Jonathan T.M. Reckford was working on his MBA at Stanford University when a professor's words provoked an "a-ha" moment that would eventually change his life's focus: "The same skills that will make you a success in the for-profit world also are desperately needed in the not-for-profit world."
Following a break from the business world, Reckford was serving as executive pastor for a 4,300-member Presbyterian church in Edina, Minn., when he got the call for a job he spent his life preparing for–CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.
Reckford was unanimously elected by Habitat's board of directors in August of 2005. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Ashley, and their children, Alexander, Grace, and Lily. Reckford took time out of his busy schedule to speak with associate editor Teresa Burney in October.
BB: You have one of the most diverse resumes I think I have ever seen. I'm sure that has prepared you well for the job you have now.
JR: A little random, yes. You know it's very interesting there are times when I think my career didn't make that much sense to me and then when you look back and now I am finding that I am drawing from all the different things I have learned, all those different parts, to be able to serve in this role. You can often see better in the rear view mirror than you can up front.
BB: It's much easier. You have been here now for a little over two years.
JR: A little over two years now, yes.
BB: Was it August of '05.
JR: I was named in August of '05. I was supposed to start the first week of September and then I ended up being a very active volunteer because Katrina hit and chaos happened at the end of August.
BB: So that's how it started, they just threw you into Katrina.
JR: A trial by fire a little bit. But it was a great opportunity for us to serve. Looking back, if you can bring good out of bad? One of our goals, both in Katrina and the tsunami was to respond in a way that advanced the overall mission forward. And we were able to help a huge number of families in both cases in ways where we could capture the learning of how to go to scale and then try to apply that to the rest of the world.
BB: Go to scale?
JR: Habitat initially was designed to build a relatively small number of homes in a massive number of locations around the world and both the tsunami and Katrina challenged us to build larger number of homes in relatively concentrated locations.
BB: And this wasn't something you necessarily thought you needed the skill to do, right?
JR: Helping communities recover from disasters has always been part of Habitat's work and intentionally so I would say both the tsunami and Katrina were on a scale from a housing perspective that was unique really in the last century, the devastation.
BB: It still is. New Orleans is still stuck in the mud, it seem. So you did come in at an interesting time, for sure.
JR: I did. It's been an exciting time. We don't have our official numbers out for the past fiscal year but we know them now and we have, in the midst of all of that chaos, have by far and away had the two best years in Habitat's history in terms of families served and in terms of our ability to raise resources around the world to help more families so we are very grateful for that.
BB: Again, bringing good out of bad. And you have taken a sort of mission in the name of Habitat beyond. It's been good marketing I guess.
JR: One thing that certainly did happen in both cases is that it did build people's awareness of Habitat because we took leadership roles. I think we have always been well known in the U.S. but we raised our profile higher and I think, significantly, the tsunami enhanced our profile in Asia where we were relatively unknown and you know local communities we were very well known.
BB: Tell me a little bit about what your challenges are these days. For big builders who are publicly held or even who are privately held and for profit, these are very challenging times. How is it affecting you all.
JR: It's interesting, we operate a little bit outside the traditional housing market because we serve families that typically cannot qualify for conventional financing anyway so in that sense we have not been hit by the credit crunch. Now I think the residual side, it's still too early to tell, but our fear would be that it would hit us on fund raising and the partnership side if the industry is hurting. I think the biggest challenge we face is land and that's the biggest challenge here in the U.S. and the biggest challenge around the world. What happened for us is that, historically, many communities would donate land outright or people would give us open lots and really the run up of the last decade meant that even in what historically had been blighted neighborhoods those lots have become pretty expensive or valuable.
BB: That has started to turn around as some of those inner cities have been gentrified?
JR: I think Habitat has been part of that gentrification process. But as the gentrification has happened and we succeed and then we lose in our ability to acquire low cost land so, in general, that has been the biggest constraint to our ability to grow and we are very focused on everything we can do. And that's very much a global phenomenon, that land around urban areas across the world has become dramatically more valuable. Which means that families who did not own property before this run up are increasingly locked out of the chance. What we have really seen in an odd way is the downturn in the industry could help in terms of affordability over time but we haven't really seen a dramatic correction in prices yet in a way that has impacted affordability and, in fact, if credit dries up, that will actually hurt low income families that have been able to qualify for financing. So one of the things we have been very public about is making sure people understand the difference between sub-prime lending, which we think is a good thing and predatory lending which we think is a bad thing. I think the public gets confused and thinks that all sub-prime lending is bad. So we think it would be terrible to see the credit dry up for lower income families. But we, certainly in terms of protection, so people aren't sold loans that are inappropriate for their situation.
