A Call to Serve

0511BobLenz

Known locally for orgainzing Lifest, Life! Promotions reaches teens worldwide all year long

Story by John R. Ingrisano

This is not your typical business profile about a hard-driving CEO with a constant eye on the bottom line.

Yes, Life! Promotions President Bob Lenz works hard. However, he spends little time in the office. In fact, he doesn’t even have an office in his organization’s Appleton-based headquarters. And though less about profits than about a faith-based mission, Life! Promotions still manages to pump millions of dollars into northeast Wisconsin’s economy every year. The business lesson is how passion, dedication and focus on your goals can lead to growth and success.

On one hand, Life! Promotions is a thriving business that generates millions of tourism dollars into the Fox Valley through its annual five-day Lifest, drawing close to 100,000 people and making it the third largest event in Oshkosh each year behind EAA AirVenture and Country USA. On the other hand, this non-profit organization is a hands-on Christian youth ministry that touches the lives of nearly a half million people each year in all 50 states and in 15 countries around the globe.

Most of all, it is the passion of Lenz, Life! Promotions’ founder, whose relentless goal is to stop the epidemic of teen suicides that plagues our society.

Lenz, who is 47, started Life! Promotions as a division of Solid Rock Ministries 27 years ago. He was motivated by his disabled brother, who questioned if his life had purpose. Today, Lenz is on the road 150 days a year, talking about hope and faith to teens in high schools across the country. His primary messages are suicide prevention and bullying, both of which involve issues of self worth.

“I decided to focus on teens,” Lenz said in an interview with B2B magazine. “Do you realize that 1,800 teens attempt suicide each day – and 18 succeed? In America 30,000 people take their lives every year.

“I focus on youth because it is an age that is volatile,” he explained. “This is a strategic age. We take a faith-based approach to teaching teens that they are valued and have a purpose.”

From the business perspective, Life! Promotions has been a financial success. The annual budget has grown from $80,000 its first year to $2.3 million today, all of which supports 14 fulltime employees, plus some part-time help and thousands of volunteers.

However, Lenz prefers to talk about other numbers.

“It took us 20 years to reach our first million kids,” he said, “then four years to reach our second million. Today, we speak to between 400,000 and 500,000 kids every year.”

Why has Life! Promotions done so well? Lenz readily gives credit to others. A graduate of Teen Challenge Ministry Institute in California, he overcomes his lack of business acumen by relying on quality people, from his own staff to professionals in other organizations. Plus, he added, “We have stayed connected to the issues of youth.”

Is there a business strategy? Of course, but Lenz doesn’t have much to say about that.

“We have some plans, but we’re more about our mission.” Early on, Life! Promotions began to grow quickly. “Because of our success, we got diversified. Changes in the economy made us refocus. We shrunk back to our core and impacted more kids than when we were diversified. I’ve learned that we need to focus on doing what we do well,” Lenz said.

In this respect, his core message of hope has not changed over the years.

He also values the skills of other people.

“I love to glean from others,” he said, pointing out that he appreciates working with people who know more than he does, especially when it comes to business.

His biggest ongoing challenge? As with most any business, it’s the money.

“We’re a nonprofit organization,” said Lenz, while adding with a bit of a chuckle, “We used to say that was because we couldn’t make a profit.”

Not your typical business person

Lenz, though founder and president, is more like the organization’s travelling salesman. On the road 150 days a year, he doesn’t even have his own office at Life! Promotions’ Appleton headquarters. When in town, Lenz finds work space where he can. He prefers to concentrate on the people aspect of Life! Promotions. Currently, he is the primary speaker, but the organization is in the process of building a speaker’s bureau and has about 10 people already on board.

In spite of his travel schedule, Lenz maintains a strong personal life. He and his wife, Carol, married for 27 years, have five children ages 18 to 26, as well as one grandchild. Referring to his hectic travel schedule, Lenz said “This is our normal. It is demanding. I struggle with that.”

“I try to keep my schedule to one week gone, one week home. I admit I’m close to a workaholic, but I want my family to see that God, Mom and family come before work.”

When asked about his toughest day, Lenz admits it was during Lifest a few years ago in 2007, when a 16-year-old festival volunteer died in an accident.

“Lifest changed her life, and then the accident happened, and she lost her life.”

There’s also a good deal of ongoing emotion surrounding the issue of suicide prevention. Lenz recounted how he was invited to Pennsylvania earlier this year to talk with the parents of a 15-year-old who committed suicide as a result of being routinely bullied.

“The hardest part is hearing the stories,” Lenz said.

Staying inspired and motivated

Lenz admits it can be difficult to remain motivated when hearing such tragic stories. But that in itself helps motivate him. He readily acknowledges having three heroes. The first is Billy Graham, because “he stands for the core message without becoming negative or becoming political.”

Another is Wes Stafford, head of Compassion International, who works to release children from poverty. For Wes, said Lenz, “it’s not a job, but his passion in life.”

However, his biggest inspiration was his mother.

“In school, I got a C-minus in speech and my teacher told me never to go into public speaking. My mother told me I could do anything that God told me to do. She always believed in me.”

Lenz also admits to being inspired by the employees at Life! Promotions.

“Our employees work for less than two-thirds what they could get in the market somewhere else. It’s not just a job for them. They are dedicated.”

Managing volunteers

Life! Promotions also works with more than a 1,000 volunteers every year for Lifest. Many people would say that managing volunteers is like herding cats – pretty much impossible. However, Lenz has nothing but praise for the organization’s volunteers.

“We have the best volunteers in the world,” he boasted, adding they encourage people to volunteer not for the perks like free tickets or T-shirts, but to serve.

“Our Lifest festival does not so much have volunteers, but rather servants,” he explained. “When you find people who really want to make a difference, respect them enough to let them be a part. We have volunteers who take their vacations to come and serve. They set up stages and tents, park cars, do whatever they can to help. We have to turn down volunteers some years.”

Final advice

When asked what advice he’d share with others, Lenz first said “being the leader isn’t always fun.”

It’s also important not to take yourself too seriously.

“As a friend once told me, ‘People who don’t know Bob really respect him.’”

Also, to avoid getting an inflated sense of ego, Lenz suggested, “Never read your own press releases.”

Finally, Lenz offered up a universal value, whether in business or undertaking any other activity.

“Find a need among people, and find a passion in your heart. Then put those two together, and you’ll have something sustainable…a calling.”

John Ingrisano is a Wisconsin-based business journalist, marketing strategist and public speaker. If you would like John to review your company’s needs or do a presentation for your business group, contact him at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com or call 920.559.3722.