‘Buying’ Into The Vision: A Chat With Craig Johnson

Speaking to a group at Lake Taupo Christian Camp, Craig Johnson had a “God moment”. For several years, he’d regularly prayed, “...Lord, I know You have a purpose for me, but I don’t know what it is...” Yet, in those moments - as the group of chefs and kitchen staff from several Christian camps discussed the varying costs of a tin of coffee - something dawned on him. That discussion proved to be the genesis - or starting point - of Craig founding Christian Supply Chain (CSC) Buying Group.

His vision? Greater unity from a procurement perspective, so that - in his own words - “...businesses could join for free, so buyers and organisations could purchase the essential goods they needed to help them run their day-to-day operations with cheaper prices.” Fast forward nearly 20 years - He and I are sitting across the desk from each other in late May. In a season of change for CSC, it’s Craig’s very first day at work with a new job description having stepped down as its CEO and managing director - roles and responsibilities he’s held for the entirety of the business’ two-decade history so far. 

These days, CSC has more than 3000 businesses as registered members and an overall reach of easily more than 500,000 people. In the past decade, CSC has directly donated over $1.3 million to Christian Camping New Zealand ministry and other charities, and calculations show that - in the same time frame - approximately $140 million in savings from suppliers have been passed onto members.

In as much as he felt God’s leading to found the group, Craig has peace that now’s the right time to ‘pivot’ and take on a new challenge at CSC. “As I reflect, I genuinely believe CSC is the outworking of that prayer and this is His plan for me,” Craig - who describes his new role as somewhat of a company 'ambassador' - says. “I don’t think it’d be good for me to slow down really - I like working! I know the timing is right to step into this next chapter.

As I close some pages and start turning new ones, I must admit I find myself reminiscing at times. In some ways that process feels a bit strange, but my desire is to be helpful and supportive of our new CEO, Daniel Bullen, as well as remaining focussed on what will continue to add value to the business.” So, at the outset of that “season of change”, I sat down with Craig and Daniel to discuss the “exciting chapter” that’s ahead at CSC.

Craig, let’s start with you... Firstly, how did you come to know Jesus?
I grew up on a pig farm and was raised in a Christian home. I came to the Lord at about eight or nine. I recommitted my life to Him in my early teens. There was a time when I was younger when I ‘fell off the rails’, as it were. I’d say I got my life back on track around the time I got married. My wife Viki has been a huge influence - particularly in pointing me to Jesus. Growing up as a Christian, I often saw a lot of wonderful preachers. In some ways, that led me to believe that to make a difference for God, or to be a ‘good Christian’, I had to be up the front preaching. In walking with God, He has of course taught me that as we partner with Him and ‘do our bit’ wherever He calls us, our part to play is to be willing to obey. For me, the sphere of influence is CSC.

Before we talk ‘business’ can you tell me a little bit about your family?
Sure! Viki my wife, grew up at Totara Springs Christian Centre - we met when I was cooking in the kitchen there. We married in 1993. All I can say is God has a bit of a sense of humour! I say that because I actually got sent to Totara Springs in the mid 1980s because I went through a phase of being naughty at school. Now, I’m the current Totara Springs Christian Centre Trust chairman! Viki and I have two children - Lily-Rose and Toby, who I'm immensely proud of.

The Johnson family.

I heard that before you founded CSC you were a chef, so I told someone I needed to get a good recipe from you! Can you tell me about that experience? 
It’s funny, a few years ago an old school friend told me he remembered me telling him when I was about 11 that I wanted to be a chef. I suppose I’ve always been reasonably creative and the culinary industry was an outlet for that. I was a chef for about 15 years. I still really enjoy cooking, probably more so now that I don’t do it for a job. Some aspects of the industry are challenging - working long hours, late nights and when other people are on holiday. Some of those factors are why I transitioned out of restaurant work really.

In our intro, we referenced CSC Buying Group’s beginnings. Can you elaborate on how you shifted from the culinary industry into founding CSC?
Sure! There’s a nice tie in between the two. In CSC’s early days, we started - to a large extent - with food products. A large proportion of the work we do even now is in the food and consumables market. In a way, that allows me to keep my hand in the game, if you like. I was still implementing food safety programmes even in the early CSC days.

