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Business Philanthropy Shining Lights

Pete Ochs Leverages Good Business for Social and Spiritual Gain

Pete Ochs met with financial success as a young man. He started out in banking before branching out as an entrepreneur. He thought of himself as generous at the time.

“I’d say I was a 90/10 guy,” he said in a video for Generous Giving. “I wanted to make a lot of money so that my 10 percent to God was a big number. Well, you can imagine what I had planned for the other 90 percent.”

By the time he hit his 40s, Pete had the money, but not the satisfaction. Thanks to a few older mentors, Pete’s eyes were opened to the idea of stewardship—that he’s the manager, not the owner, of the resources God had given him.

And yet, even in generosity there was a tendency to keep score. Instead of how much money he made, it was how much he gave away. There was a time he withheld well-deserved raises from employees so he would have more money to give away, he told Philanthropy Magazine.

At 50 years old, his concept of stewardship expanded. He began to look at business not just as a way to make more money—even if that money was meant for the purposes of generosity—but to look at how business itself can impact society.

Now in his mid-60s and married to his wife, Deb, for more than 35 years, Pete strives to run his businesses in a way that invests in economic, social, and spiritual capital.

Instead of hopping on a jet, he climbs into his pickup truck. Instead of flying to lavish business deals, he heads to prison. His firm Capital III oversees a number of acquired companies, including two that operate inside Hutchinson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Hutchinson, Kan.

Electrex manufactures electrical harnesses and Seat King makes industrial seating. Between the two, Pete employed 194 prison inmates as of January of this year, according to Philanthropy.

Pete recalls when he first visited the prison. It was 2006, and he was desperate to expand his workforce. “When we walked in and the doors clanged shut, I thought, this is a great idea, but there’s no way this is going to work,” he said. The inmates thought he was crazy, too.

But over time, his commitment to providing the inmates with a good job and his engaged, caring style won many of them over. One inmate said Pete has hung out with them in their common area, gone to church with them, come to banquets they’ve had. “He’s very involved. He’s invested.”

For the inmates, the opportunity to work a job that pays $9.29 to $14.84 an hour instead of 50-60 cents a day was a huge deal. Phone calls alone cost the inmates $2, plus more than $1 each minute.

“If you’re making 50 cents a day, you don’t spend much time talking to your family,” Pete said. “But it’s so important because the relationship with their families is probably one of the key things that reduces recidivism.”

Pete says the inmates who work for Seat King and Electrux have committed some of society’s worst crimes. “These are murderers and rapists and drug dealers, but I really got to know them,” he said. “And I really became friends with them. I came to understand, while they had done very bad things, they were still created by the Creator of the universe.”

Pete hosts “life lessons” for the inmate employees. They could be on topics ranging from fatherhood to finance to relationships. One of their lessons focused on generosity. “[We] challenged them that we would match dollar for dollar any dollar they gave to one of a number of charities,” he said. “It was amazing the amount of money these prisoners gave to charities. Most of the charities that they gave to were charities that existed to help the victims of the crimes they committed.”

One former inmate, Luis Gutierrez, was 16 when he killed a friend in a street fight and was sentenced to life in prison. He remembers his first day in prison. “We had a riot. I was so scared, but I was fighting for my life.” He recalls inmates laying on the floor, puddles of blood, another man with his teeth knocked out—and he said it was a quick realization: “This is for real. I’m going to die here.”

When Seat King expanded into the prison, Gutierrez got a job sweeping floors. Over time, he became an expert welder. He says his “second chance” all started with that job. “People started believing in me,” he said. “People started seeing a different attitude. That’s when seeds were planted.”

Another inmate said he’s able to use the money he earns to help pay for his daughter’s college expenses. “I’m still able to help my daughter succeed at what she wants to do.”

Pete describes his philosophy of business: First, lead with economic capital. “We want to give them a good job.” Second, respect them as individuals. “We want to have deep authentic relationships with them,” he said. “Third, we let the Lord lead the way in how to open the doors for spiritual capital, and that typically happens.”

At least in some cases, the inmates respond to the kind of economic, social, and spiritual investment that Pete and his crew have made. Gutierrez earned a chance at parole. He says that when that time came, Pete was out of the country. “He literally flew out of that country to this country to speak for me and fight for me—if that’s not friendship—if that’s not love—I don’t know what is.” He was released in 2016.

Gutierrez now owns a tattoo shop in Hutchinson called Redemption Ink, part of a national network of similar tattoo shops. Pete helped him craft a business plan. “It’s my second chance,” Gutierrez said. “I was supposed to die in there. And to be doing what I’m doing now, that’s redemption.”

Pete says business is really about people. “We should be in business to transform society,” he said. “When we really started to love those guys as we loved ourselves, and we saw transformation happen, it really gave me a whole new vision for what I could do as a business person.”

Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.