Bob Fowler is a member of South Main Baptist Church in Houston and has practiced law for more than 40 years, recently retiring as a partner in a five-attorney real estate law firm. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on being a follower of Christ in the marketplace. To suggest a Texas Baptist leader in the marketplace to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.
What other businesses have you been in, and what were your positions there?
After finishing business school in my home state of Oklahoma, I spent five years as a marketing and financial analyst in Houston for Humble Oil, the predecessor of Exxon.
An associate there left and went to work for a shopping center developer. He urged me to come to work for them—which I did for two years—when that company shut down a few weeks after my wedding. However, the combined experience in marketing analysis and in the real estate business got me hired in real estate management for National Convenience Stores.
After a few years there, with the encouragement of the general counsel of that company and the three lawyers in my wife Anne’s immediate family—but most importantly, with Anne’s support and encouragement—I started law school as “the old guy” at age 32, while working part-time managing and leasing strip shopping centers.
After graduation, I met resistance from larger law firms who said I was not in their target age group for starting out. One day before Sunday school, I was visiting with an associate at one of those bigger firms when a longtime friend who was listening in told me about his mortgage lending company’s talking about bringing a lawyer on board. We ultimately agreed I would set up a law practice and that they would send me law business.
They turned out to be the largest residential mortgage banker in Texas for the decade of the 1980s, and that was the start of my more than 40 years of practicing law. It was then I began to realize God put all of those vocation-shaping opportunities in my path from the get-go, so I could experience all these years of private law practice.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Oklahoma City and went through public schools there.
How did you come to faith in Christ?
I grew up in First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. I made a public profession of faith a month or so before my 10th birthday. It was one of those easy decisions based upon my then-short lifetime of church influence.
Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
I earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in business from Oklahoma State University and later my Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from South Texas College of Law Houston.
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About life in the marketplace
Why do you feel called into the marketplace?
Things really were booming in the nation’s business community in the late 1960s when I was studying business, and I was doing well in my studies. Many of my friends and I were heavily recruited. In fact, it was the recruiter with Humble Oil who convinced me to stay in school for a Master of Business Administration degree.
When I started work at Humble in 1967 at age 22, I actually spent a lot of time trying to understand their retirement plan, being convinced I was at the start of a lifetime with that company—which I left five years later.
How does being a Christian influence your decisions in the marketplace?
While I cannot say I never made decisions other Christians might not have made differently, I believe I always have made decisions intended to be in the best interests of my clients while avoiding those contrary to the principles revealed in the life and words of Christ.
That being said, I suppose I’m very glad God doesn’t keep score. Honesty and integrity are important to me in my life, and I hope I’ve done a reasonable job of keeping them uppermost in my practice.
What is your favorite aspect of the marketplace? Why?
When it came right down to it, over all of these years practicing law, I always considered myself as being a businessman more than a lawyer. To explain a little further, once I transitioned from corporate life to the private practice of law, I felt like my job was to administer a law business.
Along the same lines, I got my greatest joy from being able to help my corporate clients solve their legal problems from the view of my understanding of what they, as business people, wanted to accomplish. Sometimes I wasn’t that good at either aspect, but here I am 40 years later. God truly let that perspective work for me.
What one aspect of the marketplace gives you the greatest joy?
In my earliest years of practicing law—the decade of the 1980s—I represented a unique group of dynamic and creative mortgage bankers who allowed me the privilege of helping them develop and document new residential mortgage products that accommodated the needs of tens of thousands of families trying to buy homes during a long period of extraordinarily high interest rates.
Working closely with clients and earning their confidence always has been a source of great joy for me.
What one aspect of the marketplace would you like to change?
During my decades of law practice, the legal services we were expected to provide to financial institutions moved more and more toward being just another commodity they could buy from any law firm, and close personal relationships with decision makers have faded in favor of staff and bureaucracy.
How has your place in the market or your perspective on the marketplace changed?
I have been gratified by the number of times God has let my firm find significant new mortgage lending clients within a few months after we have lost longtime clients for one reason or the other.
It took me years to realize how well God provides. While God doesn’t micromanage all those sorts of things, he does continually evidence he is sufficient.