BB: That apparently happened across the income levels, not just for low income people.
JR: That's right. Our focus is on the low-income families, but I think there were a lot of loans out there. So we are hoping, if we can, to bring opportunity out of the challenge of this. Pull back one step. The affordability index , the ability for a median income family to purchase the median cost home, has been sort of setting records every year for the last decade and certainly the last five years moving dramatically where the incomes have not in any way been able to keep up with these land costs.
BB: And these loan products were sort of bridging the gap for a long time, sort of masking the problem in a way.
JR: So we have, I would say, not only for the families that we work with, but it's really a workforce housing problem in so many communities. And when we talk to people they often don't' care about affordable housing, but then when we say, 'Well, would you want your pastor or rabbi to be able to live in your community?' And they say, 'Of course.' 'Do you want the people who take care of your parents at the hospital to be able to live in your community? Do you want your firefighters and teachers and public safety workers, should they be able to live in your community?' and they say, 'Yes.' But we have got an economic system that has made it increasingly difficult. From a Habitat specific perspective, one of the things we would love to see is the opportunity to partner with more builders. We had a big launch a couple of years ago with our Builders Blitz and we have another builder Blitz coming up in June of '08 and what I love about Builders' Blitz is that in one week we got 500 families into new homes. but the bigger piece was actually opening up the relationships and helping to educate the builder community in many of our markets to see how Habitat can fit in with the work that they are doing. We are very enthusiastic about mixed income, mixed use development.
BB: That is becoming a bit of a trend.
JR: Which I think is a positive trend we are seeing happen more. And there are some nice examples. The city of Atlanta, Atlanta public housing I think has done a fabulous job of replacing some of the traditional bad public housing, the concentrated poverty and letting the private builders come in and create communities. We love it when Habitat can be a piece of that and Habitat can come and maybe a developer can maybe get a density bonus or meet the covenants for a particular community by having some affordable components in some developments.
BB: They are being required to do that, so maybe they are looking for a turn-key operator to be that.
JR: So if we can be that partner of choice to come in and support the builder community and create access for some lower income families to live in these neighborhoods and then everyone wins. What we have seen is that when we concentrate poverty everyone loses and there is a lag effect. What happens is it pulls all the community down if the people in those concentrated areas don't have access to good schools, they have less access to good jobs and then there is a huge hidden cost to society. Whereas what we have seen in the best of these mixed income communities is we create access to good schools, good access to jobs. We have permanently moved these families into being contributing members of society and it raises taxes, raises property values.
BB: It has been the separation of the different income groups that has happened with gated communities. Small town America used to have people who were shopping at the same grocery store, going to the same churches. When there was only one grocery story everybody had to go to it.
JR: In some ways we are more stratified by economics than by any other thing in our society. People have rightly challenged the church and said, if you want to look at the most segregated hour of the week, it's on Sunday morning at 10 a.m.. Our primary mission, of course, is to partner with families and get families into decent homes. A side benefit of the way Habitat distinctively does it is we see a part of our mission is to build bridges in communities and bring people together and what we see over and over and over again is that the process of volunteers coming together to build along side the families changes everyone's part in that process. I think because we are traditional charity, we don't give away the houses, but we are providing that hand up to the families. I think the sweat equity and the family participation is a crucial part of the whole process.
BB: It's key for a couple of reasons. They develop ownership and the whole idea of being an owner versus a renter is made clear to them. It seems that it is also a thing for the community because the community feels that these folks are working for what they get.
JR: That's absolutely right and I've seen the light go on. One of my favorite things, I'll be traveling around wearing my Habitat shirt, and people will just come up to me and start telling me their favorite Habitat story about how their life was changed because they worked with this family in this community .
BB: So your badge makes you feel a little better every day when you go out in the world and you get a better idea about how people perceive you.
