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Business Philanthropy Shining Lights

The Legacy of Obedience

Milton Buehner passed away in 2015, but he left behind much more than money

Sometimes God lets us hit rock bottom for the sole purpose of lifting our faces up to Him. Or at least, that’s what happened to Milton Buehner.

When Milton looked through the window of his 21-foot camp trailer, he caught a whiff of where pride had landed him—in the parking lot of a junkyard. Literally, and figuratively. A visionary and entrepreneur, he had built three businesses and lost them all during the recession of the 1980s. Living his life focused on himself had gotten him nowhere pleasant.

“I looked around and realized whatever plan [God] had for me had to be better than the one I was living in,” Milton said. So he cracked open his dusty Bible and started reading.

That’s how God captured his heart, Milton said. “God says in His Word that His Word transforms us and we become a new creature. There’s freedom involved in changing your heart via God’s Word” he said.

He read passages where God promised to fill us with His love if we ask Him to. Verses where Jesus proclaimed that if we seek Him, He will reveal Himself and He and His Father will come live with us. That riches and honor come as a reward for humility. “I thought, what else is there?” Milton said. “I didn’t hear the Lord audibly, but I sensed the Lord saying, this is what I’ve been waiting for all these years.”

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When Milton launched his next business in 1987, he approached it with a different mindset. He credits God with giving him the idea for an innovative telecommunications concept that became vital to the vacation rental industry. His company Buehner-Fry provided Amway phones to vacation rental managers that allowed long distance calls to be made from vacation homes and the charges transferred to the guest instead of the owner—a big deal in the 80s.

Before that, property managers had to hold a guest’s deposit for up to two months until the phone bill came in and the manager could deduct the charges from the guest’s deposit. “His introduction of the phone to our industry helped solve a major problem for all vacation rental managers,” said early client Al Williams of Cabin Fever Vacations in Gatlinburg.

From the beginning, Milton built the business around his core values—generosity that went beyond money to time and mentorship. He developed his business products after listening to his clients’ needs. He was accessible to his employees—they remember his office not having a door. He gave to missionaries in Uganda and Mexico, and recovering alcoholics claim they “couldn’t have made it” without him.

Steve Fine worked with Milton from the company’s infancy, back when they operated out of a garage. “In hindsight, at the company we were simply living Milton’s core values with a little technology thrown in. We lived them so much they merely became who we were.”

Over time, the company, located in Oregon, developed other products and services for vacation rental companies. Even as cell phones threatened to make their business obsolete, Milton went on an “exhaustive and relentless” search for new products and services, and rebranded the company—now known as NAVIS—into “the #1 hospitality CRM platform.”

By 2011, Milton and his partner, Greg Fry, had developed the business into a $20-million company.

They decided together that the excess they were generating needed to find a home.

“As I get along in years, I realize more and more that the amount I’m going to leave behind always equals 100 percent of whatever I have,” he said. “I don’t believe God is impressed with the numbers. I believe with all my heart he’s impressed with obedience. He blesses obedience.”

Milton met other people of means who were practicing radical generosity, and one thing he saw again and again were people who set lifestyle limits for themselves. He and his wife, Donna, hashed out a lifestyle they were comfortable with and chose to see anything beyond that as “the pipe [God was using] to funnel to other people.” Even in leaving the business to their son Kyle, they agreed he would buy into it over time.

At first, Milton said letting go was “a little scary—because we’re taught we need to have our name on things.” But the desire for both he and Donna was to “die penniless.”

Milton passed away in 2015, leaving a big hole for the people who knew him, but his legacy lives on in the lessons he passed on to those who knew him. For him, it was a lifestyle of obedience. “I believe that you can be a generous giver without having much to give,” he said in a 2012 interview. “If you have a heart to follow God’s directive for you, I believe you are a generous giver. You’re the winner if you obey His commands.”

To hear more about Milton’s story, watch his 2012 interview with Generous Giving.

Christina Darnell

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