From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Life’s a Hobby

McClellan’s had everything: a candy counter, a toiletries department, sheets, towels, toys, lingerie, house-wares, hardware, even pets! And Mr. T. Texas Tyler was in charge of it all—his store was my favorite five-and-dime.

Unfortunately, our family didn’t have the money to shop at McClellan’s very often. My father was the pastor of a church with no more than thirty-five attendees, which meant a tiny salary that stretched to meet the mealtime needs of six kids. Because we had no car, we walked wherever we needed to go, and relatives from California would occasionally send us hand-me-down clothes.

The church people were as gracious as they could be by supplementing the meager collection funds with vegetables, fruit or other foodstuffs. My mother accepted them all with warm appreciation, but there were weeks at a time without meat on our supper table. An extra fifty cents or even a quarter that could be spent at McClellan’s was far beyond our reality.

I attended Altus High School in Altus, Oklahoma, but I didn’t feel comfortable in the swirl of students my age who had new clothes and money for snacks. I was usually the kid washing dishes in the cafeteria to earn a lunch pass. Then, when enrolling for my junior year in 1958, I saw something on the class list that changed my life forever: “D.E.”—distributive education, more commonly known today as “work-study.”

I quickly learned that D.E. was a special program where students could work part-time for the businesses in town. We were allowed to leave during the school day, received credit for the work/class and also earned money along the way. Of course I immediately applied to work at McClellan’s, and I was accepted!

On the first day of school, I left at ten-thirty and walked the mile to McClellan’s, as excited as I’d ever been in my entire young life. Mr. Tyler greeted me, then got me started by teaching me to sweep the floors with the yarn broom and a concoction of sawdust and light oil. When that was done, Mr. Tyler sent me to the stockroom and showed me how to check in the new merchandise.

That evening, after I walked the mile back to our house across the tracks, I excitedly told my mother about my day and that I had a real job. I’d worked alongside her and my brothers and sisters in the cotton fields for years to earn money for our family, but this job at the five-and-dime was a whole new experience.

I quickly fell into the rhythm of working forty or more hours a week. My schooling was suffering, but retail was such a joyous contrast to the rest of my life that I couldn’t cut back. I studied everything Mr. Tyler did and realized a lot of his work related to being a great organizer. The more I watched, the more I became convinced I could be a store manager—I could be just as successful, too! This epiphany became my goal.

Mr. Tyler taught me many things, from how to display merchandise attractively to trimming the front windows. He’d even take me down to the corner drugstore sometimes just to talk about the business and pass along his wisdom. I began to see that the sky was the limit in retail. You could open more stores, expand existing stores—there was no end. From the very beginning, I loved the work, and that’s an important point: to succeed in retail, you have to love it.

About this same time, I splurged every so often on a pretty, young part-timer in the stationery department by taking her across the street to the drugstore for a five-cent Coke. Today, that young clerk is my wife, Barbara, the love of my life. I also splurged on my first big purchase, a 1951 Ford that set me back about $200. But when I noticed Barbara’s current boyfriend drove a convertible, I decided to upgrade to a yellow 1953 Ford convertible to compete for her attention. My car turned out to be the lemon its color indicated, but I did get her attention!

After I put in time with the Air Force Reserve at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, I returned to my job at McClellan’s and married Barbara—I was nineteen and she was seventeen. A year later, I began working for another five-and-dime chain called TG&Y, which was expanding much faster—the Wal-Mart of the era. At age twenty-one, I applied for and received a manager slot in a new store in Oklahoma City. I had four thousand square feet and six employees, and it was my chance to show what I could do.

Many promotions and two sons—Mart and Steve—came along as I learned the dynamics of retail management. Then, in 1970, Barbara and I started our own business; I saw potential that TG&Y was not capturing. Our family-centered store included a large and very popular pet department; there were many types of birds, and rows and rows of saltwater and freshwater fish. I brought in truckloads of ten-gallon fish tanks and put them on sale at incredibly low prices, even lower than wholesale. My theory was that once someone buys a fish tank, they have to put stuff in it—fish, gravel, the pump and all the other paraphernalia—and they’d buy it all from our store!

Recognizing that these retail concepts worked in the pet department, I wondered if the same thing could happen in our crafts department, but I lacked start-up money. A friend and I borrowed $600 from the bank, bought a frame chopper and began making miniature picture frames on our kitchen table for wholesaling. Barbara and the boys actually glued more frames than I did, so I paid the little guys seven cents per frame.

Two years later, we branched out to a retail store specifically dedicated to arts and crafts, opening the first Hobby Lobby store near the Oklahoma state capitol building. It was only 300 square feet of arts and crafts. Jump forward over thirty years, and today I’m the chairman of eight different affiliated companies as well as the CEO of Hobby Lobby! We’re still family owned, but now, when my wife, the kids and I decide to make a business move, we don’t have to ask Wall Street about it!

David Green
As told to Gail Kulhavy

EPILOGUE: With the opening of a new store about every two weeks, David Green is one of the most prolific retailing giants in the country. His modest beginnings in the 1970s have grown into almost 400 stores in twenty-eight states, with sales in the billions.

The largest privately owned arts and crafts retailer in the world, Hobby Lobby’s headquarters is located in a 2.6-million-square-foot manufacturing, distribution and office complex in Oklahoma City. Affiliated companies include Hemispheres, Bearing Fruit Communications, HL Realty, Crafts Etc! and Mardel, a popular Christian office and educational supply chain found in six states.

A past Ernst & Young national retail/consumer Entrepreneur of the Year award recipient, Green is also dedicated to myriad ministry projects. Cites Green, “We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past; we trust him for our future.”

To learn more about Green and Hobby Lobby, please visit

Gail Kulhavy

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