JR: It does and one of the things that is fun about working for Habitat is that we do have very high good will and that has made it easier to enter into partnerships with our builders and our groups because they have found that the general good will of the way that we try to serve has a nice halo effect for everyone involved. Someone the other day tied it back to the movie Witness and that was kind of a new one for me, but that idea of sort of a community barn raising, that people experience a sense of community that is somewhat rare when they come out on the build site. You get people from all parts of the city and groups. I actually got involved in Habitat the way so many people do. It was back when I worked for the Walt Disney Company. We sponsored a couple of houses in Orlando and I went out with my team as a team building effort and it was by far and away the most powerful team building experience I ever had and I would just keep coming back and volunteering and I think that's how we get so many of our volunteers.
BB: So it was a good corporate thing for your team too.
JR: It was actually a very powerful benefit for our team to do it because it was a bonding experience. As opposed to doing a very artificial team building there was the sense of doing something that actually mattered. It forced people to get out of their every day-to-day jobs. It's wonderfully tangible and then at the end of the day you go, 'We did that. That wall is up, that siding is on, that window is in place."
BB: When was that?
JR: That would have been in 1992, it was the first time I worked with Habitat.
BB: What did you do for Disney?
JR: I worked for the development company which has now been folded into Disney Imagineering, but this was the real estate arm of Disney. So we did all the hotel and resort development and the development for theme parks. We were involved in any real estate based strategies for Disney. So I was the boring business guy working with the Imagineers on how to make the economics work. It was a fun time at Disney because there were some fabulous projects.
BB: It is an amazing company.
JR: I went from Disney to the Circuit City stores in Virginia and then to Minnesota with a company called MusicLand that got acquired by Best Buy. And then my big career change was I had a growing sense of wanting to merge vocation and avocation and ended up deciding to leave the business world all together and that lead to a search process that ultimately, somewhat to my surprise, ended up with my being asked to be executive pastor of our church in Minneapolis.
BB: Was it already your church?
JR: It was. I had been a very active volunteer and then as I left the business world, had cranked up my volunteering.
BB: So you quit your job at Circuit City?
JR: Uh huh, my company got acquired by Best Buy and I stayed for about a year and then it was kind of a now or never and we prayed about it and thought about it and thought it was time to go.
BB: You wanted to do something that mattered?
JR: I actually am a huge fan of the business world. I always enjoyed it. But for me personally there was a sense of wanting to do something more full time mission.
BB: 4,000 people in that congregation. That is one big church.
JR: It's a wonderful church and my role was more behind the scenes to support the staff and the senior pastor so he can be the spiritual leader of the church and not have to deal with what had become a very complex church. And this church had a huge heart for mission, both internationally and locally, and I loved working there. It is interesting looking back because a lot of my friends thought that was career suicide and my wife and I sort of had a sense that that was what we were supposed to do and I was thoroughly enjoying it when very much out of the blue, Habitat called and, interestingly in some ways, a couple years of serving the church was a perfect complement to my business career in terms of being prepared for coming to serve at Habitat.
BB: I would say so. It's a non-profit. It's a big non-profit that brings in cash that has t.
JR: There are a lot of parallels and there is a complexity. In some ways I think managing churches or non-profits is actually harder than the business world. The metrics are comparatively clear. In some ways our metrics are clear, how many families can we get into decent homes, but you don't have the sort of P and L statement in the same way. And, in our case, not only how do you motivate the staff but how do you motivate the hundreds of hundreds of thousands of volunteers to do a great job and hold them accountable when you are not paying them.
BB: So you had quit your job at Best Buy, which was Music land. How long before you went to work for the church.
JR: It was a long time. I was off about a year and a half. And during that time I was doing a lot of volunteer work. I had gone off to do some mission work in India and I had been doing heavy volunteer work while I was trying to sort out the next piece. In some ways I was very blessed because I had a non-compete arrangement that took some of the pressure off. It was a great family time.
BB: Did you have small children at the time?
JR: I did and still have fairly small ones, but to have a large chunk of time, especially now when I am traveling quite heavily, it was wonderful to be heavily available and to be in the schools and to be coaching and volunteering.
BB: This must have been very much of a personal reassessment period as well.
JR: Very much so. The perfect sabbatical is where you know what you are going to do at the other end and still get the time off. For Type A people it's a little hard to have open-ended time off.
