TOWN OF COTTAGE GROVE — Customers of America’s Best Flowers would be hard pressed to miss the religion amid the rhododendron.

For years, the garden center has used its slogan, “Beauty with God’s help for you,” on billboards, and many of those giant signs now form a colorful backdrop for the center’s main retail space.

Ed Knapton, who owns the garden center with his wife, Carol, said being a born-again Christian fills him with such warmth he wants to shout about it.

“If you don’t want to tell the world you’re a Christian, why are you a Christian?” he said. “That’s pretty harsh, but that’s how I feel.”

While many religious people own businesses, few broadcast their beliefs to consumers. Even in a nation where most people say they believe in a higher power, that makes sense, experts say. Religious views can segment the marketplace, attracting some customers but repelling others.

Yet local business owners who publicly proclaim their faith say they have no regrets.

“You have to be bold for Christ,” said Brian Britt, a co-owner of Divine Transformations, a hair salon on Madison’s Far East Side. “Those who don’t like that we play gospel music can try another salon.”

Choosing a name

Britt said he and the salon’s two other owners, siblings Fontainious and LaTanya Webb, wanted the name of their 5-year-old business to telegraph their goal, which is to change customers inside and out.

“If there’s something going on in their lives and they want feedback, we can direct them to the word of God,” Britt said.

Salon patrons can read the Bible or “The Purpose Driven Church” by Rick Warren while they wait, but Britt said he always lets customers initiate any religious discussion. That’s a common approach — don’t proselytize without permission.

“When they ask, that’s when you shoot it to them,” said John Wright, owner of Heavenly Bodies, a fitness studio on Madison’s South Side.

A bodybuilder and personal trainer, Wright hopes people will be impressed with his physique and ask where he gets his strength. “That’s when I talk to them about the Lord,” he said.

Wright considers his fitness studio an extension of his ultimate goal of introducing people to Christianity. Still, he said he hesitated in naming his studio Heavenly Bodies, in part because some people are turned off by religious references but also because it’s the name of a popular Chicago-area strip club.

Heavy hitters

Nationally, religion has been part of the public profile of some major corporations.

ServiceMaster, a commercial and residential services company founded in 1929 and based in Memphis, Tenn., lists “Honor God in all we do” as its first corporate objective. Its name comes from “serving the master.”

“We’re not trying to push one religion over another,” said ServiceMaster CEO J. Patrick Spainhour. “Honoring God is all about relationships. We’re trying to create a culture where people feel good because they’re highly respected.”

Spainhour believes the company’s success is due to its faith-based culture, yet he said each company must decide for itself how vocal to be about any religious views.

Hobby Lobby, the craft store chain with headquarters in Oklahoma City, closes on Sundays and placed prominent Easter ads this year in 316 newspapers, including the Wisconsin State Journal, that invited people to “know Jesus as Lord & Savior.” It plans to open a national Bible museum.

Locally, some business heavy hitters are not shy about their religious beliefs.

Tom Pellitteri, founder of Pellitteri Waste Systems, is president of Connecting Business Men to Christ, a Madison group that draws about 50 people to its monthly luncheons. Among its guest speakers has been Dave Gerry, co-owner of the Princeton Club fitness facilities in Madison.

In past interviews, Gerry has said he prays about major business decisions and asks the Lord for direction. His clubs display no overt religious imagery, although free copies of a local Christian business directory are available in the clubs’ lobbies.

Some fallout

Even that subtle level of religious connection has triggered some backlash. On Yelp, a website that lets consumers rate businesses, eight of the 12 people weighing in on the two Princeton Clubs mention Gerry’s religious views in a negative way. (Gerry did not respond to requests for comment.)

Knapton, the garden center owner, said a few customers have told him over the years that they don’t appreciate the prominent display of Christianity at his business. And several Madison public schools that once toured his 19 greenhouses no longer send field trips his way, Knapton said. He considers it a response to his religious openness. (A district spokesman declined comment.)

Still, Knapton said the fallout has been minimal and that Madison-area shoppers are fairly tolerant, “as long as you are upfront about your religious views and they don’t feel like they’re being deceived.”

As customers leave Knapton’s property, they get a final dose of faith.

“Thank you!” a sign in the parking lot says. “May the Lord Jesus Christ give you a safe journey home.”

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