Lowell Church: A Will and a Way

Growing up in Africa teaches you that there’s a solution to everything. You just have to find it.

Compared to jerry-rigging a tie rod for a car that broke down in the jungle between Rwese (in Zaire) and Goma (Democratic Republic of Congo), convincing supply chain executives, clinicians and affiliate hospitals to use a particular brand of trocars isn’t really that hard. That’s not to say it’s easy, but everything is relative. “There is always a solution,” says Lowell Church, vice president for materials management, Adventist Health, Sacramento, Calif. “I just have to find it. That’s the mindset.” It’s a mindset born in Africa, which is where Church was born and spent the first part of his life.

You do what you have to do when you live in Africa. For example, if you want to play with other kids, you learn Swahili. If you want to go to a good school, you learn French. If you want to take a bath, you heat up the tanks outside and do it. And if there’s a civil war going on and United Nations helicopters are hovering above you, you take cover.

“Life was filled with a lot of good stuff,” says Church, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro a couple of times, visited game parks, swam in the Indian Ocean off Mombasa, gazed down at the clouds in the valley below Rwese, Zaire. And driving at age 14 wasn’t bad either.

Somerset West
Church’s life has been a combination of fate, divine calling and hard, hard work. He was born in January 1954 in Somerset West, South Africa, about 30 miles from Cape Town, at the southern tip of the continent. His parents – both Seventh-Day Adventists – were from Michigan. His late dad, Max, was from Detroit; and his mom, Irma, is from Battle Creek, home of Kellogg’s. (Turns out W.K. Kellogg – founder of the cereal company – was a Seventh-Day Adventist.) Max saw action in Europe in World War II, including the D-Day invasion of France in June 1944. That experience touched him with a taste for adventure and wanderlust, and ultimately brought him and Irma to Somerset West in 1952. Max taught English, French, History and Geography at Helderberg College, a Seventh-Day Adventist school that accommodated students from preschool through college.

Lowell (the second of six kids) was raised in Somerset West until he was four, when his dad decided to move the family up to Rwanda, still a Belgian colony at the time. It was there that he learned Swahili. “We were there in 1962-63, when Rwanda got its independence,” recalls Church. “We had civil war. United Nations troops were called in. I remember seeing them fly to the mission station.” Already, animosity between the Hutus and Tutsis – which came to the world’s attention during the atrocities in 1994 – was flaring. Max Church, who was the principal of a Seventh-Day Adventist school about 15 miles from Nyanza, offered shelter to members of the Tutsi tribe in the mission station during the worst of the fighting.

In 1963, Max took the family to Bujumbura, Burundi, just south of Rwanda. Though a Tutsi-dominated country (whereas Rwanda was dominated by the Hutu tribe), Burundians spoke a language similar to that spoken by the people in Rwanda. But young Church wasn’t about to get a free pass on the language deal. For the third grade, he was placed in a Belgian school, where French was spoken. It was in Burundi that he took his first piano lessons, sparking a lifelong interest in playing.

School in Nairobi
In the mid-1960s, the Churches took a six-month furlough in Michigan, where Lowell attended school in Berrien Springs. But his adventures were only just beginning. When the family returned to Burundi, the Churches decided to send Lowell (as they had his older sister) to an English-speaking, Seventh-Day Adventist school in Nairobi, Kenya. There he attended school through eighth grade. Life was pretty good for Church. “I was able to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro two times,” he says. The mountain is located not far from Nairobi, near the border of Kenya and Tanzania. He also visited Lake Nakuru in central Kenya, local game parks and the Indian Ocean, at Mombassa.

During Lowell’s schooling in Nairobi, Max and Irma moved the family to Lubumbashi, formerly Elisabethville, in the Katanga province of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its reputation had preceded it, as Elisabethville had been the scene of fierce fighting during the battles surrounding the independence of the Congo in the late 1950s.

