I called Keith in January of 2003. My business was struggling and both my confidence and quite frankly, my faith were shaken.
Keith’s advice was simple, “With God, all things are possible.”
We talked for a while about what that meant, and as I hung up the phone I was both relieved at the simplicity of his counsel, and perplexed at the strength of this faith. I wondered how anyone could trust so completely. At the same time, there was just something about him that was different. He was one of those rare souls who made the world a better place just by being here. Trusting him was simple.
I set out over the next few years to study Keith and the Maxwell clan. I wanted to know what made them uniquely different than any family I had known. Keith led his family as a shining example of what a Husband, a Dad and a Grandpa should be. He was a living role model. I had never meant anyone like him, and to this day I never have.
Eventually, I boiled down Keith’s philosophy for business and life to three basic, but pure principles.
Keith’s principles continue to guide my life today.
Keith had a very simple business philosophy, which resulted in incredible financial and professional success. Unlike most self-made men, Keith wasn’t boastful, so it took a long time for me to understand what his secret really was. If you ever watched Keith operate, be it at work, church, on vacation, or with his family, Keith put service above all else. “Serve first.” He looked at every situation as an opportunity to serve, whether that was opening the door for me at a restaurant, asking about how my business was doing, or inquiring as to the strength of my faith. Like everyone else in his life, Keith wanted to be of service to me. I was dumbfounded. In my family, it’s like every person for themselves, so being around Keith felt like I had been transported to a foreign country.
At first I thought it was because he was in the prime of his retirement years when we met, and he simply had more time on his hands. However, as I listened to his family tell stories about his professional accomplishments, I realized this theme was the central component of his business strategy.
Keith’s 18-restaurant Sweden House chain throughout Michigan and Minnesota was incredibly successful. This family dining establishment had a reputation for service, but not just to customers. Everything about the way Keith led was about being of service: to his customers, his vendors, his employees, his family, and of course, his faith. Keith frequently explained to me that he made EVERY business decision in prayer. But, not the kind of prayer I was used to praying in my business (“God, please bring me a new customer…”). Instead, Keith prayed, “Lord, how can I serve you today?” That’s how he started EVERY day. No joke. He told me story after story about hard decisions he had to make, and how he simply lifted the decision up in prayer. He ran his business that way, without fail. When there was a conflict with an employee or a vendor, he simply asked, “What choice would serve the most people?” That was how he was guided. Serve first.
My professional tribute to Keith will be to lead that way. I vow to start every day with that question, “How can I serve?”
Keith had very strong convictions, and for those who dared to verbally spar with him, even stronger opinions. I loved that about him. But it quickly dawned on me that there was something different about Keith’s opinions. In spite of his beliefs, or his opinions, Keith let grace replace judgment. We frequently disagreed, but Keith never judged me. Never. At the same time, he never wavered on his beliefs. It was like his belief, and my belief, although different, could co-exist. It blew my mind for the entire time I’ve known him. Different beliefs allowed to co-exist? How could that be?
On a visit to Grand Rapids in the summer of 2002, I decided to play a joke on Keith. The TV was almost always tuned to Fox News, and when Keith went into the other room, I grabbed the remote and turned it to CNN. I fully expected him to at least give me a hard time about the dangers of watching CNN.
It didn’t take long for him to realize what I had done. His face had this quizzical expression on it, as I observed him from the corner of my eye.
Finally, after a few minutes, he said, “So, you like CNN huh?”
I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do.”
Keith chucked and said, “Well, good for you.”
That was it. No judgment, no ridicule, not even a passive-aggressive comment about the ‘liberal news media.’
Over the course of the weekend, and actually for years later, I continued to test Keith, waiting for him to pass judgment the way so many of us do. He never did.
It didn’t occur to me until the last time I sat with Keith in the Spring of 2010, after Helen’s death, what this was. I sat in the chair next to him at the nursing home while family members busied about. For some reason, I felt my role that afternoon was to entertain Keith, and I willingly complied. Any time spent talking with Keith was pure joy, because he welcomed my questions and encouraged my desire to learn.