If you could launch any new venture, what would it be? Why?
For the last few years, God has been leading me to use my legal skills, understanding of finances, and love of my church and its people to offer my services generally without charge to folks who need help—sometimes without knowing it—to be sure what they have is protected and will be preserved for the purposes they would choose.
Seeing folks not address these issues before a time of crisis or, worse, before it is too late to do anything, made me aware that all I have learned over the years was being directed to be an available help to my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Probably the shift into this realization of God’s will for the rest of my life came about seven or eight years ago when I found myself called upon to serve as guardian of the person and estate of a dear lady in our church who was alone and had been confined to an Alzheimer’s facility for several years.
While doing this particular service was profoundly gratifying, it was also profoundly complex, time-consuming and difficult. It was there I found out the probate court didn’t care about my motives or my credentials.
My mission from then on has been just to be sure the members of our church have at least executed a power of attorney in order to keep their families, the court system and their resources from being overburdened.
Opportunities continue to present themselves—sometimes reluctantly, sometimes desperately. Living wills and health care powers of attorney, as well as simple wills, have followed along. Professionally, I have not been so gratified since that first decade of my law practice. Spiritually, I believe God is bringing my journey to its fruition.
What do you wish more people knew about the marketplace?
The marketplace is where people are every day, providing for their families and creating goods and services for their fellow beings. It is a good thing and a good calling, but obviously not the right thing for everyone.
I have observed good people in the marketplace, and I have observed them in government service, academia and nonprofit work. As Christians, we are called to do good wherever God has called us to be. And, sometimes, he moves you around a bit.
Why are you Baptist?
Being a cradle roll baby at First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City set the path of my life as a Baptist. Growing up on the preaching of Hershel Hobbs solidified it. But, it was in the church of my younger years where I began to learn what it meant to be in the church Christ built for us.
I had the love of my family, of course, but the love ordained by God from others in my church was a profound draw that kept me connected.
Theologically, the key aspects of what Baptists believe I came to accept naturally. One of the things I have learned over the years is the wideness in God’s mercy.
I could probably get comfortable in other denominations, but what Baptists have historically stood for still works for me. What some Baptists think all Baptists must stand for, not so much. I’m a soul competency, priesthood of the believer, autonomy of the local congregation, and separation of church and state kind of Baptist.
What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?
Being a Baptist is like this: The Southern Baptist Convention of 1963 adopted the Baptist Faith and Message developed under the chairmanship of my pastor, Dr. Hobbs. That summer, Hobbs taught six or eight consecutive Wednesday night prayer meetings explaining that document. I heard every one of them and thought, “Who can argue with that?”
Thirty-seven years later in the fall of 2000 at the Baptist General Convention of Texas annual meeting in Corpus Christi, I was having breakfast with my former pastor Kenneth Chafin when the speaker announced a motion would be made that the convention affirm—which it did—the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, rather than the SBC’s 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. Chafin leaned over and whispered, in his always folksy way, “You know, if the truth be known, we don’t really need any Baptist Faith and Message.”
So, every Baptist needs to try harder to find “Baptist” in all the confusion created by his or her fellow Baptists.
Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
Clif Baker, my minister of music and devoted friend during my high school and college years, who let his family become a second family to me and reinforced the role of church in my life.
Leroy Hallman, my father-in-law, who by his continual example taught me a positive outlook on everything almost always results in a positive outcome and that each person has an inherent worth and is worthy of getting to know.
Howard Lee Jr., a longtime member of South Main Baptist Church and fellow real estate lawyer with whom I shared three wonderful grandsons and who by his example—and like his father before him—taught me that helping fellow church members with issues that needed to be dealt with was a ministry I should look into.
What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?
In these difficult days in our nation and in our lives, nothing comforts me more than the words of Jesus in John 16:33—“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
If you could get one “do over” in the marketplace, what would it be, and why?
I wish I realized earlier things never stay the same. I can advise my own grandchildren as they enter into their own lifeworks that things are changing so much faster than I ever experienced.
My wife and I are so grateful for the anchor to which our grandchildren and their parents are attached. Connecting to him every day is more critical than ever. Likewise, being a part of the church is not to be treated casually.