Divine Company

February 3, 2014
Divine Company
Tom Chappell / Photo: Wendy Barrows

Tom Chappell is a living advertisement for doing well by doing good. 

By placing a commitment to social responsibility and to the environment at the center of his business, the HDS graduate, MTS '91, built Tom's of Maine into one of the nation's leading manufacturers of personal care products.

In 2006, Chappell and his wife and cofounder, Kate, sold a majority stake in the company to Colgate-Palmolive for $100m and a promise to continue the brand's legacy of sustainable business practices. While Chappell has always cared about ethics and responsibility, he says that his HDS experience not only enabled him to develop a clear vision for his business, but also cultivated in him the moral courage needed to operate according to his beliefs.

"After HDS, everything became infused and informed by a set of beliefs that we in the company affirmed," he explains. "These included the inherent dignity of people and nature, and creating products that were effective and made safely. HDS gave me the knowledge and insight I needed to run a company based on goodness and responsibility."

In return, Chappell has given back to the institution that inspired his pioneering approach to business. He has served on the School's Dean's Council for more than two decades and has been a vigorous supporter of the HDS Annual Fund. In 2006, Chappell's $3m gift established the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professorship of Divinity at HDS in honor of the faculty member who had the greatest impact on his thinking. The chair supports preeminent work in contemporary Christian morality, ethics, and values in a religiously diverse world.

"My studies with Richard Niebuhr were the most illuminating part of my life at HDS," he says. We looked at the writings of [Christian theologian] Jonathan Edwards and I saw that I was deeply interconnected with other people. I started a private enterprise and I own it. But making that business work requires other people, so I'm fundamentally in relation with—and obligated to—my community. I can't cheat. I can't destroy the environment. I can't lie."

Now, Chappell, who received the Dean's Distinguished Service Award in 2007, has again escalated his involvement with the School. Last spring, he accepted the chairmanship of the upcoming HDS capital campaign—a position that will have an enormous impact on the School's future. Chappell says that he relishes the opportunity to expand HDS's impact in the world.

"HDS has knowledge to offer on some of the most critical issues confronting humanity—not just in religion, but also in a host of other fields," he says. "Economic theories, for instance, come from a philosophy and morality that has roots in religion. The world needs our faculty, students, and staff to get more involved in bringing solutions into the world. What the School teaches must be more publicly available."

Back in the business world, Chappell and his wife are out to show that their HDS-inspired business model can succeed in a completely different industry. In 2009, they launched Ramblers Way Farm, a manufacturer of superfine, sustainable, American worsted wool clothing that maintains "high standards of ecological responsibility, community involvement, and customer satisfaction."

The company, which buys only American-grown wool for garments cut and sewn in the United States, already has 350 retailers and is expanding into Europe and Japan.

"After I put Tom's of Maine in the hands of a good steward, I decided that I wasn't going to play golf and be a full-time grandpa," he says. "I wanted to see if we could hold a whole new industry accountable to a higher standard of practice. Now we're in 350 stores around the country—not chains, but family businesses that care about their communities. We employ 20 people and pay wages that can support a single mom with two children. Our business is built on high quality, utility, and fashion. We're making a difference."

Chappell plans to stay connected to HDS throughout his new venture and beyond the upcoming campaign. He says that the School's "culture of intellectual abundance" continues to shape him as an entrepreneur and as a person.

"Richard Niebuhr told me that the purpose of a Harvard education is to create a reflective human being," he says. "HDS helps me to develop both intellectually and spiritually through its preeminence in the study of religion. All this changes not only the kind of leader that I am, but also my relationships and my destiny."

—by Paul Massari