BB: Do you describe yourself as Type A?
JR: You know I think I'm a modified Type A. I have always been fairly goal driven.
BB: Doesn't time have a way of working on the edges of Type A people?
JR: I think so and I think sometimes it's great to have even in small blocks those chances to reflect.
BB: It sounds like you were a Type A unemployed guy. So how did they (Habitat) know to call you?
JR: It was really interesting. When Habitat wanted to replace the founder they hired Spencer Stuart a search firm and one of the two partners leading the search had been someone who had approached me a couple of years earlier about running an internet business and it wasn't the right fit, but in the process, we had gotten to know each other and I had told her ultimately that I was going to go out and work for a church thinking that would be the end of that conversation and I think then she knew me reasonably well, and knew my background so then they got the search and then as search people do they said, "Do you know anybody that might be a good fit for Habitat for Humanity." It was one of those moments where I think the adrenalin just shot through me and I literally asked, "Does it have to be a famous person' and then I went home and I wrote a very passionate letter about why this was the kind of thing I thought I had been preparing for all my life. And then, to my great surprise, that step led to the job.
BB: How long was it between that first time when you wrote that letter?
JR: I would have to go back and check. I think we first talked in April and I had an interview with her quickly that led to meeting the search committee in June and then the executive committee of the board in early July then President Carter and then the announcement in August.
BB: So what was it like when you met the President? Had you met the president before?
JR: No, I had not. To fly down to Plains for my final interview was just fascinating.
BB: Did you fly directly to Plains?
JR: To Atlanta and then drove down. He was very gracious.
BB: That is a word I hear to describe he and Rosalyn, gracious seems to be the word that comes to people's mind.
JR: They could not have been nicer. That was very exciting all by itself.
BB: So did you know then, you're our guy when you interviewed with him?
JR: I found out later he had given them his blessing. I didn't know at the time.
BB: I imagine that they didn't fly too many people down to meet him.
JR: No, I definitely was the official candidate. He was the honorary chair of the selection committee so that was the last step before being presented to the entire board for the final approval.
BB: So what did he ask you? It was just a visit?
JR: It was an interview but it was really a visit in terms of, I think he wanted to know my story, he wanted to get a sense of who I was and my understanding and views of Habitat. It was my chance for me to ask and to understand better his vision of where he thought Habitat should continue to go.
BB: What did he tell you?
JR: The encouraging thing was that he said he was continuing to be committed to our work and was going to keep doing the Jimmy Carter work projects and he was going to stay engaged.
BB: Is he 80 now?
JR: He's 82 or 83. He reinforced his personal, both affection for and commitment, to our work.
BB: You also took over from the founder. That sort of must have been big shoes.
JR: You know it's interesting. In church terms they call the person who replaces the founder the unintentional interim. You come in with some humility. Obviously it was unfortunate to come in under the circumstances, but I think the wonderful thing coming in is that the board of directors was strongly united around the vision of where I and we thought Habitat ought to go and I think the most important thing, which I remember every day, is that Habitat is so much bigger than any individual.
BB: Like a church, really.
JR: Very much so. So I have the privilege of serving something that is, if I disappear tomorrow, would just march right along and continue to thrive and be successful. Habitat really has been the story of thousands upon thousands of leaders all across the world who have captured the vision and decided to make that happen in their communities and so the wonderful thing has been, not only have we not missed a beat, but that we have grown at the fastest rate in our history.
BB: So you are feeling a little more comfortable.
JR: I am. You never know. I hold it very loosely, but I hope to be here a long time.
BB: I doubt if you have had that feeling for any other job, one of those ah ha, meant to be, this is what I was created fo, kind of thing.
JR: I have said this to many people. I have said I can't think of any job I had rather have. I think it might be the first time in my career where there is just nothing I had rather be doing. I love that.
BB: Isn't it funny that during that time you spent with the non-compete and all of that, if you were to look at whatever decisions you were making, sort of rationally, as a financial decision, would you say, "What am I doing? I need to go to the next job." But you and your wife had this feeling, this sort of certainty of it all.
