Collins “Collie” Christensen was born in a little coal mining town in Utah of about 250 people, but when he was nine months old his family moved to California where he has lived ever since. He grew up in the Sacramento area. His parents divorced when Collins was seven years old. His mother was in an accident that left her handicap so things were a little tough for them financially. As a result, Collins was quite entrepreneurial. He had paper routes, mowed lawns and washed cars and did whatever it took to make a little extra money to help his family out. When he was a teenager, he would buy cars and fix them and trade them. With his strong entrepreneurial spirit, he chose to start a business instead of going to college. When he was 19 he bought his first limousine and he started California Limousine. He built up that business for several years. By the time he sold it, it was the largest limousine service in California with offices in Newport Beach, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.
In 1983 California Limousines was awarded the contract for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Part of the contract required him to put cellular phones in all of his limousines . Through this process he realized a huge opportunity in the cellular business and became a master agent for Cellular One in Northern California and in the state of Nevada. He sold his business in 1993 when AT&T acquired Cellular One. In 1994, Collins started California Trade Exchange which was later acquired by ITEX, the world’s largest trade and barter company. Eventually Collins became the CEO of ITEX, a publicly traded company with approximately 280 offices in the U.S. and as well as in several countries. As his family grew, he desired to spend more time at home, so he stepped away from ITEX and created a real estate development company building shopping centers and subdivisions After years of success, his real estate company was hit hard by the real estate market crash of 2007/ 2008.
Around this time, he had been emphasizing to his kids of the importance of getting a college degree, so to lead by example he took some time to go to college himself. He got a degree in Pastoral Ministry to be closer to God. He found that rather than being involved in a church as a pastor, what he really enjoyed was helping people that are struggling and he began getting involved in mission work.
As his kids got older, they had a bit of the entrepreneurial bug as well and they wanted to start a business to make extra money while they were going to school. Collins has never worked in construction, but he has always been handy. He had built a 12-foot farmhouse table for the back patio at his house. Many Friends and neighbors admired the table and inquired how they could have one built for them. One day the kids asked him to show them how to build tables too so they could start a table building business. They built a couple tables for people and word began to spread. Then they built a website and started advertising Christensen Custom Tables. The business just blew up. His kids have all worked together in the table business and used it to earn money while they have been completing their college studies. It ended up becoming a family business and all the kids have helped. Collins has used Christensen Custom Tables to teach his kids strong work ethic, good customer service, and how to be an entrepreneur.
What made you decide to get involved with Christ’s Hope International? I bumped into one of my buddies at church one day back in 2009, and we were just talking. He said he wanted to do something big to celebrate his 50 birthday. He was thinking about riding his bike across America.I told him, “If you’re really serious about that, I’d like to get involved too.” I told my oldest daughter who was in college at the time, and she was excited about it as well. My buddy had gone to Africa on a mission trip and had become familiar with Christ’s Hope International, so he was getting involved with them and organizing the bike ride.
During the ride I had the pleasure of getting to know the founder of Christ’s Hope International, Jos Holtzhausen and was inspired by his passion for Christ and his commitment to the vulnerable kids of Africa. Every night in whatever town we would stop in, whether it was at a church or the town center, he would introduce Christ’s Hope International to the community. As I watched Jos deliver his message, it ignited in me a desire to expand my mission work. I believe on that ride we raised $120,000 for Christ’s Hope International. Immediately after completing the bike ride, I flew to Africa for the first of several missions trips to Africa. I thought I had grown up poor, but the truth is, people in America don’t know poor. You go over to Africa, they know poor. There is no government help. There are so many of the young kids with AIDS or without parents because they’ve died from AIDS. If you give them something as simple as a balloon, they light up like you just bought them a new car. With all their trials and tribulations, they seem happier. That is what started my involvement with Christ’s Hope International and other organizations that I support as well.
The way they have the organization set up, it’s like they’re raising baby disciples to go out and spread God’s word. What I mean by that is they’ve created an organization where instead of just getting 50 kids in an orphanage, they have now built after-school programs. Let’s say for example, you’ve got a child who has lost a parent to AIDS and now some relative was going to take care of them, but the relative couldn’t really afford to take on another child. What Christ’s Hope International does is go to that relative and tell them about the after-school program where they teach the kids structure, life and domestic skills, homework skills and about God, and the Bible, and they feed them one meal each day. So instead of having an orphanage, now they put money together to create the after-school program. It costs money to go to public school in Africa, and a lot of families can’t afford that. Sponsorship through Christ’s Hope International covers the schooling for the child, a meal each day, all of their medical care, and the after-school program. It’s a beautiful way to spread God’s word.
What has supporting a foundation like Christ’s Hope International meant to you?
When I was running a bigger company, I would every once in a while, do what other people do, and that’s donate money and throw a check at something. There is nothing wrong with that. That’s a good thing. But I want to be more involved and see what they do. It has been a life changing experience for me to see how the organization helps kids in that regard.
Mother Teresa said, “If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.” I believe it is family first. Some of these kids may not have family, but if you can go get involved with these kids and support them and make them feel loved, like the four kids that I sponsor, we write letters back and forth. I went to visit them. I went and met their relatives and caregivers at home. Once you get involved like that, I don’t think you cannot be involved. If every person in America went on a two-week mission trip to Africa, I think a lot of America’s problems would go away because they would see how good we all have it.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone looking to support a cause?
