After the Tsunami: Business on the Edge

Little did James know just how strategically God had placed him fourteen years prior to the adversity that rocked multiple countries and millions of people when the 2004 tsunami hit Asia. As the ocean bulldozed its way through the coastline, sparing nothing in its path, so came a flood of both urgent and long-term needs. The physical destruction was almost incomprehensible, with hundreds of thousands of homes leveled and those that weren’t completely destroyed sustaining major water damage.

The area James lived in had long experienced government versus rebel conflict. Trust levels were at a low between people groups. Most things had ground to a complete halt as a result of years of unrest. The infrastructure was almost nonexistent, and what little infrastructure was there was almost completely dysfunctional. The civil unrest had already led to massive financial devastation. The additional destruction of the tsunami made for a completely corrupt situation where everyone grabbed for whatever money they could get their hands on.

For Such a Time as This

After the tsunami’s destruction of homes, multitudes lived in refugee camps which were a hotbed for the advancement of political unrest or conflict. The circumstances were ripe for anything but a successful BAM venture! Except that James and his wife and team knew they were called ‘for such a time as this’ and the Holy Spirit was leading them. James also had some ‘street smarts’ when it came to working in his location, which helped him move farther, faster. They hadn’t seen it coming, but along with the devastation of the tsunami came opportunities to start businesses that could help rebuild.

Having long been fluent in the local language, as well as the national language, and already well-integrated into the society, James had been leading a small community-serving business in the area. With that business leveled by the disaster, James began a new and much needed business building homes. His company became a contractor to build homes for groups like Habitat for Humanity, the UN, and the Red Cross.

Daily Challenges

Every day brought new challenges. James experienced a high-level of corruption as he interacted with the government. Government officials were to be avoided if at all possible because corruption and bribes were a staple of the ‘system’. Pushback came from many directions. In addition to the headaches due to corruption, he received insults and protests from NGOs focused on the environment due to the amounts of wood used in his prefabricated house factory. Many of the NGOs he contracted with had a long list of regulations that were difficult to accommodate in his specific situation and he found this slowed down the movement of the company. James quickly learned that working face to face in trusted relationships with ground staff of the other entities moved the business contracts along faster than working long-distance with centralized leadership.

His employees consisted entirely of hostile rebel soldiers who had infiltrated the refugee camps. They were completely uneducated youths that couldn’t even sign their own name. Everyone was at a loss as to what to do with these young, unruly men and how to stop them from spreading ideas and recruiting for political unrest. These rebel soldiers caused a lot of fear in the community with their intimidating presence.

Employing Rebels

With his less than ideal employees, James chose to build a foundation of trust based on their cultural understanding of work, not his. He organized his factory and tasks in ways that connected with their culture. The workers could work and be paid in small groups while receiving incentives and bonuses. He didn’t lord it over them as a strong, ‘slave-driver’ boss as the generations prior had experienced. Many factories like his lost nearly 50% of their inventory to thieves within the company and community, but James had nothing more than a few hammers taken. He left everything out in the open, not locked up, and with no security guard. His workers and the community saw James and the company as an asset rather than a threat. He added value to their lives not just through a paycheck and houses built with integrity, but also by providing them training and skills that would last a lifetime. He incentivized his workers with the blessing of a new house built for them if they worked in an honorable way for a certain amount of time. The incentives were offered in obtainable, small steps about 3 months apart, rather than big goals a year or two out. Incentives included food for their home, attending to medical needs, offering kids education or tutoring in computers, English language lessons for children, a house, etc.. James learned what his employees needed to feel at home in his company and all the bottom lines of his business benefited from his relational, cultural connectedness to them.

With 110,000 homes destroyed in the tsunami, James and his crew had their work cut out for them. His company built more than 3,300 homes, schools and businesses. With his workforce 100% rebel army personnel aged 16 to 25 years old, James connected with them in the cultural ways they respected and understood. The vocational training center that he developed for the soldiers was successfully able to rehabilitate these young men back into society. More than just teaching them a trade, James was able to demonstrate high quality work, firm values, and integrity through his life in business for all employees to learn from. His heart to see people grow into Kingdom values and work in trusting relationships accelerated his influence and business forward in a difficult climate.

Relationship is the Key

One word explains how James navigated each of the hostilities surrounding him each day and that word is relationship. Living within a system often contrary to what is right and just, James decided to lean into building relationships. On one occasion early on, after paying a bribe that was extorted from him, he went home and struggled with God over the matter, feeling guilty and ashamed. He found himself reading about how Jesus pursued the hearts of people rather than attacking the corrupt system that surrounded Him. The disciples wanted their King to change the system using whatever forceful means necessary, but Jesus was on a different path. He showed the Kingdom way by focusing toward the hearts of men, not at the system they lived in. This encouraged James that the paying or not paying a bribe wasn’t the point, the relationship was the point. If hearts were changed, then the system could change.

When James built relationships he was able to be a practical example of the Kingdom of God in normal life, able to lead people towards integrity. He realized that if he attacked the system that was at the root of extortion and bribery, then he made enemies. Instead he worked hard to position himself so that he could relate relationally to those who wanted a cut, connecting with them eye to eye and heart to heart. He would take them to coffee and ask about their family and community. If he was extorted for money, then he paid for the sake of winning hearts, not making enemies. If building relationships was not possible for some reason, such as time constraints or location, then James would try and avoid being extorted by hiring service companies to do the donkey work. For example, if a delivery needed to get out to a village and they knew that there was a certain checkpoint that might want a bribe, then James might hire a delivery company rather than have his own company deliver the goods.

Engaging Advisors

Due to the tsunami, the area was swarming with NGOs, government officials, and anyone and everyone who thought they could lend a helping hand. James quickly assembled an advisory board of individuals who knew their way around catastrophe, humanitarian aid and business. He knew that he needed their expertise. He drew from the knowledge of his board in his business dealings and contracts and submitted to their leadership. Since there were not many locals who he could turn to for leadership in the business, he more often than not sought the advice of this board. One practical example is the board advising him to pay for the best accounting software he could get. All the money that James made from the business he choose to pour back into the reconstructed community; a decision that he and his wife made before the Lord.

When the market for new homes began to slow and agencies/governments were leaving, James needed to cut back on workers. When this happened he always encouraged them to start their own business, often helping them with small loans, gifts of tools or sometimes hired them as a subcontractor as contracts allowed. To this day, many of these men still run their own businesses built on these skills, with the tools gifted to them – and hopefully with a deeper level of integrity.

by Amy S.

More stories like this from: North Africa | Central Asia

Amy is regular a guest contributor for The BAM Review, interviewing ‘James’.

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