Knowing full well that Keith and I did not share similar political beliefs, I asked, “Keith, what do you think about our new President?”
“Well, you know, I wanted Hillary to win, even though she’s not a republican. I thought she would be a stronger president.”
I kept pushing, “Yeah, but what do you think of our new President?”
Keith said, “He’s our President, and I pray for him.”
There it was, that “pray for him” thing. I had heard Keith say that he “was praying for me” and in my own spiritually immature mind I thought he was praying that I would change or something.
I couldn’t let the moment go, for fear I wouldn’t see Keith again and I had to know the truth. “Ok, Keith, so when you pray for us, does that mean you’re praying for us to change, to believe what you believe?”
“Oh heavens no,” he said. I simply pray that you come to know the Grace of the Lord. If you receive that, everything else works out.”
I sat perfectly still. This was it. This was his secret. His words twirled about the room as my mind slowly grappled with phrases to encapsulate this wisdom. After what seemed like an eternity, I said, “So, you let grace replace judgment?”
“Yep, that’s about right. I think that’s how God wants us to live, don’t you?” He grinned.
How profound. “Yep, I think you’re right, Keith.” And, then we turned on Fox News.
In May 2004, Keith and Helen attended my MBA graduation celebration. It was a proud moment, and I was delighted they were there. I saved them a special seat at the head table, and introduced them to my family, friends, co-workers, and church family. It was one of my all-time favorite memories. We even danced with Helen.
After everyone but a few close friends left, Keith told the age-old story of how he met Helen. I am sure many of us have heard this story a dozen times, and I think I was on at least my 3rd version.
Yet, every time I listened to him talk about Helen, I noticed his face lit up, and his smile got bigger. Wanting that depth of love, I asked, “Keith, how is it that you can love Helen so much?”
He responded in his matter of fact tone, “She’s my angel.”
I knew he didn’t understand the question, and it was important to me that he did, so I rephrased it carefully. “No, Keith, how is that you can love anyone that deeply? I struggle with letting my love out. How do you do that?”
He sat there for a minute, and then he got this little twinkle in his eye, you know the one…playful, mischievous and precious all at the same time.
“I decided a long time ago that there was only one way to love…” and then he let his words trail off for affect, purposely not answering the question, with a grin a mile long.
I couldn’t resist and said with my own playful smile, “What way is that Keith?”
His eyes twinkled even more, and it was like I could almost hear him laughing inside, even though he didn’t make a sound. Then, finally, he threw his arms in the air and shouted, “BIG!!! Love big!!!”
We all laughed, and he chuckled knowing full well that his charm and wit had won the table over. I laughed with everyone else, but noticed Keith watching me carefully. It was like he saw right through me that night, and when we had a minute alone he said, “You know, Terri, love isn’t like a faucet that you can turn on or off. You either love big or go it alone. It’s a lot better if you can love big.
I knew he was right. He usually was. “Yes, Keith. Love big. Got it.”
He smiled and walked away with this little skip in his step. Then, he grabbed Helen by the arm and escorted her to the car, humming as he walked.
In that moment, I felt it. I felt “love big.”
Keith Maxwell made the world a better place by simply caring enough to see us for who we really are, as children of God. At the same time he allowed us to be who were truly were, as people, whether he agreed or not. He left a piece of himself in each of us and I chose to carry that light forward. If I am lucky, maybe my actions will honor his life, and my spirit will serve his legacy.
Thanks Keith. Give Helen a kiss for me.
With the soulfulness of Wayne Dyer and the entrepreneurial spirit of Richard Branson, Terri is a world-class business growth expert, social impact investor, and serial entrepreneur whose purpose is to inspire potential. With her own money, Terri built a portfolio of purposeful companies, Share On Purpose, Inc., and now invests in and creates mission-driven start-ups.
In a career that spans more than 25 years, Terri has launched, owned, sold, rebranded or turned around more than 40 companies. She is known for her game-changing business models and personal transformation frameworks.
Everything she built came directly from a wellspring of perseverance and soulful resiliency, which she openly shares through her first purposeful brand, Succeed On Purpose.