Archive for Saturday, September 5, 2009

Faith at work: Area business owners find success mixing spirituality into brand

Lonnie and Joyce Blackburn, owners of Academy Cars, 1527 W. Sixth St., originally struggled with the idea of using Christian symbols in their business.

Lonnie and Joyce Blackburn, owners of Academy Cars, 1527 W. Sixth St., originally struggled with the idea of using Christian symbols in their business.

September 5, 2009


The blackburns have a large ichthys, also known as a “Jesus fish,” on their Academy Cars signage at the company’s new building, 1527 W. Sixth St.

The blackburns have a large ichthys, also known as a “Jesus fish,” on their Academy Cars signage at the company’s new building, 1527 W. Sixth St.

Lonnie Blackburn put a smile on his face and left his office.

Always happy to assist anyone who comes to his Academy Cars lot, where the motto is “Bad things happen to good people, we can help,” Blackburn was pleased to meet with the man in his showroom asking to speak with the owner.

“I walked out and shook his hand and introduced myself and he said, ‘I just wanted to stop and tell you how much your sign offends me,’” Blackburn says. “And I said, ‘That’s amazing. I appreciate your input.’”

The sign in question was a large ichthys, also known as a “Jesus fish,” drawn in line with the Academy Cars handle at the company’s new building, 1527 W. Sixth St.

Ask Blackburn and his wife, Joyce, why they chose to put the large Christian symbol on the sign for the company they’ve owned since 1981, and it all goes back to the company motto.

“We just wanted people to know that there are Christian car dealers out there,” Joyce Blackburn says. “And it’s all in how we treat people, and we try real hard to help everybody and try to find a way to get people in cars.”

The idea of wearing one’s faith as part of a business model isn’t exactly a new concept. Companies both small and large have been doing it for a number of years, and some — such as Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A — have managed to work religious tones both publicly and privately into their successful company profiles.

And that faith can be good for a company’s bottom line, says Dennis Rosen, associate professor of business at Kansas University.

“Religion is one of the basic subdivisions within our culture, and it specifies certain belief systems and behaviors, and people like to associate with others of similar beliefs,” Rosen says. “And that’s no different than someone, let’s say, who has strong beliefs about the environment and therefore decides to buy from retailers that emphasize that they recycle everything and they have a small carbon footprint and so forth — similar belief system.”

On display

The ways to display that belief system can run a gamut as wide as the range of companies that incorporate them. In Lawrence, not only is there Academy Cars and its sign, but there’s a dance studio, Dazzlers Christian Dance, that states its faith right there in the name.

Caryn Olyer, Dazzlers’ team director, says that when talking with the parents of prospective students, she is direct about the organization’s manifestation of its faith.

“When I’m talking to someone about Dazzlers, I always explain that we are Christian and what that means to them. And basically it’s not that we’re going to be teaching Bible stories to their children,” Olyer says. “We do pray with them ... but the Christian element is more in the dancing, costuming and music of what we offer to the children more than doctrine.”

Other companies, especially ones that are regional, national or international, choose to be a bit more subtle, says Rosen. They don’t have the opportunity to talk with each individual client like Dazzlers’ directors can.

Small companies don’t have shareholders to deal with and can target a specific group of clients, such as those who share religious beliefs, he says.

“So you’re less concerned,” Rosen says. “If you’re a larger company, then it could be good, or it could be more restrictive.”

Case in point: Chick-fil-A, a fast-food restaurant with a Lawrence location on the KU campus. It doesn’t have Christian in its name or an ichthys on its sign, but it demonstrates the beliefs of founder Truett Cathy in other, quieter ways. Those include closing all of its businesses on Sundays and using Christian philosophy in the workplace.

“He believes that by applying biblical principles in the workplace, one could be successful,” says Jerry Johnston, Chick-fil-A’s senior manager of public relations. “However, we are quick to point out that we are not a Christian company.

“If you go into a Chick-fil-A restaurant, you will not see Bible verses on the wall or on our materials.”

Hobby Lobby, meanwhile, has links to its various ministry projects on the company’s main Web page and gives its commitment to Christian principles in its company statement of purpose, summing up its goals by saying: “We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust him for our future.”

Vincent Parker, director of training and customer service for Hobby Lobby, stresses that though the company is based on Christian values, those values do not govern Hobby Lobby’s hiring practices or other business decisions.