For high school, Church returned to South Africa – to Helderberg College. To get there, he’d fly from Lubumbashi to Lusaka, Zambia; then to Johannesburg in South Africa. From Johannesburg, he’d take what’s known as the Blue Train to Cape Town – a ride of close to a thousand miles. The Blue Train is a popular tourist attraction, traveling as it does through some magnificent country, including the Transvaal. “A bunch of us kids – 15 or 20 of us – would be packed on the train,” he recalls. Once they disembarked at Cape Town, he and the other students would grab the train to Somerset West.

Cool at the equator
While Church studied at Helderberg, his parents moved again, this time to Rwese in northern Zaire. Rwese is near the equator, but being in the Rwenzori Mountains, the temperature is actually quite cool. “It was very cool, very nice,” he recalls. “Our house sat on top of this mountain. We’d wake up in the morning and see all the clouds in the valley below.” There were some challenges. For example, electricity was supplied by a generator, and there was no running water. “All of our water came off the rain from the roof that was funneled into the water tank,” he says. “Sometimes we had to pay to have water carried up there by the bucketful.” Cooking was done on a wood stove. There was no TV, just radio and short-wave radio.

It was while the family lived in Rwese that Church, still a teenager, set out to drive to Goma to pick up some dignitaries in the Seventh-Day Adventist church. “I’m 16 or 17, driving eight or 10 hours through jungle roads, with mud up to our hubs.” When his tire rod broke, he fixed up something to get him through the trip.

“I never felt at risk,” says Church of his life in Africa. “I loved every minute of it.” Yes, there was the matter of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict, and his father no doubt felt the heat more than his son. But Church says there was far more intertribal tension than tension between native Africans and others, such as Americans. And the fact that he spoke the language helped a great deal.

Chapter closes
Church completed his final year of high school at home in Rwese, so he could take the requisite courses to gain admission to a U.S. university. At the same time, Max and Irma were contemplating returning to the States for good, as Irma’s parents were getting older, and the couple felt the need to establish themselves economically for retirement. And so in 1970, the Churches left Africa for the last time, traveling back to Michigan, so Lowell could begin studies at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, a Seventh-Day Adventist institution where his father worked. (It turns out Max’s missionary days weren’t over. He founded Eden Orphanage in Haiti and spent 10 years there. When he finally returned to the United States, it was due to his deteriorating health.)

Though Lowell was finished with living in Africa, he maintained (and continues to do so today) close relationships with people he knew there. So does his family. In fact, at Max’s funeral in August 2008, many of the family’s African friends traveled to Michigan for the service.

While one chapter of his life closed, another – equally adventurous – opened. In 1973, while still attending school at Andrews, Church fell in love with Valorie Armstrong from Kalamazoo and got married. Soon after, he left school and went to work for Wiedemann Industries, Muscatine, Iowa, a maker of church baptistries, lighting, spires and cupolas. They had their first daughter about a year later. After a year or so, the family returned to Michigan, and Church got a job in the maintenance department at Hammond Machine Builders in Kalamazoo, a maker of industrial machinery.

While working at Hammond, Church embarked on yet another adventure. He obtained a nursing home administrators license, and helped build a facility – Countryside Nursing Home – in South Haven, Mich. “When we opened the doors, I became administrator,” he says. He held that post for a while, then decided it was time to finish his undergraduate degree in accounting. But to finance that, as well as his young family, he made a few acquisitions: an adult foster care home in Berrien Springs as well as a couple of rental properties.

The Churches lived in the adult foster care home. “For eight or nine years, it was 24/7,” he says. The residents, all over age 18, were essentially non-functional on their own, and needed to be in a supervised living arrangement. Lowell and Valorie fed and cared for their charges, all the while making sure the facility met the requirements of various regulatory agencies. “You do all the paperwork, you fill empty beds when you lost someone,” he says. “It was hard. And hard on the family. You don’t escape it.”