When I gave that Lake Taupo Christian Camp talk in 2002, at the time I was working as an area manager in a large catering company. Within that role, we had protocols and disciplines in and around purchasing and procurement decisions. Often, we made more money based on those decisions than we did on what I call ‘across the counter’ sales. In Taupo, I was there to speak about purchasing and budgeting decisions that kitchen staff at Christian camps were making. Honestly, I was quite shocked that back then there didn’t seem to be more unity from a procurement perspective. I remember saying, "...I think we should start a buying group..."

Words are so powerful! I think it was a combination of knowing that, and sensing God in that moment, that motivated me to do something.

Can you explain the concept of a ‘buying group’ and the work CSC does?
Only a month or two after that discussion with the chefs, I presented the CSC idea to the Christian Camping New Zealand board in August 2002. I felt that if we could get good procurement deals for the camps, we’d be able to invest the money they subsequently saved back into training chefs. CSC was established as a separate charitable trust. As an ‘elevator pitch’ if you will - a brief 30 second way of introducing us - essentially businesses join CSC Buying Group for free. Doing so allows them to purchase goods they need from our CSC suppliers at cheaper prices.

It’s joining together to gain group discounts on a wide range of products and services, made possible through combined buying power. Our heart is that the bulk of the benefit goes to the end users at the point of sale. Currently, we’re at a point which means I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that because of what people save, the Christian market would be poorer in our absence. For me, it’s simply about Kingdom legacy. I guess that viewpoint, in a way, has to a large extent informed the growth we’ve seen over time. My heart is that, led by the Lord, we’ll genuinely invest in Kingdom initiatives which last even long after I’m gone.

Great point. What’s it like to reflect - 20 years later - on the journey God has brought CSC Buying Group on?

As we sit here today, CSC Group currently comprises four separate divisions - Christian Supply Chain Charitable Trust, CSC Buying Group, 1Team and, the newest division, CSC Property. We have 11 staff based at our Cambridge office. As I said, we now have more than 3000 businesses as registered members and an overall reach of more than 500,000 people. 

Among many others, buying categories available to CSC members now include everything from foodservice and equipment to vehicle and fuel costs and office and business goods to appliances and technology. Admittedly, initial discussions we had and decisions we made as we planned out the formation of CSC Buying Group were a real ‘crossroads moment’ for me as I followed the Lord's leading. All I can say now is how evident it is that God has certainly blessed us. One example I can see now is the decision to set up the group as a charitable trust - that’s ultimately been a major contributing factor towards our growth today, I think.

I have to say a special thank you to Viki too. She’s always been a huge support. Some people ask, at times, if the early CSC days felt like I was taking a big risk. Of course, Viki and I had a young family then - Toby was one and Lily-Rose was three. Honestly though, Viki would regularly encourage me that “...there’s really no better time than now…”. That was massive in giving me the confidence to follow a sense of God’s leading and step out.

Looking at that journey, what thoughts and encouragement do you have for others when it comes to following God’s leading and stepping out into what He puts before us? And, ultimately - more than being just a ‘business’ - what’s your heart for the work of CSC?

I’d say I’m the type of guy who - when I know a sense of God’s leading is on something - is prepared to step off the cliff and build the plane on the way down.

By that I mean I’m not afraid to fail. In a practical sense, I genuinely do have to have good people around me, otherwise there’s potential for some good ideas to go nowhere. 

My heart is to obey Him and leave the results up to Him. Another aspect of what I’d say drives me - the full extent of which I will probably never see in my lifetime - is the full scope of the difference the work that CSC can make, particularly with Christian organisations. Ultimately, if we help save them money, my hope and prayer is that those savings can then be poured back into the ministry, with the ultimate flow on effect being that souls are won for Christ through the work of that ministry.

To me, that approach has to filter through everything - right down to my heart even when establishing particular deals with suppliers. Only the Lord knows how, down the track, that partnership will be used for His Kingdom.

That brings up the concept of stewardship, and how we ‘hold’ what God places in our hands. What encouragement can you offer readers on that front?

Absolutely. I actually said to the team in my final speech as CEO that while I might be the founder, I don’t ‘own’ CSC. Nothing is ‘ours’, it’s all His - we just look after it for a little while. You could say that in some ways you can liken stewardship to ‘holding a chicken’. If you’re holding one, you can’t hold it so loosely that it’s going to flap around and injure itself. We must be responsible with what God gives us. But then, you can’t hold onto the chicken so tightly that you kill it. When God us to release things to Him, we have to be prepared to do so.

