BAM Connect Stories - Episode 3 - Bill Job - Business as Mission in China

Bill, thank you for accepting to be our online guest at the BAM Connect Stories podcast. Tell us something about your family, about you, and, in particular, about your mission in China.

Thank you, Adrian. It’s a great pleasure to be with you today. I hope this information is encouraging to people. My story with the Lord began when I was 21. I grew up in a family number two of seven children, five boys, and two girls. If you had asked us at that time if we were Christian, we said yes, we are, but I knew nothing about it. We were one of these families that goes to church on Christmas and Easter, and that was about it. I became aware that the Gospel involves a real relationship with the Lord, and I began that when I was 21 in September of 1969 while in the US Navy. Become an excellent adventure for me; I continue running that. I think there are 52 years now, and I can verify that the story gets better and better if you lean into the adventure of what the Kingdom is all about. Early in my Christian experience, I was in the third year of being a believer, and I was with the US Navy for a six-month deployment in the Philippines.

During that time, the Lord let me spend one hour with Him every evening; the main objective was to learn how to listen to Him. He gave me a guideline; he said, the only thing that I ask you is that if you talk to me for five minutes, then you listen to e for five minutes, so it began a practice that I think is sort of like a skill, just a human relationship skill, that has been born much fruit. During that time in the Philippines, one evening, I heard him say to me that my assignment was to live for Him in China. This was in 1972, when it was impossible to go to China. I continued to carry that belief that this is what He told me, but I didn’t really try to make it happen, just trying to watch what was unfolding around me. That summer, within two months of hearing that direction from the Lord, I got out of the military, and I went back to college in California on the Fourth of July evening; I met a new friend who was a person in my apartment complex. He asked me to dinner at his home, where he was having a party, and I met some people from a church in Chinatown, which led to an invitation to go on staff with a thin Chinese church. Indeed, after I sensed that the Lord was giving me the assignment to live in China, I found myself pastoring in a Chinese church, so I began to see that this is one of the ways that the Lord can conform to our instructions and directions. Suppose we try not to make it happen ourselves and observe what unfolds. We often find him disciplining or preparing and training us for the projects he has for us. I wasn’t able to go for many years; we eventually moved in 1987, but Business as Mission was not a term that anybody knew about it, nor was even the idea something that was being talked about at that time. We did not plan to have a business in China; I thought I would learn a language for two years and then try to get a job in an American company over there. I didn’t want to be an English teacher as many people were. I started a language school, but then the laws changed in the country, and they began to allow foreigners to have their businesses. After prayer, I decided it was ok to try that, so I muted an application, and they said it might take a year and a half to get the application approved. I thought the longer, the better because I was utterly unprepared. We had no money, no project, and no experience. The license came back in 13 days approved, so now I am ahead over a year ahead of schedule. I left the language school and just began developing our first business. We got a license to do handcrafted products, and my friend in the states put up the ten thousand investment and wanted to expedite his hobby of making hand-tie fishing plugs. We started the company to do that, but we had enough wisdom to know that we didn’t know what we were doing. Our strategy was to try to stay very, very small as a company and make all our mistakes early enough so the errors wouldn’t be too expensive. Unfortunately, my friend can go down with what is referred to as a disease called ALS, the same illness Steven Hawking died from; my business partner, a good friend, died six months after he got it. We were only in business for about one year before he passed. We switched to another product, and turn into a problem in ’89. Then, I changed the product again and began staining the glass about a year later. Our company went from one product line to another, and we eventually got 650 employees. The most notable thing about this first season was that every idea I had about how to do this successfully turned out to be wrong, so it was a time of intense re-education.

Did you start with a mission in mind? If yes, what was this mission?

I had a sense of mission in mind. Still, I was like most people in a situation like that, thinking the business was good. It gave me a license, a visa, and an identity if people asked me what are you doing here. Still, I wanted to get away from the business. I was happy for five o’clock because I could leave the company and do something spiritual and essential for the Lord. I was living a very segmented life at that time. I think this is probably a typical opinion of people with my background. The workday had some advantages but was a big waste of tie from a spiritual point of view. We had a season in which the Lord led most of our two hundred men workforce to trust in Him. I began to realize it flipped 180 degrees around. Now I am going to work at eight o’clock surrounded by over a hundred new believers, and I know that this has to be what the ministry should be doing. Rather than waiting until five o’clock and leaving the company to do something for the Kingdom, the Kingdom invaded my factory.

Can you define the problem you are trying to solve with this business in China?