JR: I would say, and I would want to encourage folks, because I know there are plenty of people in the industry who are needing jobs, and it is hard and I think in our society, especially for men it is really hard, It took some self-discipline, and I thought it was an important self discipline, I would meet people and they would say, "What do you do?" and I would say, "Oh, I'm a stay-at-home dad, trying to figure out the next thing." I would bite my tongue and not say, "but I used to be X, Y, or Z." I mostly, wonderfully enjoyed that season. But there were certainly time of impatience and there were times when it was uh oh, when I first left I turned down some very good jobs and I was thinking, was that a mistake, did I miss something? And because you think all of us have some urge of wanting to be useful and wanting to be productive and there were moments where I felt I wasn't being useful enough, I wasn't being productive enough. But, I look back and I would not trade that time for anything because it was a great time for my family.
BB: How old are your kids?
JR: They are 12, 10, and 7.
BB: So they were pretty little.
JR: They were. I think at that time they were 2, 5, and 7 so it was a great time to be home.
BB: When you think, these days, it's not as though you are going to have one career. There is the possibility of having several careers in a lifetime. It's not as though people just quit at 55 anymore because we have many years of productivity left.
JR: I've seen so much of that. Habitat on a volunteer basis is full of people who have found their next season with Habitat. They are quote "retired" but they haven't retired at all and they take all that talent and energy and put it into leading their local Habitat or being a super volunteer and those are the people, the bedrock folks, who make Habitat work and it has been wonderful. So many of them would say to me, sort of the traditional view over time, that retirement is over-rated, that what you really want to do is find meaning and purpose.
BB: So what do you do for fun?
JR: My family is first call anytime when I am not working. The nature of this job requires me to work somewhat more than I would ideally like so I have come to view there are seasons in life and this is one of those seasons that is mostly about Habitat and my family so I have cut back most other things at this stage but I love sports of every kind so, whether it's playing with my kids or coaching their teams or, when I have a chance, getting to play basketball or tennis, or just exercise. Getting exercise is my primary stress-buster. I'm a fairly voracious reader.
BB: What are you reading now?
JR: Really interesting mix. I am reading a book by a young Muslim about how people of different faiths can get along better, it's kind of an interesting book. I am reading a book by Charles Scribner III, it's an autobiography, his life, looking through the lens of both his faith and music. It's been interesting to me because we went to the same high school and we had commonalities.
BB: You grew up in North Carolina.
JR: I grew up in North Carolina, but I went to a small high school in New Hampshire. I'm reading too many books, that is probably a bad thing because I am starting them but not getting to finish them.
BB: Who is the Muslim author.
JR: Oh, it is sitting on my coffee table. His name is Ebu. I just finished True North, which is, I think, a very fine business book. And just read a great book, when the game is over it all goes back in the box.
BB: What's that about?
JR: It's very much a perspective. It uses how you play Monopoly as a picture for the reality that you can win the game but it's really a picture of what kind of life do you really want to lead because.
BB: You can own both Boardwalk and Park Place and all your friends hate you?
JR: That's exactly it. You dominate the whole world. You have hotels everywhere, and then when you win it goes back in the box. It doesn't have eternal value. So how do you shape a house around things that really do matter.
BB: So you coach your kids'?
JR: I have always coached everything up until taking this job. So I coached every child in pretty much every team they played on until Habitat. One of the things that's tough now is that there is so much travel. My son plays soccer and basketball and tennis. My daughters have been doing fewer team sports. One is doing horseback riding and one is doing ballet, but she is going to play soccer as well.
BB: What are their names and how old are they?
JR: Alexander is 12 and Grace is 10 and Lily is 7.
BB: How old are you?
JR: 45. August 31.
BB: Do you have a personal goal for Habitat? I know it is an organization and almost an organism in a way. But is there one thing that you want, personally.
JR: I think our ultimate goal is to eliminate poverty housing. I think if I were to make that a little more specific in the shorter term it would be that Habitat not only exponentially increases the number of families we directly serve, but we become a bigger player in impacting good community development and good housing in all the communities we serve. We talk about it in terms of being a partner and a catalyst for world-wide access to safe, decent, and affordable housing and so I think that partnership word is infused in everything that we are doing. The only way we will really get significant success is if we can get the nonprofit sector, the private sector and the public sector all working together.
BB: I think you touched on that a bit when we were talking about inclusionary zoning. What are you doing to promote that?
