Milt Kuyers Redefining Success

–                  Timothy Stoner

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(Reprinted with permission from Doug Seebeck and Timothy Stoner’s My Business My Mission, 2009, pp. 225-33.)

Over breakfast at the Hampton Inn in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of the founding board members of Partners Worldwide, Milt Kuyers, is sharing with me a memory that determined the trajectory of his life.

It happened in his family’s kitchen. Milt was 11 years old. His parents were talking, and several of the children, including Milt, were listening in. Their father said he had decided to ask for a bank loan because he believed God wanted him to give $1,000 to the capital fund drive of a local Christian school. At that time, he was a factory worker making $80 a week. Although Milt’s parents understood and practiced faithful biblical stewardship, Milt’s mother was taken aback by her husband’s desire. Paying their bills was already difficult, and since the family had no savings, she knew that they were simply incapable of raising that money. Milt never forgot the depth of his dad’s emotion at being prevented from giving what he believed God wanted him to give.

The next day Milt’s father met with the bank manager. Milt recalls, “That evening, Dad came home and my mom asked him what the manager’s response had been. He didn’t say a word. He just dropped down on a kitchen chair, bowed his head, and began crying. Through his tears he told her that the bank had not granted him the loan because the officer did not believe they were able to pay it back.”

Milt never forgot the depth of his dad’s emotion at being prevented from giving what he believed God wanted him to give. As he tells me the story I can feel its impact on him, 60 years later. It has been imprinted on his mind and has served as an example and a motivation throughout his life. Today, after having started and sold six companies, and currently owning 12, Milt and his wife, Carol, live on less than 10% of their income. What his father was unable to give, Milt and Carol have given hundreds of times over.

Family Debt and Reconciliation

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1958 with an MBA, Milt worked for seven years in private practice as a CPA for a large international accounting firm. He admits he was “on a single-minded mission to become highly successful.” In pursuit of this goal he believed that he was ignoring his family and his relationship with God. He recognized that he needed to strengthen both areas.

As he was doing this soul-searching, an attorney from a leading law firm in Milwaukee called to ask if Milt would be interested in becoming the CFO of a manufacturing company that was poised to grow through acquisitions. Milt discovered that the CEO was a man who valued family, so he accepted the position along with its 40% pay cut. Four years later, at the age of 33, Milt was named president of the company’s first acquired subsidiary.

Milt’s dreams of financial success were being fulfilled, but a telephone call from his younger brother, Cal, derailed the trajectory of his comfortable life. It would put a halt to his plans for expansion and prosperity and would cause a wound that would take years to heal. The purpose of the call was to inform Milt that Cal was in serious financial trouble. The banks were getting ready to call in the loans on his businesses. He was facing bankruptcy. Milt agreed to go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to talk things over.

At their face-to-face meeting Cal admitted that he had talked their father into guaranteeing his business loans. If his businesses folded it would take down their father, whose only asset was his home. Milt was furious but felt his only choice was to take responsibility for the notes.

The debt load took all of Milt’s excess income and more. For several years he and his wife drove older cars. He recalls overhearing a conversation by a church member who clearly believed he had taken the infamous Dutch frugality to an extreme. Eyebrows were raised by those incapable of reconciling Milt and Carol’s lifestyle choices with his position and salary as president of an apparently successful company. It comes as no surprise to hear him admit that he was extremely angry at his brother.

It took several years, but finally Milt was able to get Cal’s debt paid off. During all that time there had been no contact between the two. Unaccountably, three days before his brother’s 35th birthday Milt began finding it impossible to sleep. He was convicted about his deep resentment of his brother.

On the evening of his brother’s birthday, Milt dialed Cal’s number. He requested forgiveness for the anger that he had been harboring. As he spoke, Cal began to weep. He asked Milt’s forgiveness for what he had done, and soon the two brothers were crying together. They forgave each other, and Milt’s burden was lifted.

Three weeks later, Milt was at work when a phone call came. The message was that his brother had just died. Though deeply grieved, Milt was thankful that God had pushed him to reconcile with his brother three weeks before.

Heart on Fire

In 1984 Milt decided it was time to go out on his own. He began to look for a company he could purchase and turn around so that, as he puts it, he could “live happily ever after.” While doing this, he was introduced to Star Sprinkler, a manufacturer of fire protection equipment that was on the ropes and needed new leadership. It was perfect for developing his skills in “turn-around” work.