The first problem was just one of survival. We had in the direction we did because I had a US investor who invested 10.000 dollars in getting the business license and guided the product development. He did all the marketing and sales, and I did production. Then, when we switched to stained glass products, we were responding to a request by a business partner to be a factory facility for his own business. He was a designer of stained glass lampshades for the European market and needed a company to produce them. We grew from 20 employees to 150 in six weeks to become a manufactory ar or manufactory facility for him. We were in a responsive mode. After two years, he decided to put me out of business and take 100% of my employees. He has a girlfriend who wants to become a factory manager so he will have a factory for her. He tried to take my factory from me because we would need to have him as a single customer, so he was gone live. He knew my company would die, so he approached all of my employees and asked them to switch to his new company, and if they came within a week, they would get a job, and if they didn’t change, he wouldn’t hire them later. One of the new employees, an 18-year girl, had become a believer, and when we discussed it, she said I would never live in Meixia because the Lord is in this company. She influenced almost everybody; I think we lost 3 or 4 people who went to the new company; then we had to find a new product, which goes back to your question. I have read a book by Peter Druker called Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which says that the best innovations take two elements that the market knows but has never seen. We were very good at the stained glass as a material, but I didn’t; want to make stained glass lampshades anymore because I didn’t know the market; I had no customers, and I needed to sell in the US, not in Europe. I knew that my mother collected villages. They had little lights and were called lighted villages made out of ceramic, plastic, or different materials, but nobody made them out of glass. We introduced the line of stained glass villages still available through eBay in the Us. Still, we have made them for over 20 years, and we got that product large and developed a collectors base with 18000 people who were registered collectors of the product that we designed and manufactured. We were still trying to respond to the need for survival, but we’re introducing something we thought we would appreciate to the market. That product was marketed in the US under Forma Vitro, and houses, stores, and lighthouses were made of skin glass.

What was the innovation in this new product?

There was a market in the US, even a collectible market of miniature lighted houses, but the little houses were burned by a small Lampo, a light bulb insight but the houses themselves didn’t light up; they had little windows insight that light up. We made our product out of stained glass, and you turn the morning, and the whole house will light up because of the stained glass effect. It was a new kind of appeal to the market. We didn’t introduce the market, but we introduced new material. We didn’t know if people would want to collect it, so we introduced this product in the giftware line and immediately saw that people wanted to manage it. Every house or building had a copper plate on the back that said this is number 212 out of 2000 we will make, and had my signature on the card. We were creating more customers than products, so it was a demand for it. They quietly began selling them among themselves, which is how we knew we had a collectors market. The collector market is unusual; they are huge fans. I will go to some stores, and they will let the people know I will be there to meet personally and sign the product. Some stores have 80 or 100 people in line waiting for my signature. I felt unusual. I never expected that to happen, but I could tell that we were provided something they wanted.

How did you serve your employees at that time, doing this business?

Like in most other categories, we learned much as we operated the business. At first, I didn’t think I cared about them and individuals as much as I cared about what they could do for the company. As we began seeing what the Lord was doing, worship became part of the company life, which surprised me. One morning I went up to the top of the building one hour before work because I felt like the Lord said that it would be good to go up and have some private worship before the day started. The second day I went, there was another girl up there, and I asked what are you doing, and she said, o, the Lord said me appear to worship, and I realized this was beginning to build into a habit that he wanted us to do. We started then, but once that happened, we began to care for each other beyond what the business needed. We began to feel God’s heart for the employees. We also began to realize that it is His company, and we are stewarding it, and He knows the lives of every person in the city where we are. From the scripture, we can see He tends to care for the people with special needs, so we assume He probably can send someone from the city with special needs to the company that is His, and we are stewards. We accepted His suggestion to hire certain people. We become very aware that sometimes He will send someone to the company that wouldn’t be a regular employee; that’s someone that wouldn’t necessarily pass an HR exam or interview process. We need to hire several beggars on the street, and several become outstanding employees. One of them, at the end of the day, spent time with me; our practice was every day to take the problems of the day and pray them back to the Lord until we were not working on them. We knew from the Scriptures that we were commanded not to worry, but everyone who runs a business knows that’s a complicated command to obey, so we were praying every day, at the end of the day, until we were not worrying ad we could go home. One of the ex-beggars was the man who shared this task with me for several years, but I would not ever suppose when I met him when he was begging on the street when I came out of a restaurant that he would reach such a great resource for the business. Several other people on the road become precious employees. We created a category of expectation and realized that this might be what the Lord is doing because of His love for all those people, and in the process, our passion for employees just began to grow and grow.

How did the other employees receive this persons?

