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Rise of the Reverend’s Son

Much like his friend, George W. Bush, Franklin Graham was a late bloomer who only recently stepped up to the …

Much like his friend, George W. Bush, Franklin Graham was a late bloomer who only recently stepped up to the task of filling his dad’s huge shoes. But as CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), Franklin now is embracing the mantle of leadership of world Christian evangelicalism with conviction.

“I’m not trying to compete with my father’s legacy and go one up on him,” says Franklin, 49. “But if opportunities come your way in life, those come from God, and you’ve got a responsibility to them.”

Since taking the helm of the Minneapolis-based, $100 million BGEA in late 2000, with 81-year-old Rev. Billy Graham coping with Parkinson’s disease, Franklin has already put his stamp on the ministry. He moved swiftly after September 11, for example, to capitalize on Americans’ suddenly renewed spiritualism with TV ads in New York City directing viewers to BGEA’s phone-in “prayer center” and other TV spots nationwide promoting its Web site. Franklin cuts a controversial Christian figure in his black leather jacket and cowboy boots, coupled with his penchant for flying planes and riding Indian motorcyles. In his frequent cameos on TV news and talk shows he still seems more comfortable with celebrity than with preaching per se.

At the same time, Franklin has demonstrated great sensitivity to his father’s cadre of aging advisers. For example, last summer Franklin overhauled the “dated” style of the organization’s Decision magazine. Yet he made sure that “older people in the organization” saw mockups before he proceeded. “I didn’t want to spring it on them,” he says.

Unlike his father, Franklin came to the job with some business acumen, including a business adminstration degree from Appalachian State University. And though a bit of a prodigal son-Franklin was kicked out of his first college, for example, because he kept a date out overnight-at 22 he redevoted his life to Jesus, and in 1976 joined another ministry: Samaritan’s Purse. It specializes in bringing food and other material aid to war-torn areas. Franklin became president in 1979 and grew the organization to a staff of 400 and a budget of $100 million.

Graham is expected to continue to remold BGEA even as his father remains in the limelight a bit longer. “Franklin is a modest guy,” says Keith Hardman of Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA, who is an expert on American Christianity. “But he’s made it clear that he has to go his own way.”

About Dale Buss

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.