If you can, try to not just support it by a check, but at the same time as writing that check, go get involved and see how you can help in other ways as well.
Tell us a little about your business and what makes it successful?
I coached soccer, little league, and basketball for about 15 years and working with a lot of kids, to me, that was really always a cool thing. Also, I’ve been blessed to have four kids. I’ve always been guilty of being a bit of a workaholic. I sometimes spent too much time at work. The cool thing about Christensen Custom Tables is it allows me to work with my kids and teach them work ethic, customer service and entrepreneurial spirit. As a bonus we share a percentage of the profits to support the kids in Africa.
Recently a woman ordered a table. As we were building the table I sent her a picture. The woman said, “How come the legs are different colors than the tabletop?” I said, “That is the table you ordered.” She said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I misunderstood. I wanted the table’s legs to be the same color.” I said, “Okay.” My son, who had just finished making it, heard this conversation. She said, “Is there anything you can do?” I said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll make you a new table.” My son said, “Dad, I just finished that. I think you’re being too nice.” I said, “Buddy, I get it. I was a little frustrated that it happened, but it was a misunderstanding.” I just told the guys to build the other table, and the next day while they were working on it, another customer came by and bought the original table. I said to my son, “Look, we now ended up with two happy customers, instead of one customer mad at us.” Sometimes it’s frustrating when there is a disagreement, but I’d rather take care of a customer.
Not only did we take care of a customer, but I got to teach my son a valuable lesson. That is the importance of this business. I’ve had other companies that made a lot more money, but this is a successful family business where my kids get to learn lessons, learn to work with their hands. Two of my four kids have already graduated from college. I don’t imagine they’re going to be in the table business forever, but they now know how to start a business, how to talk to customers, and how to work with their hands. They may never work with their hands in a business again, but they do on this one. They understand quality. They understand a lot of things. I feel like what keeps us ahead of the competition is that we are a family business that is not carried away worrying about profits as much as providing a good product at a fair price that works for everybody.
How does your family support your business?
Initially we thought this would be a business for my one son, CJ, and then the other son started working and building tables as well. There are a lot of deliveries. Now we’re getting orders from all over California and sometimes out of state. Sometimes some of the kids help with deliveries of tables. Everybody pitches in. For example, the kids’ mom is a psychologist, but she was the one that helped develop the website for it. Everybody pitches in to help where they can. One day we were going to a 49er’s game, but somebody asked if we could deliver a table. We all ended up going to the Bay area, delivered the table, and then went off to the 49er’s game.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
I was always a bit of a workaholic. Now this is where we can all find a bit of a balance. We just have to make sure we take care of our customers.
My son just graduated a couple weeks ago from the University of Nevada Reno. He would sometimes have something planned for the weekend, but he recognized that he has a business and he would have to come home and work on the weekend. Though other times, the family pitched in to help him so he could enjoy his college life. We balance it out that way.. It’s not so encompassing that it takes advantage of the family’s time. If the orders get backed up, then we just have to let the clients know it’s going to take a little longer.
What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in your industry?
One of the bigger challenges of this business is people using cheap materials and trying to promote it as if it is a high-end quality in order to undercut the price. But I have been able to take those challenges and teach the kids how to deal with these situations.
We use high end redood and other high end quality woods and often our competitor uses Douglas fir which is a cheap low quality wood.
What happens is now on the internet it seems more and more people are getting involved in it, and they undercut on price. If you are making an average size table, redwood for that table would cost you about $500. If you made it out of Douglas fir, it costs you probably $80 or $90. It is a big difference. We always build for quality. Our table will last for 100 years.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
When I was the CEO of ITEX, the chairman of the board was Vern Curtis. He had been the CEO of Denny’s Corporation for 20 years and the CFO for 13 years before that. His business, managing people and having thousands of employees, can be very difficult, and he was really a great role model to find, teaching me how to deal with the ins and outs of building a company and dealing with the challenges with clients as well as employees, and so on.
Ever since I became a true Christian, I have considered Jesus the greatest role model of all time.
What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?
I was pretty young when my mom got cancer and was dying. I was living in Newport Beach at the time, and I came across a poem. It was entitled, “Don’t Quit.” That poem has always been a good piece of advice.
by Edgar A. Guest
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit –
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns.
As everyone of us sometimes learns.
And many a fellow turns about when he
Might have won had he stuck it out.
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow –
You may succeed with another blow.
Often the goal is nearer than it seems
To a faint and faltering man;
Often the struggler has given up when he
Might have captured the victor’s cup;
And he learned too late when the night came down,
How close he was to the golden crown.
Success is failure turned inside out –
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And when you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit –
It’s when things seem worst,
You must not quit.
It should be noted that there is a slightly different version of the Don’t Quit poem that is attributed to John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892), however, our research shows Edgar A. Guest (1881 – 1959) published the poem in March 1921.
There is also a quote by Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you can’t — you’re right.” I quote that to my kids, almost to the point of them rolling their eyes at me, and to employees and other people over the years quite often.
What does success look like to you?
For many years, I thought the true sign of success was only measured one way, and that was by money. But after years of ups and downs and trials and tribulations, I realized focusing on a blend of success in business as well as family and God is far more important, I also believe another sign of success is leaving a legacy of love, acceptance and forgiveness to your family.
What is one piece of advice you would like to leave our readers with?
It may not be agreed upon by all people because often it’s easier said than done, but I think it’s simple and that’s putting God first.