That’s a great question. Culturally they were rejected by the normal society, but one of the first things that happened was one of these gentlemen told me that he didn’t want to do the same thing every day; he wanted to have variety in his daily work, and I informed him that was not an option that the employee was happy to give him a try. Still, he has to become productive, or he can’t stay because it wouldn’t be fair to the actor people. The first weekend he became a believer, and he came back the next week, and we had a break in the afternoon, and he said, I have an idea, boss; I wonder if I can tell you this idea. I still like to do different things every day, and I know that we have five teams in the company, and every team has something that they don’t want to be doing and is not productive, preparation kind of work and time-consuming things. Why did you not let me go to team number one on Monday and do that kind of work for them that they were not want to do, and then let me go to team number two on Tuesday and team number three on Wednesday? I felt like it was a good enough suggestion, and I gave him a try, and I immediately saw it had some validity. Tuesday, the team’s number one manager came and asked me where is that little guy. He was accommodating. I told him, sorry you didn’t get him today is working with team number two. This evolved into a department where probably a dozen of people with handicaps had coming into the company. What they were doing were jobs that served the regular teams and average teams, making more money because we had invited these special needs folks into the business who were happy to do the work that was not regular but was preparatory work so that the other teams could get more done and when they get more done, they get more money. I think that was the way the Lord gave us some wisdom to bring the man without penalizing the company, and everybody had a win-win situation.

You mention people that you pray with or you are worship with; how did you do this in China? Did they persecute you?

It’s a great question. I’m speaking from America on this call, and I think that probably is illegal in America. The Chinese attitude was that they would probably let it alone if it was within my company and I was not doing anything illegal. What they were interested in, I think, was not whether I am a Christian but whether or not I am trying to influence people to become Christians. The Lord gave me direction very early, not to speak about it but to demonstrate what the Gospel is about. I never was the one who shared the Gospel with the employees, but we did have a couple of local Chinese believers who were within the company and did an excellent job doing that. The Kingdom in the company grew, but I was only provided a safe environment for the Lord to do that kind of work, mainly through a couple of believers we had hired. We didn’t hire them because they were believers per se; a little bit of what happened was not intentional.

You mention your channel eBay. Was this the only channel, or did you use another channel?

I mentioned eBay; we didn’t use eBay at all. I don’t even think it existed when we started. The years of operations were from ’92 to around 2000. I mention that the people want to see the product because it is still sold there. I met a gentleman who developed a company to market this product, and I believe he invested about 4000 dollars in doing so and becoming the leading product line of this kind in the world, from what he said and the others said. My job was to design and design and produce all of the products; his job was to sell. He was experienced with the collectible and giftware world, and he did a great job launching the product and was the sales channel. We had a warehouse in North Carolina, and we were shipped to the warehouse. Then he had staff that would send products to the gift stores. We sold primarily through the gift stores to customers, and I would go to many of those stores and make personal appearances to get enthusiasm for the gift.

What kind of relationship did you develop?

The relationship with the sales company was perfect. From the technical aspect, he was more like the importer, the marketer, and the sales office. He branded his company, which was Wass, different from my company, with the name Forma Vitrum and that was all about creating an identity for the US collectors market. Still, he said the product’s value was fifty percent the house itself and fifty percent the story of our family moving to China in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Unlike other products, our name and my picture were on every box, and the story of our family was something that people were interested in, so he wanted to develop the story. They had a newsletter that went out and a small magazine for the collectors. As I said, they had 18000 people who were customers who bought our product, but they were also registered collectors; they were not just regular customers. Some of those were added additions to their home to have the room to put my products into their homes. Some people bought every one of the 120 houses we designed and sold. We had a solid relationship. Once a year, there was a big conference in Chicago of all kinds of collectible businesses like ours, so, for two days, you meet other companies, and then for another two days, you will meet the collectors. They will come by the thousands to Chicago to meet the suppliers or the artists of the product they like to buy. We would meet many of our collectors in Chicago, and then, as I said, I also traveled around the states and spent a week at the stores where hundreds of collectors would be in the neighborhood. We give us a chance to meet again face to face.

Why were they interested in your story?

We were a family of four with two small children, choosing to live in the comfort and safety of the US in 1987 and go to China, which was very much a developing country then. It was still relatively poor by most standards, and for instance, the salary of the worker that was happy with was 50 dollars a month in the beginning and now is closer to 1000 dollars. We got to see this country going through a whole economic growth period, and it was a great privilege, but many of our friends couldn’t understand why we were doing that. It was this adventure that they will never have the courage to do, was what they said.

