Talk to Mark Schoepke for any length of time and you immediately understand that he’s all about others. And if you ask others about Schoepke, you’ll learn he’s a stalwart of the Christian retail industry.
“Mark paved the way for stores to operate in the Northwest,” says Kevin Ferguson of Willamette Valley Christian Supply (Corvallis, OR). “He had a vision that the store was an extension and support of the churches, and he really believed that the divine appointments that came in were based on God and that the store existed for that purpose.”
Schoepke, who is battling Parkinson’s, offered some insight for those fighting the good fight in Christian retail.
Building the Tree
With a mind for business and a heart for God’s work, Schoepke pioneered the Tree of Life stores nearly 22 years ago.
“A majority of our stores were in outlet malls,” he says. “There was a company called Bible Factory doing it a little bit before we did, but it took us five years to get into a mall.”
Schoepke adds that they were “able to maintain a much higher gross profit because we did a lot of overstock purchasing. We thought differently than most of the stores thought. We’d buy six months’ worth of product instead of a month’s worth when it was on special. We took advantage of all the specials that the publishers offered.
“Another thing that’s unique about us,” he continues, “is that when we closed we were still profitable. With my health deteriorating as rapidly as it was, I was no longer going to be able to do the job that I was doing.”
The store’s management team decided it was time to liquidate the company. “We had tried to sell it, but it just didn’t go through. The liquidation was so successful that we were able to give a lot more severance to our employees.”
So what made the Tree of Life stores so successful, even in a sagging economy?
“The success of our company was due in part to the loyalty and commitment we had to each other,” says Schoepke. “We did a training program called ‘transformational leadership’ where we signed a social covenant about how we’d treat each other. That really changed the way we worked together. We failed sometimes, but I think overall it really was the catalyst of our success.
“The other thing that happened to us several years ago [that helped us succeed],” he says, “was that we made the decision that even though we may not succeed monetarily, we would succeed spiritually in the divine appointments that we had every day at the stores. That’s much more powerful than money at the end of the day. We started concentrating on those divine appointments and the business did better.”
The Heart of the Matter
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Schoepke is what those who worked closely with him have to say about him.
Stacy Peterson, an office manager and Schoepke’s assistant over the course of 20 years, says, “Mark is the best example of a servant-leader that I’ve seen.”
Leslie Stone, a warehouse manager who worked with the Schoepkes for more than 24 years, echoes the sentiment. “His employees always came first. I never missed one of my kids’ games or any school activity. He was very generous and allowed me to work a full-time job but also do all of that other stuff.”
Ferguson adds that Schoepke cares deeply about people coming to know Jesus and walking with Him intimately as well as the families of every employee.
“This is an unusual and extraordinary man,” he says. “He believed from the get-go that this was God’s heartbeat for them as a family. He’s donated thousands and thousands of dollars to causes [and has] a passion for delivering the Word of God around the world. We once had a Bible drive where we raised over 200,000 Bibles to be sent to Africa. He believes that you need to give as much as you get. In my estimation, he is the most humble, gracious, giving, godly man that the industry has ever had.”