I am in the business of making wealth to distribute wealth,” says Kim Tan, who has indeed generated a lot of wealth and distributed a lot of wealth. Which is not, as we shall see, quite the same thing as giving it away.
Kim is, in fact, one of the richest people in the UK, an international venture capitalist with a clear focus on trying to do something significant about global poverty and doing it in ways that have been shaped by deep and long reflection on the Biblical teaching about poverty and in particular by the Old Testament concept of Jubilee and its centrality in the ministry of Jesus (Luke 4). Today he is involved in developing ways of doing business on a large scale which may indeed provide an alternative to contemporary models of poverty alleviation.
I meet him at his home in Surrey. It is a beautiful, large, old stone house, set in acres of fields. I am greeted by Molly, a golden hound with a gently wagging tail who is surely far too friendly to this complete stranger. But there again there is a peacefulness about Kim and his wife Sally’s home, and indeed something about the way that they have decorated it, that is wondrously welcoming. Great wealth can sometimes intimidate – I just feel at home.
Kim is the son of a Malaysian businessman who came to Britain at 16 and soon became a Christian. He was as he put it ‘a reluctant convert’ but, having found Christ, at what he considered an old age, he felt he needed to catch up and knew he needed good teaching. So when it came to choosing a university, he first identified where the best Bible teachers in the UK were and, from that list, chose a university with a relevant course. He ended up in Guildford, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he ended up being taught by David Pawson whose combination of Biblical depth and determination to engage with the great issues of the day deepened Kim’s understanding of God’s concern for all of life. This combined with his church’s deep concern for world mission and its attitude to money – their policy was to give away 50% of the budget to mission and to give away any budget surplus at the end of the financial year so that they could look to God afresh.
Kim studied biochemistry, fascinated by the creativity of God, and began to live in community with a group of Christians with the goal of creating a context in which they could do discipleship and evangelism together. They began by acquiring the cheapest house in Guildford. Over the years, though, the group grew to around 45 living in 12 houses in two streets. As a community, they pored over the Scriptures every night, bought commentaries and theological dictionaries, and found someone to teach them basic New Testament Greek so that they could read the texts and the commentaries with more discernment.
All this was in the cause of seeking ways to respond to the radical nature of Christ and the radical lifestyle of the early church. Indeed they had ‘all things in common’, except, Kim points out, their wives and their books. They lived simply. At one point they decided that the men would live on £10 a day and the women on £20 – the women got more because they were always feeding people. Looking back Kim sees that this experience “gave God a chance to deal with our material addiction. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have learned how to hold things lightly.” Which is a good thing to learn when you are holding millions.
Even then, though, there was an entrepreneurial edge to their way of life. “We realised that we were buying so many books that we might as well set up our own book company so that we could get them cheaper and pass on the discounts to students.” The company, Bethel Books, still exists today. Similarly, one of their members was a gifted mechanic so when he graduated they set him up in business. In both cases, the investments were designed to serve people’s interests, not merely to make money.
Kim pursued science, took a PhD, and won four post-doctoral fellowships but then realised that he wasn’t, as he put it, “bright enough to win a Nobel Prize.” That, and the realisation that he wasn’t committed enough to science to do it all his life, made him consider what else he might do – he’d done some work with Ichthus so that was a possibility but he and they knew that wasn’t right for him. So after a year back in Malaysia he returned to the UK and set up a business in the only field he knew anything about – science. He had no business training. It was 1987 and the early days of bio-tech in the UK. His company developed tests for detecting narcotic drugs, salmonella in chicken and so on. He sold it in 1992, set up another company and sold it.
And so on.
From the money he made he began to invest in other companies bringing a distinctive approach to the venture capital process. Kim had learned a great deal about servanthood from his early contact with Roger Forster and Alan Kreider and the Anabaptist tradition and had been gripped by the example of Jesus the servant. So, for example, when he and Sally married, he insisted on crafting his own vows because the traditional marriage vows do not include the concept of servanthood which is, after all, the dominant New Testament metaphor for marriage. Importantly, he sees Jesus’ servanthood characterised by a tremendous desire to see people liberated to fulfil their potential in Him – that they may have abundant life. This theme of ‘fulfilling potential’ is indeed a motif that carries across all Kim’s activities.
You can see it in the way his company invests in ideas – helping others fulfil their dreams but not simply by writing a cheque, but by offering them skills where they don’t have them – in developing the business plan, in helping them with mergers and acquisitions, and so on.