Do they buy into your mission?

Because of security reasons, we were not saying very much about the mission because we didn’t want to get ourselves in trouble, and we didn’t want to get our staff and employee in danger. It wasn’t common knowledge, but some of them could see meaning in the stories they heard about. For instance, the girl right now running everything for us, another company we started in 2008, was a neighbor of mine. She was stricken with polio as an infant and was never able to walk and was rejected by her family and in primarily by society. Still, the Lord gave us a genuine friendship, and she turned up to be very smart and capable, and she grew up within the company and now is running everything for me. Many Christians will suspect that the Lord has something to do with them, and they will ask about that. We still don’t; other than encouraging other BAM businesses or BAM Conferences, we don’t say much about the business’s mission. Our vision statement is to transform individuals and communities into profitable companies. This is our goal. Whenever we have a chance to see individuals changed like the beggars calming off the street through good business, then we feel like that’s fair game for the Kingdom.

What kind of activities are you doing in this workshop, in this factory?

We lived on an island for twelve years, and they had a rock; there was the second highest point of the island, and it was a Wonderful place to pray. I would often get up before sunrise, spend some time there, go home, have breakfast, walk to the ferry, get the car on the other side, and drive to work. Then at work, we often worship before we start there. Then we just had the business started time, and I went in and saw what was happening, and the rest of the day, you are mainly responding to unexpected situations like most businesses have problems. My job was often to be around and see where the issues wore. If there were no problems, I tended to be a designer, designing new products, processes, and machines to help make things work. We all have an area that’s our favorite, and we are mainly drawn to it. What I have learned to do is to invite the Lord to show me His designs for His products and his machines. It becomes an experience of having His presence close to you, and you get practical things done within the company for design work or production. For instance, there is another company I have right now, a transferred company, technology from the States; we make a bushing for machinery. I asked the Lord what you wanted me to do today by going to work. I looked around, and I got a sense; he wanted me to make it more efficient. We have become 600% more efficient than the US companies in producing this product. I like to say all of them come as an adventure. Going to work and opening your eyes and asking the Lord what He want you to see, what he wants you to do, and then you get impression and hunches and ideas.

Over the years, I went in that direction, playing with it to see what was happening. This week, I am doing the same thing in the States. We have a new company in Texas and a machine that makes equipment for us to grow food out of it. They haven’t been able to solve the problem, and I woke up at three o’clock three mornings ago with an idea; I sketched it out, and we got some components. I have it finished today, and it will increase the capacity from three months to build all the equipment to seven days. In that kind of process, I find His pleasure, His enjoyment, I enjoy it, and it is the Chanel to see His Grace.

What were the most critical resources that you have used?

Our primary resources are the Lord Himself as an engineer, finance person, and product designer. Two quid stories could illustrate this. The situation was introduced to me by my finance manager. He came into my office and told the boss; I have terrible news. Ițv has been looking for this for days, and we can’t avoid it, but I must inform you that if we don’t get 350 000 dollars I n fourteen days, we will have to shut down the business. We had no way of producing the money ourselves. I asked the Lord I learned to act more and more like a steward. The difference between stewed and the owner involves responsibilities. If he goes to work every day, as the Lord does, the owner has all responsibility, and the steward has his own. The steward is only responsible for solving some of the problems. The steward is responsible for informing the owner of his problems. As my finance manager left the office and closed the door, I told the Lord that He had a huge problem this time. I said if you don’t come up with 350 000 dollars, I will have to shout down your company. Then I said what would you like e to do? The Lord said I want you to fast and pray. I began to do that, and on the seventh day, I think we began to have 172 000 dollars; on the eleventh day, we got 200 000 dollars, so we solved that problem. That will illustrate where we find the Lord himself to be the outstanding finance, not just a manager, but a source of finance. He was like a banker in that sense. On another occasion, a man told me that he was always very fearful if he didn’t have the orders for two years booked. We only have three weeks of booked orders. He said aren’t you worried that we will run out of business and have gaps in your rankings? I asked one of the managers to come over, and I said, Grace if we ruined out of orders and prayed, how long did we wait? What’s the longest that we ever waited for new orders to come in once we prayed about it? This is talking about 21-23 years of history. She said there was one tie we waited three days. They found out that three days was the time limit I was praying for, and they never had other gaps. That was the Lord acting as our marketing manager, ensuring sales and marketing so we have the stuff to do. I feel like the resources of the Lord himself, when we invite Him into the various departments for us, proved pretty impressive. I am a big fan of best practices, I think that’s a great place to start, but you don’t want to be limited to excellent methods if you have the world’s best HR manager in your company or the world’s best designer in your company. You want to do both and try to be as good as anybody, but when you are limited in the resources in front of you, the Lord is always available for various other elements of the company. His job is not to make the company successful; He is to make you successful. He wants to have a project where the two of you can partner to see how he comes through and build a relationship, trust, and faith. That will be eternal useful for us as individuals. Long-term is gone be bout our friendship with the Lord and our ability to partner with Him. This is like an internship, a training process for our real vocation that will be forever.