Craig, what would you say has been the most helpful piece of advice you’ve been given, either in terms of your walk with Jesus, or in terms of running a business as a Christian? 

The comfort for me is that God’s always in control, and that He never gives us anything we can’t handle. Without that comfort, anything done in my own strength is unsustainable. Actually, it’s fair to say anything I’ve tried to accomplish in my own strength never really works. It’s obvious when God’s involved - the doors start opening. I’ve noticed that when I don’t involve Him, things seem ‘harder’ and I can’t force open doors in my own strength.

The paradox here is that hard is okay - I’m also a firm advocate of a sense that when you hit ‘hard’ as you work with the Lord, in many cases you also hit ‘good’. Knowing God is ultimately in control sustains you. Business wise, I believe it’s hugely important to first understand where your strengths and weaknesses lie, then go about bringing the right people around you who can help you in those areas. I actually really admire Robert Laidlaw, a Christian man who founded Farmers Trading Company. When you look at where Farmers is today, it’s a real testament to how he went about founding that business.

In a business sense, yes, do your research but don’t be afraid to jump, or step out. I’m a big advocate in saying that a half-baked plan that was implemented will always beat a brilliant plan we did nothing with. Don’t get me wrong, you need to have an idea of what the end game is, but I also believe you can take the leap a little bit and there can be a degree of working it out as you go. We’ll never be able to have every area of how God is going to work sorted out in our minds in advance - there will always be situations and occurrences you come across that you couldn’t have foreseen at the start. Yet, as I said, it’s God who sustains us.

What’s your advice to readers in terms of finding people who point them to Jesus?

I’d actually say the best starting point is church. As Christians, I think we’re at times prone to taking Church for granted. Yet, if you look around a congregation, you’ll often find people who are everything from rocket scientists to brain surgeons, doctors to people who are in positions of public leadership like Mayors and city councillors. Church is a great place to start, not only just fellowship wise, but also by connecting with the right people. I believe being faithful in the basics of things like going to church helps you keep the main thing the main thing. As the Bible says in Proverbs 27:17, “...iron sharpens iron…” That’s a process the Lord outworks through other people - if you’re not connected with other Godly influences, you’re absolutely missing out.   

I also don’t believe in having just one mentor, as such. I think you want to surround yourself with a group of say five to seven people you trust. Interestingly too, I’ve found over the years that if you’ve got something on your heart, and you ask those same five to seven people, particularly if they’re Godly people, generally speaking you’ll get a similar thread in their answers. 

Earlier, you mentioned that, among other roles, you’re the chairman of the board at Totara Springs Christian Centre. Where else are you currently involved, and what’s your motivation when taking on roles like that?

Honestly, I take approaches and invitations to be involved at a board level with an organisation very seriously. I can’t stress that enough. My first question to the person asking me is often “...have you prayed about it?” To me, those roles and opportunities to serve are not things we can be ‘glib’ about saying yes or no to. Why? Because God could be the One knocking on the door of your heart and providing that opportunity to use your skills for Him. As well as my role with Totara Springs, I’m on the board of Longview Taurima Hostel - I actually used to be the cook there many years ago - and the three separate CSC boards.

Those being the CSC trust, the CSC company and CSC Property. Broadly speaking, I’m probably at a stage where I’m the guy who ‘sets the farm up’, rather than runs it, if you will. That means helping establish and put in place processes and protocols for success. Maybe I wouldn’t have said that about myself so much 10 years ago. When I came on board at Totara Springs about seven years ago, I felt there were some obvious changes that could be made regarding the way the governance model was set up and, in praying about it, I simply felt I could help. In regards to the motivation, I think it simply comes down to knowing how and when you can use your skills in God’s timing and, when He calls you, being prepared to serve.

What’s your encouragement to Christian men living busy lives who want to be intentional about maintaining a healthy balance amongst all the things requiring our attention?
That’s a big question! For me, I’ve come to realise that fear of forgetting is the biggest cause of stress. I guess that’s about being prepared to say no to some things. As God’s Word tells us, there’s a season for everything - sometimes you know when it’s the right time for one season to end and another to begin. I have to admit I’m certainly not perfect and I’m certainly guilty of taking on too much at times. I think a key part of this is having people around you who you can reach out to - and they shouldn’t just be ‘yes’ people - you’ve got to have people who are critical thinkers.  

In amongst all that, what do you do to rest and replenish?

