Forty years ago, Merle and Phyllis Pellman Good already were among the highest-profile entrepreneurs in the Mennonite church. Their Good Enterprises, based in Intercourse, Pa., included book publishing, theatrical productions, arts and crafts galleries, museums, a magazine and more.
Then it all fell apart — twice.
The first time was a devastating 1996 reorganization bankruptcy that put the Goods in the cross hairs of criticism and ridicule. The second bankruptcy permanently shuttered the business in 2013.
Merle Good reflects on those experiences in Surviving Failure (and a Few Successes). He takes responsibility for the bankruptcies. “To me, it’s important to admit to myself and those around me the plain truth — I failed,” Good writes. “No need to use fancy words to cover up the stark reality. I failed.”
As notable as Good’s confession may be, it is only the overture, setting the stage for remarkable insights about the publishing business, capitalism, the church, the couple’s marriage, spiritual life and more. It all adds depth, complexity and, above all, fresh perspective to one of the most famous business failures in American Mennonite history.
Naturally, financial matters are central to Surviving Failure. One of the book’s greatest strengths is its explanations of the complicated workings of the publishing industry. In between the two bankruptcies, Good Enterprises experienced perhaps its greatest success with the best-selling “Fix-It and Forget-It” series of cookbooks. Ironically, this also proved to be the company’s downfall. How that happened is a fascinating read.
Money is also crucial to understanding the Goods. With the first bankruptcy, they didn’t want to use the filing as an escape from their financial obligations. They not only wanted to repay their creditors in full but also, amazingly, give them bonuses based on how quickly they wanted to be paid back. It was an expression of the Goods’ values. All creditors eventually received back their money and more.
Good devotes one chapter to “benevolent capitalism,” describing trying to balance the necessity of financial viability with wanting to promote what the Goods saw as a greater good. “We still haven’t figured it out,” Good admits. While the chapter isn’t terribly profound, it does indicate that the Goods were not simply chasing personal monetary gain.
But Surviving Failure is about much more than finances and business plans. It is also about people dealing with profoundly difficult, even painful, circumstances. During the first bankruptcy, the Goods tried to enjoy a rare night out at an inexpensive local restaurant. When they walked in, a customer jeered, “I wonder where he gets the money to eat out when he owes people so much money!” Good writes, “We had simply failed to hold off a cash crisis. Bad enough, to be sure. But did it mean we needed to disappear from the earth?”
Some people, at least, wanted them to disappear from their congregation. The most excruciating account in the book is this solitary sentence: “A group of leaders in our church worked very hard for more than two years to have us excluded from membership.” That’s all Good says about the matter.
Nevertheless, the passage is a metaphorical punch to the gut because it shows the bride of Christ in inexcusably shameful behavior. At a time when the Goods needed comfort and support, the one place that is commanded to provide it instead stabbed them in the back.
If the church wasn’t there for the Goods, neither were many other people. Merle and Phyllis found the number of people they could trust during their difficulties dwindle to a handful. But they had each other. The most touching parts of Surviving Failure are when Good addresses his and Phyllis’ marriage.
They were able to draw strength from each other amid circumstances that have ripped apart countless other couples. “Our greatest failure exposed our greatest good fortune,” Good writes. “We were still together and more in love than ever.”
Surviving Failure, while it has many strengths, could have been stronger by covering the causes of the first bankruptcy, which are totally absent. Good obviously does a great job of depicting himself and Phyllis as sympathetic figures. But that sympathy can’t be assumed with the first bankruptcy, which started this whole saga. Good Enterprises was long dogged by accusations of poor management. And the incident with the rude restaurant customer suggests an antipathy toward the Goods, which isn’t examined. More transparency would have been welcome.
In addition, Good comes across as a bit tone deaf. He writes of his commitment “to live a simpler life.” Then he tells of a meeting in a limo with a producer who wanted Good to write a TV series, of meetings with movie bigwigs, of the only time he rented a tuxedo, which was for the opening of a Broadway show. It all takes some of the shine off his self-portrayal.
But those shortcomings don’t negate Good’s well-written account of his side of the Good Enterprises financial roller coaster.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.