“Yes, we are a company that is based and operated on Christian principles, but not all of our employees may have the same values,” Parker says. “We do not discriminate on our hiring practices. Plus, it is a chance to share Christ with those who have not accepted him as Lord and Savior. Hopefully, they get to see us (employer and customers who profess him) are different and not live by the world’s standard.”

Pluses and minuses

That sharing can cut both ways, Rosen says. As easily as faith can cause an customer to pick a company based on religion or a characteristic associated with a particular faith, another can decide to steer clear for the same reasons.

“Individuals might also associate certain characteristics with such a business, so they might think that if they’re strongly religious that they might more honest or trustworthy, that might be a perception that they have,” Rosen says. “The downside is it can work in the other direction — you could end up losing people who don’t follow that belief system or feel that they are unwanted or being excluded.”

That was a major fear that Lonnie Blackburn had when Academy Cars added the fish to its logo.

“I really struggled with that, because of making your spiritual beliefs commercial,” Blackburn says. “You know, there’s some counsel in the Bible about that. And I finally reconciled it by talking with my pastor that we’re also not supposed to hide our beliefs. And that there are plenty of good Christian folks out there that would like to do business with good Christian folks.”

Blackburn estimates that 20 percent of people might chose his dealership based on his symbolically Christian sign, while 10 percent might drive on by for the same reason.

“The middle 70 are still looking for a fair value on a good piece of merchandise and service to back it up,” he says.

That’s why he believes he’s only had one instance of someone coming up and complaining about Academy’s ichthys since the company moved April 1 to Sixth Street from its former location on Four Wheel Drive. It was a move the Blackburns believe was an act of God after nine years of praying for an ideal location and the reason they felt compelled to share their faith so prominently.

That’s the case even if that means defending their faith once in a while — though Lonnie Blackburn isn’t really sure what he has to defend, and he told the offended car lot visitor such.

“I said, ‘I want to tell you about a comical thing that happened to me. My wife and I had a new navigation system and it didn’t know that the on-ramp to one of the highways in Dallas was closed and it rerouted us through the triple-X district. It was at 7 o’clock in the morning, and I drove by I don’t know how many offensive signs and prostitutes yapping at my car,’” Blackburn told the visitor. “‘And I didn’t think one time to stop and tell anybody how offensive that was to me.’”


SofaKing 8 years, 7 months ago

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JeepTJ 8 years, 7 months ago

Bought my Jeep TJ from them 5+ years ago. Its still getting me around. Academy did right by me. God Bless them.

Matt Needham 8 years, 7 months ago

"I just wanted to stop and tell you how much your sign offends me”

Bored much? If you've really got a hankering to hassle some Christians over their signs you should hit up the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.

Justin Ahrens 8 years, 7 months ago

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cece_stand 8 years, 7 months ago

Good Luck to the Blackburn’s and their business.

I feel it is not a good idea to Mix Business with Religion…………..

Past business dealings with companies who hang their hat on their religious beliefs have given me the indication to steer clear. Keep away. I would never fault them for placing the symbol on their sign, I will admit when I saw the ‘fish’ on their sign it gave me a start and a thought, won’t be doing any business there. The article even mentions the percentages of those who will do business with them versus those who will not stop in (like me). Lest anyone feel that I am not religious, quite the contrary, my religious beliefs have kept me on the straight and narrow. Religion is a personal choice best to be demonstrated with a gentle and loving nature.

Business should not feel the need to advertise they are Christian, they should show it by their action.

beatrice 8 years, 7 months ago

Whenever I see a business promoting their holiness with the little Jesus fish, I stay away. Not that all such business people are bad, but the few times I've had issues with either the service or their product, these types might try to resolve the issue but at some point will act like they couldn't possibly have done wrong because they have god on their side.

Not saying they don't have the right to advertise as they wish, just that I have the right to not do business with those who put their faith up front. Besides, why should I do business with someone who believes I am going to hell for all eternity? I'd rather do business with those who realize that heaven and hell are what we make of our time here on earth.

Oh, and Jesus would "drive" a bicycle.

Fred Whitehead Jr. 8 years, 7 months ago

Beatrice, you and I are soul mates! I was just planning to say what you said. Anytime I see any business or other enterprise seeking to gain some sort of benefit from wearing religion on their sleeves or business cards, I run the other way. An old song song says "You will know they are Christian by their love". Jesus himself castigated the people who made a big show of their religion telling people to go pray in the most secret place to their God who also hears in secret.