Boating! When I’m out on the water it definitely feels like a disconnect for me. And definitely golf. There’s something to be said for putting the same amount of passion into those circuit-breaker outlets as you do for your work practices. You have to intentionally almost block out that time. In my new role, I’m now able to block out two afternoons a week for either golf or reading. It’s almost like getting rid of that ‘noise’ of work and the busyness of life at times.

So, what will your role and involvement with CSC look like moving forward and how did you know it was the right time to ‘pivot’ if you will?

I’d describe my new role as somewhat of a company ambassador’. Within the divisions of CSC that we talked about earlier is CSC Property. Looking specifically at that division, part of my job will be to go out and find additional properties and grow that aspect of the business. Then, of course, my heart is to support Daniel within his role. I’m actually already thinking about the possibility of a new division called CSC Procurement Consultancy too.

I’ve read some research recently, and have discovered that some of the most successful organisations with founders are the ones where founders in my position didn’t leave and do something completely different, rather they stayed involved with and committed to the original vision in some way. I’ve found that getting rid of the need to clear 100 emails a day really frees me up to turn my attention to some of the ideas I may have parked in the past! Some from even years ago. Regarding timing, it’s in the Lord’s hands, ultimately. Practically speaking too, I’d say that when it comes to looking to the future and what it might hold, I’ve never really struggled with not having at least a degree of clarity, as such.

As you’ve walked with the Lord, what have you learned about what it means to live the authentic Christian life?
Put simply, as Christians let’s be real and honest. In my life, there’ve been times I could’ve maybe done better when it comes to regular time spent reading the Word and in prayer. But, my heart is to walk with God in authenticity, certainly knowing I’m not perfect! 

Thanks so much Craig!

CSC Buying Group's new CEO Daniel Bullen.

Daniel, we thought it’d be cool to also hear your heart in the early days of your new role as CSC’s CEO and managing director…

I grew up in a Christian family, attending both YWAM and Scripture Union events and camps as a kid. Given that background, the value of CSC’s work to bless and benefit those kinds of organisations is definitely not lost on me.

I’ve known Craig for eight years. In my previous role I was sales and marketing manager at Christchurch’s Independent Fisheries Limited - we were actually also a CSC supplier.

In that time, Craig and I have become really good friends. I agree with him entirely regarding his thoughts about leaving a legacy and investing in initiatives which will be here long after we are. 

You could say it was that sense of wanting to make a difference that began to be on my heart - I suppose I’d been ‘flying a flag’ of sorts in looking for governance opportunities. I began expressing the fact I felt led to start gaining that governance experience, because I felt I could then help other businesses by doing so.

When Craig and I first chatted, he felt my previous food service experience stood me in good stead to be of help. I’ve actually already been on the CSC board for about two years and I’ve really enjoyed that. He and I began to discuss the tension between governance and management and how I could see opportunities I wanted to leap into in order to be of help. As a director or board member though, that’s not really your remit, or role.

When I expressed my increasing desire to help, Craig not only asked if I wanted to be more involved, he asked if I’d like his job!

I officially took on the role in February - it’s exactly what I was looking for as I had a heart to make a difference in people’s lives.

Honestly, it’s such an exciting opportunity!

It’s fantastic to see the impact of CSC’s work today. By God’s grace, the CSC model has grown and developed in amazing ways. One of the things that excites me most about our work is that with almost any stakeholders we talk to, our offer is simply there to add value for them - to make it easier for them to do what they’re doing.

In most cases, they don’t really even have to give us any money. 

Looking ahead, I’m really keen that what we do for our buying group members - for example camps - essentially helps save them even more money. In turn, that helps them increase efficiency in their day-to-day operations.

Importantly, I see CSC’s work as a social enterprise - in that light, my heart is to make as much money as possible, simply so we can then donate and pass on as much money as possible.

I’m really grateful for our suppliers and the arrangements we have in place - I want their relationship with us to be the best value marketing they can think of.

If they were to say, “...where’s the best place to invest this $100 we have?”, I want CSC to be the answer.

Regarding our individual users, I want to ensure we keep adding value for them by making things cheaper. I’m also really looking forward to just being part of CSC as a whole - we’re all collectively excited about doing something every day that has purpose. 

Putting my marketing hat on for just one second, to anyone reading this, if you run a business and you’re a Christian, or to anyone who shares our values, please reach out. Simply put, our heart is to save you money.

Thanks again Craig and Daniel! 

For more, see www.csc.org.nz