?
Tom: Basically, it’s diversifiedconveyors.com. We have about our computer systems, but we have a page on there, beyond business, which is ministries we support around the country. We love talking about that because that’s where we are really impacted and affected a lot of people. So diversifiedconveyors.com.
Ray: Folks, this is your co-host, Ray Hilbert, at the Bottom Line Faith program. You can check us out at bottomlinefaith.org, and you can learn about the ministry of Truth At Work at truthatwork.org. Tom, thanks so much, and I hope that we can come back for round two of interviews sometime soon.
Tom: Thank you. I had a great time. I appreciate it and thank you for the work that you do. Sometimes, in the business place, we don’t feel the support we need. We thank you for groups like you that support businessmen and encourage us to be all we should be.