You see it in his preference for investing in companies that are to be located in areas of high unemployment – in India, in China and in Africa – so as to generate jobs for people who would otherwise not have them.
You see this yearning to help people fulfil their potential in his exploration of what he has called Social Venture Capitalism. “People need jobs,” he argues, “more than aid,” and are more interested in taking responsibility than taking cheques. So Kim has actively looked for opportunities not only to invest in businesses where there is endemic poverty but to do it in a way that empowers everyone involved for the long term. So in setting up a safari game park in a malaria-free, and almost job-free area of South Africa he hasn’t just appointed a manager to train, for example, the fencing team of 65 workers. He’s appointed a manager to train a fencing team, to pay them well, to house them well, to teach them to read, and to equip them for future employment. Indeed, when it was over, the leaders of the team were well enough trained for Kim and his team to ask them whether they wanted to set up their own business. Note the radical point here – Kim was not interested in starting a fencing business himself and employing the team but rather empowering them to do it for themselves. And indeed, they helped the team write a business plan and negotiate an eight month fencing contract with the South African National Parks. And that is very significant because every job created has the potential to affect 10 other people positively.
But it is also significant because the principle behind this is that of allowing people to enjoy stewardship. In the Jubilee of the Old Testament the people of Israel were called to cancel all debt and restore all lands to the original families. And Kim sees that Jesus in Luke 4 is re-inaugurating the Jubilee. Indeed, the Lord’s prayer is a ‘jubilary’ prayer: ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors as we ourselves have also remitted them to our debtors (cf John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Eerdmans, p66} The liberator God provides a mechanism for a fresh start and the generous, delegator God wants people to be able to take responsibility. In the Jubilee, the means to wealth is re-distributed back to people. This is not a ‘charity mentality’ but a stewardship mentality.
Furthermore, Kim notes that wealth is not meant to stay in the hands of a few people. And that is why in every project he has been involved in there has always been some element of share distribution. So even in a joint venture with the communist Chinese Government to commercialise six products he insisted that the senior scientists would get some share ownership. Similarly, when he built a cancer hospital in Malaysia he insisted on issuing share options. The Board thought he meant for the senior managers – he meant for everyone. But most of the workforce had never owned a share before and didn’t have any capital to exercise their option. Kim offered them a loan that turned out to be interest free. Because, as he told them, the Bible says we should not charge interest.
Kim is clearly a generous man but this generosity is not simply the capacity to give money away but the capacity to create opportunity. “Some people, he says, “are like rocks, they give when you strike them. Some people are like oranges, they give when you squeeze them. Some people are like flowers, they give because it’s in their nature to give.” And when I meet people I ask myself do they smell of Jesus? Have they known the deep, deep grace of God?
As one of Kim’s old friends put it Kim has a much greater capacity to believe that something is possible than most of us. He sees opportunity and thinks, why not? So his bankers advised him against investing in the game park in South Africa – the country is unstable, the Rand is weak, the white population are leaving, you don’t know anything about the leisure business… But he has done it, not in a rush of defiant, arrogant impetuosity but he has done it – two truck loads of animals are being delivered to the park every week and the South African National Parks Board is their joint venture partner.
This, however, is not simply a single good news story but a potential model for the future. Kim is demonstrating to governments and to major institutions that social venture capital has something to offer the world’s poor, which the Non-government organisation (NGO) model often cannot.
Often the NGOs don’t know how to run businesses. That means that the skills required to make loans turn into sustainable enterprise – whether micro or macro – are often not there. And even if they are, what Kim is beginning to prove on the ground, is that the private sector can make a significant contribution to alleviating poverty.
And it is this that has led him to find other like-minded business people and start the Transformational Business Network (TBN). And it’s caught the imagination of many Christian business people who can use what they are good at to make a difference to the world’s poor. Today there are over a 170 members of TBN working on business projects all over the world, using their holiday time to do field trips, reviewing business opportunities, offering their talents to others so that others may develop their talents. “Lots of Christian business people are seeing that there’s something they can do for Christ – besides making coffee, putting out chairs and writing cheques. If the church really believes that people are our biggest assets why do we let them rot in the pews? Here are all these highly gifted, talented people – creative, innovative with superb executional skills, and we let them rot in the pews!”
There it is again – Kim really, really hates to see potential wasted. He really, really wants to see people – the rich in the West and the poor wherever they are – live a life that helps them fulfil their potential in Christ.
Smells like flowers to me.
To find out more about the Transformational Business Network, go to www.tbnetwork.org or call Stuart McGreevy on: 0845-3305142.