Book review: Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, by August Turak

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 5:05pm

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks
by August Turak
Columbia Business School Publishing
3 and a half stars

David Wilson

Piety may strike some readers as an old-school value. For Trappist monks, seeking piety rather than profit means faithfully attending to the sacred duty they owe to God and many others: their customers, lay staff, vendors, the community, each other, the environment, and mankind generally.

"It is the dutiful, or 'prayerful', way in which the monks attend to these qualitative aspects of business that is the overarching secret to their success," writes August Turak, who was mentored by IBM Executive School founder Louis Mobley.

Turak's view is anchored in experience. He has spent more than 17 years living and working with the beer-brewing, mushroom-growing monks based at Mepkin Abbey, South Carolina. Bolstered by case studies drawn from his career and the example of other successful organisations, his guide shows how to apply monastic lessons to the secular marketplace.

Piety translates as aiming beyond the obvious target - profit - and being faithfully devoted to excellence. Turak came to express that high-minded belief through a roundabout route.

In 2004, a former student suggested he write an essay for a philanthropic foundation's Power of Purpose essay contest. When Turak clicked the link embedded in his e-mail, he was gutted. In 3,500 words or fewer, he had to answer: "What is the purpose of life?"

He had never written anything for publication, and the contest was open to professional writers and previously published material.

Worse, the deadline for submissions for the year-long contest was barely a week off. Turak, a high-powered former MTV manager, took a tilt anyway, and then after several days' slog, had only a crumpled paper mountain to show.

He was venting over the phone to another former student who suggested: "Hell, Augie, why don't you just write up that story about Brother John and Mepkin Abbey that you love telling so much?"

Six months later, his essay, entitled Brother John, had won the US$100,000 grand prize.

"I was so shell-shocked that it took the caller a full five minutes to convince me I had actually won," he says.

A later article, Business Secrets of the Trappists, was published on and proved so popular that leadership editor Fred Allen urged him to turn it into a book. "It was a long series of largely serendipitous events that turned me into a writer," Turak says.

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks is marred by Turak writing "wracked" when he means "racked". Also, his repeated harping back to points he has already made rankles.

But his cider-laced look at the quiet diehards wedded to a 1,500-year-old process is amusing and insightful. His claim that just chasing money gets you nowhere hits home, and his belief that service and selflessness rule seems plausible on the back of his earthy evidence.