JR: We are trying in a whole variety of ways to support good housing policy all across the world. There are some really nice examples. One of the more creative ones is in Toronto, and this is non-traditional Habitat. In Toronto we had a developer, and the city gave the city a density bonus so the condo tower could be two stories higher than the original approval if one of those stories was Habitat . And, so by definition of course, our volunteers weren't out on the girders, but the volunteers and their families did all the interior finishes on those floors and those units. And they are still condominiums, still home ownership, still sweat equity, still all the same principals that Habitat has, but a very different physical look. But the way the developer won, the families won, the families got into where they have great access to transportation jobs, and good education. In a sense that it is a vertical mixed-use community now. We are evolving to try to make sure as we have always done, yet we are appropriate to the context. If context is very high land cost, we have got to be more land efficient. But what we would liked there was the city helped because they provided the zoning and the incentive. The private developer helped because they both won in terms of their business goals but they could also both do something positive for the community. We have won because we have had access to affordable housing.
BB: In those units were the units that were Habitat, were they mixed within the entire development or were they one floor?
JR: It wasn't that big a building so it was just on one floor. They did that just from a construction perspective.
BB: Will that become known as the low-income floor?
JR: Our experience is that that fades really fast. I have had the nicest things happen where I was down in Mississippi and we were rebuilding one of the communities in Mississippi and a woman came up to me and we had been putting in a park and a playground. We were far and away the largest builder in the community at this point and she said, "You know, I was so opposed to Habitat coming in here and then I decided that I would come out and find out what was going on" and then she had gotten to know some of the families and what people quickly find is that these are incredibly hard-working families, who have exactly the same dreams for their kids, who end up being wonderful parts of communities. They have a stake, they have an ownership stake in the community so it has been overwhelmingly a positive thing once people have a chance to experience it and those relationships form.
BB: As house prices have gone up we are all getting close to being the working poor.
JR: We are going to have our Jimmy Carter work project in Los Angeles and we actually picked Los Angeles specifically because it's about the least affordable place in the United States and we wanted to put a spotlight on that because the median incomes are decent in Los Angeles, but the median cost home last year was $550,000. The income it takes to support that kind of a home locks out almost everyone. Think about the impact then because people are trying to live two hours away for it to be affordable and that's an environmental mess, that's a congestion mess, so there are all kinds of social costs.
BB: How do you like living in Atlanta?
JR: We just love it. My wife is a native Georgian. She feels that we have come home. We live across the street from my little sister. It has been just wonderful being here. I'm from North Carolina originally, so being back in the South is terrific
BB: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
JR: Fitting in somewhere that we are really excited about the second builders blitz that is happening next June and the chance to partner with builders across the country. I think that general theme that we view ourselves as very much complementary to the private building community and that my ideal vision is where we would be working hand-in-hand to build better communities and we recognize that Habitat will be a small piece of that, but that, in our way, contribute to improving and strengthening communities all around the country.
BB: What about some opportunities that the down cycle could bring, such as the availability of foreclosed homes?
JR: We have always done a mix of new homes and rehabs and I think in those markets where there are lots of suddenly empty homes, particularly at the lower price range, it doesn't make sense if they are homes that would be inappropriate for our income demands, but I do think there is a chance there where the banks, builders, Habitat, and other community development non-profits can get together with the cities because empty houses are bad for everyone. They depress property values. Nothing gets better if they sit there empty. So we're their chance, before they sit too long, to have volunteers come in to do light rehab and to get families into homes. We are in favor of it. And, obviously, we are in support of anything that keeps families in homes as well. So the last thing we want to do is see lots of families losing homes. So I hope we can be helpful in those markets. And I do think there will be some markets where the market will shift more dramatically toward rahabs. Where that is appropriate, we will certainly want to do that.
BB: What does T.M. (your middle initials) stand for?
JR: Thomas Moore, my father's favorite saint. So Thomas Moore was a great literary saint and author. It's an awfully long name but I have always liked Thomas Moore. We all got Biblical first names and then favorite saints for our middle names.
BB: Then everybody get two-named saints?
JR: Most of us did.
JR: Some didn't, guess a little bit
BB: How many were there of you?
BB: You would think that coming up with five names alone would be enough, without five extra-long middle names.
JR: Exactly. The girls got three and the boys got four. I'm not sure it was all science.
BB: Thank you very much.