Still living and running the adult foster care home, and still finishing up his degree work, Church took a job as central service supervisor at Mercy Medical Center in Benton Harbor, Mich. When the hospital built a new facility, he was asked to design a new materials department and supply chain protocols for some of the departments, including the OR. He worked with the architects on the design, and conducted various site visits of other facilities. He ended up installing the Enterprise Systems Inc. (ESI) materials management system (now owned by McKesson Corp.), as well as a case cart system for the OR.

Adventure again
Upon his graduation in 1980, the Churches departed from the expected course once more. They hired a family to oversee the adult foster care home, then moved to Haiti, where Lowell’s brother was doing missionary work. There, he worked with an attorney facilitating the export of Haitian products abroad and the import of products to the island nation. But Haiti is a tough place to work. Corruption is rampant, change is slow to come, and the political environment is volatile. While the Churches were on a visit to the United States, Lowell’s attorney partner was shot to death. Based on that, the Churches decided to come back to the States. Returning to the foster care home, Church pursued a master’s degree in business administration, while Valorie pursued a nursing career, affected as she was by witnessing the desperate healthcare needs of the Haitian population.

More moves were in the works. The Churches moved to Salinas, Calif., where Lowell got a job with a small consulting firm, dealing primarily with hospital materials management. Though he enjoyed the work, he wasn’t crazy about the role. “Consulting is not me,” he says. He felt that consultants were incentivized to keep accounts rather than improve them to the point where they (the consultants) were no longer needed. And it was frustrating. “You’d work up a plan, give it to them, then come back two, three or four months later and see the binder sitting on the shelf.” Then the consulting company experienced financial problems, hastening his departure.

“I had been looking for the right job, and it bode well for me that a position opened at Kettering Medical Center,” he says. Kettering is a Seventh-Day Adventist facility in suburban Cincinnati. It was the right job for a long time. Church stayed more than 10 years, acquiring more and more responsibilities. Then in the late 1990s, he started paying more attention to an itch he had harbored for quite awhile to run his own business. As Kettering faced some belt-tightening, the opportunity seemed right to make the leap. So Church bought a Nevada-based business called Bench Boss, which made workbenches and tools.

He moved the business – and family – to Spokane, Wash., which had a favorable tax climate. And he struck a working relationship with the local Seventh-Day Adventist high school. The school gave Church an exceptional rate for space in its industrial complex; in exchange, Church agreed to hire its students to do internships there, to help earn their tuition. At the same time, he and his son started a moving business, buying a large truck and moving equipment.

“It was an experience,” he says. “I had never run a business. And I wasn’t used to the selling side. So trying to raise funds and do marketing was a new experience for me.” But fate was to intervene once again. Noticing the “Jobs Wanted” ads that Adventist Health was placing in the church’s newspaper, Church contacted the organization to see if he could get a contract to relocate its new employees. His experience in materials management attracted the IDN’s administrators more than his moving capabilities, however. Some time later, Adventist’s materials manager died, heating up the organization’s interest in Church. Though he wasn’t looking for a new position, one thing led to the other, and in January 2001 he was hired as corporate director of materiel management. Later he became vice president.

“I’ve had a very successful stint here,” says Church. One thing he is particularly proud of is building Adventist’s affiliate program. To date, Adventist – which comprises 17 hospitals – has attracted 39 affiliates to the Premier purchasing program. Simultaneously, he has used some of those selling skills he learned while running his businesses to build strong partnerships with vendors, some of them much smaller than the market-share leaders. To Church, it’s about building and maintaining a competitive market, so providers such as Adventist can avoid being beholden to one or two giant companies in any given market. He’s even helped sell Premier on a thing or two, including the need to put more “feet on the street” and to offer more specialized expertise to member hospitals as a way to increase contract utilization. He recently served as chairman of Premier Purchasing Partners’ Strategic Advisory Committee.

Chalk it up to the years he spent in Africa. Church does his share of praying and trusting in divine guidance. But he works. He works hard. And he works out of the box. “There’s always a solution,” he says. “I just have to find it.” He has a good track record of doing just that.