I view these folks like "Sister Bertha-Better-Than-You, seeking some sort of commercial advantage over their competition by claiming some sort of religious superiority over the "unchurched" as pretty lame business persons. The really rotten item about this article is that not all people are Christian, the country is composed of people of all faiths, and frankly I view this approach as elitist and offensive to non-Christian folks.

tlangas54 8 years, 7 months ago

I've worked for Lonnie & Joyce for three years. They never preach anything to their employees except The Golden Rule. They expect us to treat each customer with the care, honesty, and respect we would expect for ourselves.

Also, I notice, on a regular basis, that the people who spew vitriol about most everything in this publication are always "anonymous". At least my employers have the courage to put themselves out there. By the way, all of you "anons" out there, I am Tom Langas and I am proud to say I work for the Blackburns at Academy Cars.

blindrabbit 8 years, 7 months ago

Now I have a reason not to do business with the 3 firms listed. The holier-than-thou expressed by many chest-thumping Christians is a turn-off for me. Many of the problems between various religious groups are caused by moralizers not only of the Christian faith but others as well.

tomatogrower 8 years, 7 months ago

Didn't Jesus get a little upset with the money changers? When I lived in a small town in Kansas there were a couple of churches where all the members were Amway salesmen. In fact, they made those who didn't want to do it feel like outsiders.

Putting a Christian symbol on your business means nothing to me. I've seen too many flag waving, support the troops bumper sticker bearing people who drive gas guzzling SUV's so our country is more dependent on oil. And most of them whine about paying taxes, but are just fine with sending our soldiers off to war, as long as they don't have to pay for it. And they would never think of joining up themselves.
Putting a Christian symbol on a business just makes me wonder if this person is hypocrite like these so called "patriots". Symbols mean nothing, actions talk.

ModSquadGal 8 years, 7 months ago

Yeah, but NO. I, too am offended. Just because you have a Jesus fish on your sign doesn't mean you're a good person. There are PLENTY of Chistians who beat their wives, swindle their employees and kill people. All you are doing is making people feel like if they aren't in your "club" they aren't welcome. I would go OUT OF MY WAY to avoid a business that would commercialize its faith in this way. Would it be any different if it were a swastika? Somehow all this implies is that because they ARE Christians they are trustworthy, but because I am NOT, I am not trustworthy. I wouldn't waste my time giving them a dime.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 7 months ago

I call some of these posting paranoid. Non-Christians will just have to get over the fact that they live in the same world with Christians. No one is saying they are better than anyone else or that anyone is going to go to hell. Would you go to a car dealership that had a menorah on the sign? I would if I could get a good deal. The same with a picture of Ganesh.

captainzeep 8 years, 7 months ago

“The middle 70 are still looking for a fair value on a good piece of merchandise and service to back it up,” he says.

Great quote, this is basic biz101: small local biz or global goliath - this is so true. Academy sold me a car years ago and it was a pleasant experience, Chick-fil-A makes a decent sandwich if that's what you crave, Hobby Lobby has an huge selection of useful stuff I need occasionally...Get the basics right and you can believe whatever you want and I'll do business with you.

SofaKing 8 years, 7 months ago

You picked the wrong town to display your fishy - Overland Park likes the fishies. Biz 101. Research, market research.

denak 8 years, 7 months ago

It constantly amazes me how many people think that they are justified in discriminating against someone because that individual professes a religious faith. The Discriminators are so quick to point out that they are above this foolishness and that they believe in the Seperation of Church and State and the Constitution,etc., etc., et., and yet, the first time someone else says they have a belief system or that they put their faith in action, the "discriminators" waste no time whatsoever in dredging up all the supposed ills that other Christians/Jewish/Prostestants/(fill in the blanks) have caused. How believers have wronged them. The funny thing is they don't see that they themselves are doing the exact same thing that they say they hate. They see nothing wrong with discriminting against someone for their belief system (ie by not patronizing their business) and yet, they think they are somehow better.