Tell us something about your Key partners. You mention one that sells the product for you, but if there were others, what kind of relationship did you develop with them?

As I mentioned earlier, my first partner only lived about one year there was indispensable because he funded our launch and got us up in going. Many other people have come into the business, including one gentleman for whom I did not have any respect for their skill set initially. People like me are risk-takers, and we like to innovate new things, we typically get bored with the operation, and they seem just not very challenging and wouldn’t be very interesting. We hired an operation manager based on a recommendation, one time, he came in as a manager but he didn’t go up to learn the process; he looked at his computer to study numbers, and after three days, I gave up and said this is gone be useless, but I said I don’t want to be unkind, so I will not say anything, just wait for eventually to display himself. After six weeks, he called me over; he worked six days a week from 7 am to 7 pm. He was n highly hard-working guy, but he just studied numbers. Finally, he shows what happened in the company. We had several thousand products and probably fifty different customers. When he demonstrated what was happening to me, the products I loved making were not making any money. The products that were boring to me were making us all profit—the same thing happened with the customers. I became a believer in his skillsets and what he brought. He has become a marvelous partner and a great team member. We survived because we authorized him to make decisions regarding finance. Part of our journey was honoring the people who brought different skill sets. We have done this for many years, and it was great. Another guy had developed a work in the countryside with people who had special needs. We hired him, and he was an excellent partner. We gain so many different things from that. Currently, I have partnerships with board members in the company I now have. They become invaluable. Five or six years ago I had a heart attack, only survived by ten minutes. My wife was worried that my future would not be so stable. She didn’t want to be stuck with the company if I didn’t survive another heart attack. I hired some people who demonstrated that they previously loved me financially. We formed the board, and that’s also been a great partnership. I think it gives my wife much security knowing that if something happens to me, there are people that can step in and take over.

On the final question, tell us about the capital you needed for the being, how you grew the company, and how did you find this capital?

I want to introduce this answer by saying that when we started in ’87, we could live as a family of four with 3000 dollars a year because there was nothing to buy. The context creates part of the story and needs to be understood. We could never do that today in the same country. You have to have a plan that fits the context that you are in. We started with the ten thousand dollars invested, and I think the first year we made 15000 dollars and the following year 40000. We had an average of 28% growth every year for 18 years. We just let the money in the company essentially and turned it over and turned it over, and we went through probably eight different product lines in other markets. One time, a doctor visited us, spotting the night in our home; the following day, he informed me that the Lord said he should give me 50 000 dollars. We had enough wisdom at the time to say; I don’t think so. We don’t need 50 000 dollars; we need sales. He said, what if I bought with 50 000 dollars your lampshades, and I said, ok, we can do that will work. Rather than getting capital, we tended to get sales. We managed to grow our sales. From time to time, we needed a customer who put money in advance, and we were using future sales as a capitalization process. We were redesigning the entire company from a low-cost laboring value add situation to process efficiency. My board at that time said we gone loos the business. We need 1 million dollars in safety capital to handle this transition. We got a credit from a local business person for 650 000 dollars. We paid this within one year plus interest as we transitioned. The will be one capitalization exercise that we get through, but we got it with local people; it was a trust loan because they trusted us, they said.

What would you recommend to a new startup or entrepreneur that wants to start a business? To make a loan, to find an investor, or to start small and grow organic?

There are advantages to every situation. My answer will be this. I will spend time listening g to the Lord for identity and clarity of the company and let Him care for the burden of that decision. You can experience His wisdom that comes to you, but you also can share some circumstances confirmations. I was also pursuing what I was peaceful with. I wouldn’t go into business if I weren’t friendly with the strategy that we had developed. Ultimately the best way to live and do everything, including starting a business, is in close partnership with the Lord. That’s bearing fruits as you invest time in a relationship with Him and much of that time just listening to Him with your questions. I think you will get solutions and insides and answers for how to pursue them.

Thank you, Bill; it was a great discussion. I learned a lot from you. I am looking forward to seeing you in Romania.

I am very much looking for that trip, Adrian. Thank you so much for your time today.