Chet Beiler runs the nation’s leading gazebo retailer and is a longtime supporter of the Commonwealth Foundation. Chet and his wife, Sharon, are the parents of two children. Recently, Charles Mitchell, president & CEO of Commonwealth Foundation, sat down with Chet at his home in Manheim, Lancaster County, for a discussion about Chet’s passion for expanding freedom and the importance of ensuring a legacy of opportunity in Pennsylvania by naming Commonwealth Foundation in his will. Chet and Sharon join fellow legacy investors profiled in Commonwealth Sense, including David Majernik of Pittsburgh, Joe Wilkens & Louise Sperber of Harleysville, and Stephen & Marilyn Martin of Mount Wolf.
Charles Mitchell: Chet, I know from our many conversations over the years that you’re very passionate about public policy, the free enterprise system, and taking our ideas and converting them, through the political process, into laws throughout our country. Where did you get that passion and why is it so strong?
Chet Beiler: From my early days as a child growing up on the farm, my parents helped us understand we live in a country that is free and prosperous beyond what any of us deserve. They helped us appreciate—on daily basis—what we had. They helped us see it’s unique. So I grew up with a deep awareness that we live in a country that is abundant and free, and especially free in terms of pursuing opportunity including religious freedom—especially in regards to my heritage—has loomed large.
When I went off to college I studied political science and economics and international relations and gained an appreciation for how this type of freedom and opportunity is even possible and that it is sound public policy that makes it possible. So especially after I got involved in business myself after graduating college I gained not only an understanding but an appreciation for advancing the cause of freedom and opportunity.
As I became more active in helping good people become elected and in running for office a few times myself, I would routinely ask myself, “Why are you doing this?” And the answer always came back to my passion for freedom and opportunity. Freedom and opportunity not only for my family, neighbors, and me—but for everyone.
And from what I’ve observed in my travels internationally, when I've had the opportunity to go to the Soviet Union before it deteriorated—so it would have been 1987—and more recently doing business in Eastern Europe, is that I discovered firsthand how these principles are truly universal. That everyone has a desire for greater personal freedom and greater opportunity for themselves and their families.
When I see that organizations like the Heritage Foundation and, in our state, the Commonwealth Foundation are advancing freedom in a way that has staying power—for individuals so that greater opportunity can be enjoyed—that appeals to me and that’s something I want to support.
It feels at certain times like the very idea of being an entrepreneur is under fire in our country. Why did you decide to be an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs … can be successful only to the extent they add value to others and create opportunity and freedom for others.
Entrepreneurs, I believe, can be successful only to the extent they add value to others and create opportunity and freedom for others … I decided to pursue business because it created and continues to create opportunities to advance the things I believe in. For my family, yes, but also to give to worthy causes, help the less fortunate, and help promote good public policy.
You’ve known Commonwealth Foundation for a very long time. Why have you come to believe Commonwealth Foundation has the kind of staying power that’s so important to you?
I have seen an increased level of effectiveness that makes me want to help sustain the impact I believe can be enjoyed in the future as well. And now there seems to be a plethora of projects that hold such great promise to advance freedom and opportunity in Pennsylvania. There’s never been a better time, in my view, to support Commonwealth Foundation.
Staying power matters, so when we talk about a permanent freedom infrastructure, that animates my enthusiasm for supporting this organization for as long as possible in the hopes that it can outlive me … because these principles are timeless and the battle for implementing them is ongoing … So we have to be vigilant, proactive, and effective, and the Commonwealth Foundation is all that.
I’m asked the question why should I care about what’s happening here in Pennsylvania when I’m concerned about trade, ISIS, Obamacare. You’ve made it a priority to care about Pennsylvania. Such a priority that you’re making a long-term investment in Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth Foundation. Why is a global entrepreneur paying so much attention to his backyard?
For me it’s not either/or, it’s both. I pay attention to what’s going on at the federal level because as the overreach happens in Washington, we have to be mindful of the impact of federal policy. However, there’s no more practical place to impact change efficiently … than on the state level. That’s how our Founders intended. That’s what we fight for, and in Pennsylvania particularly right now there are opportunities for the kind of impact that will not only help Pennsylvania become much stronger in terms of abundance, freedom, prosperity, and opportunity … but [also will help us] be the Keystone State other states can emulate.
You are much more politically experienced than most people. Have you personally seen the impact you can have with your own two hands and own voice and how that carries great impact at the state level?
What many business folks overlook is how accessible and appreciative their state House and Senate members are when they reach out. What do I mean by reach out? I mean send an email, follow up with a phone call, send a handwritten note and ask to go out for coffee. That face-to-face meeting is entirely there for the asking. They appreciate it, and you’ll be amazed at how they will listen to what you say and what the impact will be. There’s no better organization to brief you for that meeting than the Commonwealth Foundation.
When Don Eberly founded the Commonwealth Foundation in 1988, he would tell you that he could count on one hand the number of legislators who care about free market issues. Now there are dozens and dozens who are passionate about these issues, and increasingly there are majorities willing to vote these issues. From your vantage point, do you feel you have seen this change?
As little as ten years ago, this seemed like an effort in futility, but today the promise for real impact couldn’t be stronger. A lot of folks don’t realize party labels matter less than the individual elected official’s commitment to personal freedom and opportunity. Today we have more members of the state House and especially the Senate who understand why these policies matter so much. It’s unusual, it’s fragile, and it requires ongoing support and vigilance.
The rewards for sustaining what we have and building on it are within reach, and these rewards are greater individual freedom and greater opportunity for everyone.
The rewards for sustaining what we have and building on it are within reach, and these rewards are greater individual freedom and greater opportunity for everyone, especially guys packing a lunch, going to work in the trades—not just corporate executives, but everyone.
You’ve not only planned ahead for your legacy, which is wonderful, but you’ve also made some very specific decisions about what you want to be a part of. What would you say to people who haven’t made those decisions?
For me, being middle-aged, I’m beginning to think about the footprint I want to leave behind. Naturally, I want to provide for my family and for charitable causes that are close to my heart: people in need and people who need the Gospel who aren’t being reached. And I want to see the country I’ve been privileged to live in remain strong and even get stronger. So [my wife] and I looked at the life insurance policies within our estate plan and simply sat down with our attorney and said, “Here are some organizations we care about; how can we earmark a specific amount for ongoing impact beyond our lives?”
It’s a fun question to ask and doesn’t need to be very complicated. It can be a percentage of your estate or a fixed amount. We feel very good about having the Commonwealth Foundation in our will, and we encourage others to name the Commonwealth Foundation in their will and estate planning in some way because it is one of the organizations with a timeless, significant mission that will need ongoing resources to carry out.
To learn more about becoming a legacy investor, visit commonwealthfoundation.org/legacy or call Tom Bako, director of entrepreneur engagement: 717.671.1901.