If Lonnie Blackburn wants to advertise using a Jesus fish, let him. Who is it hurting? And more importantly, as a free society, not only should Mr. Blackburn be allowed to advertise as he sees fit, he should be encouraged to do it. His sign doesn't harm anyone (unless of course your belief system is so fragile that they sight of a Jesus fish scares you). So, tell me, what real justification do you have to not go to his place of business? If you chose not to go to his dealership because he advertises his beliefs, at least be honest about it and own the fact that it is your prejudice that is stopping you from going there and not because he has a Jesus fish on his sign.


jonas_opines 8 years, 7 months ago

"Wonder if the atheist-owned businesses would be so kind as to mark their signs accordingly."

Seriously, Cheeseburger, how does this even make sense? "Why don't you who might be offended a little by this go and do the same thing so we can be offended by you!"

I wonder how Jesus would feel about having his name used to move product for profit.

jonas_opines 8 years, 7 months ago

"And more importantly, as a free society, not only should Mr. Blackburn be allowed to advertise as he sees fit, he should be encouraged to do it."

So, Dena, would you encourage me in my idea to set up a Christian-themed Porn Shop?

OldEnuf2BYurDad 8 years, 7 months ago

"Just because you have a Jesus fish on your sign doesn't mean you're a good person."

The Christian faith is not founded on "we are good enough to go to heaven". It's founded on having someone else make a way (Jesus) for me to get to heaven BECAUSE I will never be enough of a "good person".

tomatogrower 8 years, 7 months ago

Sorry, I didn't mean that I wouldn't do business with these people, but it wouldn't be because of the Christian symbol. It would be because I heard good things about their business. Their actions would speak much louder to me than any symbol they chose to adopt. But would a Christian be willing to do business if it used a Wiccan, Jewish, Buddhist, or Islam symbol to advertise their business? I kind of doubt it. In fact, I believe some of them lead a boycott of Procter and Gamble products, because they interpreted their symbol to be pagan.

WHY 8 years, 7 months ago

It is strange how Christians confuse their religion with morality. Just because you believe a jewish carpenter sits in heaven and saves everyone who believes he was born from a virgin from a pit of lava, doesn't make you moral or more likely to have fair business practices. Do you give cars away to those who can't afford them. Jesus would right? Do you remember what Jesus said to the man about giving up all his possessions to follow him? No christian does that. What did Jesus say about working on Sunday? Oh thats right he said we should help people on Sunday (saturday because he was a jew) so why can't I get a chicken sandwich. Christianity is dumb. As a general rule you are better off working with atheists. At least then you will know that you are working with someone who can think.

jonas_opines 8 years, 7 months ago

"As a general rule you are better off working with atheists. At least then you will know that you are working with someone who can think."

Sorry, all it really shows is that you are working with someone who can reject.

tomatogrower 8 years, 7 months ago

I would like to hear from the Christians if they would do business with a Wiccan who openly displayed their symbols or a Buddhist? or a Muslim? or a Jew? Or a Hindu?

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 7 months ago

tomatogrower part of my comment earlier on was: "Would you go to a car dealership that had a menorah on the sign? I would if I could get a good deal. The same with a picture of Ganesh." I guess you missed that. I am a Roman Catholic by the way.

tomatogrower 8 years, 7 months ago

Sorry, Irish, I wasn't putting you in the same category as the far right Christians. I needed to be more clear. There was a boycott a few years ago against Proctor and Gamble, because the far right Christians thought their symbol was anti-Christian. It was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen.

eotw33 8 years, 7 months ago

I went there to buy a car and it died on the test drive; twice. It also had a funny smell coming from it, they still tried to sell it to me!

jonas_opines 8 years, 7 months ago

eotw33: Don't focus on the car dying, focus on it being brought back to life. Ressurrected from the dead, if you will.

Stuart Evans 8 years, 7 months ago

this story should be titled. 'making money off Jesus'. In that event, it's a non-story because this is business as usual in America.

WHY 8 years, 7 months ago


Sorry, all it really shows is that you are working with someone who can reject stupidity.

Just thought that I would finish your sentence for you.

jonas_opines 8 years, 7 months ago

Really, there's like a dozen, hardly a plethora. They make a lot of noise, granted.

But to the point. The point does not seem to be that the problem is giving Christians money. By averages, you're likely contributing to Christian people's profit margins shopping in most stores. The problem is with the self-promotion, as near as I can tell. And the reason it's only likely to happen in this fashion frankly seems to be that only Christians in this nation seem this likely to make it a public issue.

