Once or twice a day, the rural calm of the Bruderhof's retreat near Rifton in upstate New York is shattered by the pounding of a heavy truck. The Bruderhof is an Amish-style religious community of four hundred people. The brothers (as they style themselves) have no patience with the godless modern world. They have banned radios and televisions, forbid divorce and homosexuality, and practice "Christian communism," renouncing private property and raising their children collectively. Each family has its own quarters, but the community usually eats and performs most chores together, with the women, who wear head scarves to preserve their modesty and routinely defer to their menfolk, performing the bulk of the domestic labor.
The brothers regard the spread of American culture around the world with suspicion. Hollywood preaches immorality, they argue; the Internet corrupts children's minds with pornography; and both, by stimulating materialism, distract people from the really important things in life. Every-where they look, the brothers see simple communities like their own being destroyed by the onward rush of industry and pop culture. One of their longest-standing relationships is with another anticapitalist island, Cuba, where they often send their children for holidays.
Yet the Bruderhof, no less than Cuba, are having to open the door to the modern world. The group's history has always given it an international edge. It was founded in Germany in the 1920s, but the brothers' communist principles and unorthodox approach to education inevitably attracted the wrath of the Nazis. Their flight from persecution scattered them across the world, with some ending up in southern England and others migrating first to Latin America and then to the United States. Most of the group's 2,500 members now live either in England (where there are two settlements) or the northeast United States (with six). They have always tried to counteract this geographic separation by moving members from one community to another and running their affairs collectively. Modern technology has made this process less cumbersome: Rather than relying on letters and the occasional phone call, the group is thoroughly wired, with a constant flow of phone calls, faxes, and e-mails among the eight settlements. (Unlike their ideological cousins, the Amish, the Bruderhof can tolerate modern technology so long as it is used strictly for work.)
The other thing that has drawn the far-flung brotherhood closer together is, ironically, commerce. Since the late 1950s, the members of the Bruderhof have supported themselves by making superbly crafted children's toys through a company called Community Playthings; in the 1970s, they added another business, Rifton Equipment, which makes equipment for the handicapped. Since the brothers insisted on involving all their communities in the production process (and also excluding outsiders), the educational toys were expensive, but their niche seemed safe. This illusion lasted until the late 1980s, when the brothers began to run into competitors, many of them from abroad, who used new manufacturing techniques to combine the quality of handicraft with the efficiency of mass production. They had also en-countered bottlenecks in their own production.
The brotherhood held a series of crisis meetings around the world. Some members argued that, since they had taken vows of poverty, it hardly mattered that their income was shrinking. But one of the younger brothers argued that the community's only hope for survival lay in borrowing ideas from the same commercial life that they had always scorned. In most ways, John Rhodes is a textbook member of the brotherhood: He has lived virtually all his adult life within the community; his clothes are as drab as those of any of his peers; he has iron convictions, particularly on the evils of the death penalty and of homosexuality, all of them conveyed in a soft voice. In one regard, however, he is unusual: He is fascinated by business ideas. He gently persuaded his doubting colleagues that the Bruderhof could learn a lot from the Japanese and that they could turn the fact that their business was scattered around the world to their advantage.
Reluctantly at first, the Bruderhof immersed themselves in Japanese management techniques. They turned each of their communities into specialist centers, with some responsible for metalwork and others for carpentry. They introduced "lean production," scrapping assembly lines, dividing the workforce into "cells" (each responsible for assembling an entire product), and forcing their suppliers to deliver new parts as soon as the old ones had been used. It is this just-in-time delivery system that is responsible for the truck whose rumblings periodically shatter the rural calm of Rifton.
The gains in efficiency from these and other changes were dramatic. The Bruderhof found that they could deliver 60 percent of their orders on the same day, in an industry where the average delivery time is four weeks. They reduced their inventories by more than 90 percent. Even more important in a group that believes that work is a form of prayer, individuals started to find their jobs more fulfilling. From reluctant converts the Bruderhof became unabashed proponents of modern management and toured the world's factories looking for new ideas. They borrowed another Japanese technique, kaizen, that helps get rid of bottlenecks in production. They embraced American ideas such as reengineering, putting workers in charge of whole processes, and pruning the number of their products by 20 percent. They introduced computers and integrated the British and American factories into one system.
The ideas have not just changed how the Bruderhof make things but also how the group deals with the outside world. For instance, the brothers still instinctively prefer to sell things without meeting people. But techniques such as "customer-centric management" have also forced them to admit that their customers like to be able to associate a name and a voice (if not necessarily a face) with their supplier. So a team of account managers (most of them women) has tried to build close relationships with particular groups of customers, such as schools for the handicapped. Somewhere along the way, the Bruderhof even bought a private jet, which, when it is not used for the group's affairs, is leased out to the likes of Sharon Stone and Tom Cruise.
The Bruderhof are only too aware that leasing planes to film stars while refusing to watch their films and relying on e-mail while forbidding their children to play computer games is somewhat odd. But so far their strategy is paying off. The children still write letters to political prisoners and people on death row; the women are as deferential as ever; and business is booming, with revenues reaching forty million dollars in 1999 and orders streaming in from all over the world. The Bruderhof are now looking for ways to use their unexpected windfall to locate converts around the world, and starting a new Community in Australia. If the modern marketplace can do the devil's work, it can also do the Lord's.
From the Hardcover edition.