March 4, 2016

Businessman’s commitment to employees and faith strikes chord at poverty summit

Business owner Jim Huntington, left, talks with Marian University president Daniel Elsener during a break at a Catholic Charities Indianapolis poverty summit at the college on Feb. 24. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Business owner Jim Huntington, left, talks with Marian University president Daniel Elsener during a break at a Catholic Charities Indianapolis poverty summit at the college on Feb. 24. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Sitting at one far edge of the panel of distinguished speakers, Jim Huntington waited patiently to share his humble story of how his small business is trying to do its part to help people stay out of poverty.

For most of the morning of Feb. 24 at Marian University in Indianapolis, Huntington respectfully listened to the other speakers who shared their insights during a meeting of about 60 central Indiana business leaders—leaders who had been invited by Catholic Charities Indianapolis to discuss concrete ways to support the Catholic bishops of Indiana in their efforts to help people out of poverty.

(Related story: Leaders share ideas, discuss efforts to help Hoosiers out of cycle of poverty)

Huntington nodded affirmatively as Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin opened the poverty summit by talking about the bishops’ commitment to making a difference through their pastoral letter, “Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana,” which was published in March 2015.

And Huntington’s attentiveness continued as his four fellow panelists shared their thoughts.

Sheila Gilbert, the president of the national St. Vincent de Paul Society, discussed the importance of having people in poverty be involved in efforts to “help them get ahead instead of just helping them get by.”

University of Notre Dame professor William Evans dwelled on his college’s efforts to study the approaches of social service agencies to ending poverty, and finding the most effective ones so they can be used nationally.

Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann focused on the state’s emphasis to lure jobs with higher wages, while attorney Phil Sicuso stressed the importance of developing new mass-transit programs that will help low-income and unemployed people get to the jobs that can help change their lives.

Then the spotlight finally turned to the humble Huntington, whose plain business card of black ink on a white background doesn’t even mention that he is the president of AAA Roofing in Indianapolis.

Huntington shared how the “difficult job of roofing” often attracts hardworking people from “poor and uneducated” backgrounds—and how his company tries to make a difference in their lives.

“Roofing is not a glorious job,” said Huntington, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis. “You’re out in the elements all the time. But it does provide a good living and a good opportunity for some people to move up. A lot of our people don’t have a higher education, but they’re some of the best people you’ll ever want to meet. They face a lot of challenges, and we help them overcome them as best we can.”

He noted that helpers start at $15 an hour in his company, and the wage scale increases to $38 an hour. His company also provides a 401(k) retirement plan for employees, putting 7 percent of their gross wages into the account. And the company pays 75 percent of their employees’ health insurance.

“We provide health insurance not only for the employee but the family as well, because if Joe is worried about his kids, he’s not going to do very well on the job,” he told the gathering of business leaders. “We train them and try to help them up the ladder in the business.”

In a question-and-answer session during the poverty summit, Huntington also shared a defining moment in his company’s business—and how he chooses to lead it.

“I was challenged by another business owner to bring my faith and my Church into my business,” he noted. “I told him, ‘Man, that’s going to be tough.’ He said, ‘You can do anything you want.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ”

That commitment changed the culture of his business.

“At our Christmas [gathering,] we started talking about Jesus and God instead of having a big party with alcohol. We changed it to having breakfast, sharing a story with them, and encouraging them to go to church. It didn’t matter where they went—Catholic, Methodist—just go to church and spend time with your family. And that really pulled our community of people together.”

Huntington shared one story that dramatically showed that change.

“We started several traditions when we did that. One was to just do something very simple. We gave everyone $10. They got their bonus as well. We challenged them to go out and do something with their $10. Give it to someone on the street, or buy yourself a beer at the bar. Your choice. This past year, one of our guys went around and collected half of the guys’ $10. He took this to another young man who was going through some hard times. He had cancer issues.”

The worker who collected the money videotaped the person in need receiving the money.

“It was shown to all the people in our company. The guy was unbelievably appreciative. That was done at the helper level, not the management level. It really gave all of them encouragement to lean on one another. As business owners, we should look to our faith and our Church and share that with each other.”

Huntington was also asked about the impact that providing health insurance, a 401(k) and other benefits had on his company’s bottom line financially.

“It’s all been positive,” he said. “It’s just doing the right thing. We’re all the same. If I treat you right, you’re going to treat me right. The people who work with me—not for me, but with me—know that’s the way we do things. They work hard, they work smart and the biggest thing is they care—because we care about them.

“We have a very low turnover. Good people more than pay for themselves—double.”

Archbishop Tobin praised the contributions of all the panel members and the community leaders from business, education and health care who attended the poverty summit.

“The number and caliber of the participants make clear that the pastoral letter aroused some interest,” the archbishop said after the summit. “Some practical efficient models were shared that illustrated not only how people can make their first steps out of poverty through meaningful employment, but how employers can take steps to ensure that the poor will not return to misery.”

He viewed the summit as another positive step in addressing the challenge of poverty in Indiana.

“I shared with the other Catholic bishops of Indiana the positive experience at the meeting,” Archbishop Tobin noted. “They in turn informed me about similar efforts happening in their dioceses. I think the ‘conversation’ the bishops called for when we published ‘Poverty at the Crossroads’ a year ago is now taking shape. There is clearly a desire to continue the conversation in favor of concrete action and partnerships.” †

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