I wouldn't shop there either, and frankly I don't see why you would, as a Christian. From my perspective these are people whoring out the name and face of their supposed lord and savior for increased return on equity. I honestly can't see how you can view this positively. For one thing, I'm almost certain that there's a Commandment against it.

mobugs2009 8 years, 7 months ago

I bought a van from them back in Feb. and I didnt get the vibe that they were so religous and they certainly didnt make me feel like they were trying to push their beliefs on me. I have been to a doctor in Lawrence that asked me if I wanted to pray with him before he examined my daughter and that made me uncomfortable. I think advertising their beliefs isnt a big deal, they are not trying to push it onto anyone. I liked how I was treated at Academy Cars, and now I know why, they have values. They worked very hard to get me into the vehicle I needed but were mindfull of keeping my payment below what I knew I could afford. Thanks to them my four girls are riding around in a much more reliable and safe vehicle!! When my husband is ready for a different truck we will go back to them to buy it.

Fred Whitehead Jr. 8 years, 7 months ago

I have had a lot of fun reading all these responses. I think I may have mislead some of you with my agreeing with Beatrice. I do not give one dead fish who is running a business that I do business with. I will return to a business that has proved themselves to be honest and helpful to their customers. I will do business with a business that someone I know has recommended. If I do not like the product or service, I simply will not be back. Their religion, ethnicity, or any other defining trait matters not. The only thing I really shy away from in regard to claiming some sort of association with the Christian religion is those counselling services that advertise themselves as "Christian Counselling" I will avoid this sort of association simply because so many of these "services" are based on trying to preach some sort of doctrine rather than applying genuine and trained methods to persons needing assistance other than religious doctrine. Mental health issues are real, concrete and need the treatment of trained professionals, not doctrinaire preachers who will try to "bring the demon possesed to God". In short, there are some real shysters out there using religious hokum disguised as professional "services" and these people can do real and significant damage.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 7 months ago

I am a vegan and if there was a soy ice cream shop down town I would buy a cone regardless of who owned it. I could care less about the personal life of the owner/manager as long as I get a good deal and am treated decently.

jonas_opines 8 years, 7 months ago

"Oh heck jonas, there's more than a dozen just on this forum!!!"

That would depend entirely on how superficially you group them together. You could, for instance, take none2's all-encompassing and utterly superficial method and determine that anyone who might have commented is just whining because they're missing out on the joys of being religious, and you'd get a rather inflated number of haters. Alternatively, you might actually stop and think about how flawed all of your (and none2's) comparison's have been, and how some of us might have valid reasons or opinions here, and the number would be rather lower. But I suppose I'm just being. . . irrational in my hate.

"I'm just saying put it out there, and let the consumers decide where they want to spend their money, believers and non-believers alike."

I have not suggested otherwise, from a personal choice level. To encourage it, or believe that it is preferable, I disagree. At any rate, it's hardly going to convince me that more people buying the product or less has the slightest bearing on whether it's respectful or proper to do it. And it's certainly not going to change my mind that Christ would be ashamed of being whored out to hock products for personal profit.

"I think there is also some biblical verbiage about sharing (not forcing) faith with others - isn't that what Academy is doing? Is that wrong?"

No, sharing your faith on a personal basis can be an enlightening and bonding act. You can find the quote and we can see how it fits into being stuck on an advertisement if you want. For now I'll bring up Matthew, again. It's direct from the book, direct from the word of your Savior, so I hope you'll at least read it and think about it.

1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3 “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. 5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6 if you want to check it.

jonas_opines 8 years, 7 months ago

and none2, you can take my leavings from that previous post, but that's all I'm wasting on you if you're in that mood. I have made what I see to be a logical argument, and you answered with emotional, factless tripe. If you want to claim that others are being illogical due to hate, pick up your own act first and logically address my position. If not you're not worth any more response that this.

Dan Eyler 8 years, 7 months ago

I like knowing where the christian businesses are at. I have no issue at all. If it turns out that they are a bad business I won't go back. But most Christian businesses have been just that, a good business. I know the difference. On the other hand I certainly don't exclude a business that is not Christian. I am amazed by the hate that so many here in Lawrence has toward Christians. Christians seem to be the only group that isn't allowed to do wrong here in Lawrence.

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