Not long after, John DeHaan, a college friend and president of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), asked Milt to join eight other Christian Reformed businessmen at a MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Association) conference in Charlottesville, Virginia. This Mennonite group was at the forefront of a movement to enlist businesspeople to get involved in building businesses and creating jobs in the developing world.

After the day’s session, the nine men would go to John’s hotel room and brainstorm how they could put the principles they had heard about into practice. Sometimes the discussions would extend almost to midnight. Their conversations centered on one question: how can businesspeople address the problem of poverty? Though focused internationally, they did not overlook the reality that there were serious local needs as well.

The late-night talks triggered something deep within Milt that was waiting to be awakened. He went back home with his heart on fire. He had been given an entirely new and ennobling vision of his role in the world. He now understood that he existed to do more than write checks for the church. For the first time he recognized that his position and skills as a businessperson were gifts from God, entrusted to him for a significant function in God’s kingdom.

Milt now saw himself as a steward with unique, divinely bestowed abilities that were intended to have an impact beyond his family and even beyond his church. With that new awareness came a compelling sense of mission and a conviction that he was to begin in Milwaukee, where his business and his home were located. The task would be straightforward: providing work for the unemployed in the inner city.

Forming a Partnership Model

As he prepared his strategy and studied the challenges of poverty, Milt became convinced that the major problem for the poor was not finding jobs, but holding on to them. He concluded that it was essential to partner with an organization in the inner city that could provide the accountability to help unskilled workers develop the practices and habits needed to become valued employees.

Milt contacted several ministries in Milwaukee, but none had an interest in partnering with a businessperson. They were willing to receive his financial support, but they suspected his motives. He tried for six months, but the doors kept closing in his face.

Finally someone encouraged him to speak with Pastor James Carrington of Light House Gospel Chapel, a church in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Before calling, Milt discovered that about 20% of the congregation was unemployed. He phoned Pastor Carrington and briefly explained his idea. The pastor agreed to meet and hear him out. He left with his heart on fire. He had been given an entirely new and ennobling vision of his role in the world.

A few days later Milt drove down to the church building at 35th and North to share his vision of partnering to provide jobs, accountability, and assistance so workers could succeed in their work. Pastor Carrington listened carefully. But when Milt was done he did not mince words. “I don’t think it will work,” he said. He was convinced Milt was a white employer on the lookout for cheap labor and good press. The pastor’s experience had taught him that while white do-gooders might start strong, they usually failed to persevere when things became difficult. “The truth of it is,” he explained, “I don’t know whether I can trust you. If I went out on a limb with my people and then you decided to give up, I would lose significant credibility. I don’t want to risk that you will give one member a job and then if it doesn’t work out you’ll just bail on the whole community.”

Milt dragged himself back to his car feeling drained of his last hope. But at home he began to think the conversation over more calmly. A question struck him: Why did the pastor even agree to see me? Why invite me to come to his office just to tell me he didn’t trust me?

Milt went to see Pastor Carrington a second time and repeated his idea almost verbatim. Again Pastor Carrington expressed his unwillingness to partner with Milt. He repeated his fears: “You will probably try this once and then when it gets hard you’re gonna give up.”

Milt left more discouraged than before. On his way back home he protested: “God, it was you who gave me this idea, but no one wants to help me bring it about. Why make me excited about something so wonderful if nobody is going to come alongside?” He again thought the conversation through. Something about it seemed almost staged, as if the rejection were somehow a test. He decided to call Pastor Carrington one more time. The afternoon of the meeting, as he was again winding his way through the narrow streets of Milwaukee’s danger zone, Milt was battling anxiety mixed with the fear of being shot.

Once more Milt found himself sitting across the desk from the African American pastor. For a brief moment Pastor Carrington did not say a word. Then he leaned back in his swivel chair and said, “Mr. Kuyers, you are for real.” It was a statement of fact laced with genuine surprise. Without pausing for any further discussion, the pastor told Milt that he could identify the unemployed members in his congregation who could make good, faithful employees. He told Milt he would call a meeting and invite them all to attend. But, he added, “I’m not sure how many will show up.”

A few days later Milt and Pastor Carrington met with 19 people in the church auditorium. Pastor Carrington briefly introduced Milt and told them that this business owner had a great idea “and,” he said, “I trust him.” As Milt looked out at the group he saw hope in their eyes. What he did not tell them was that he had no idea what he was going to do with all of them. He had come to the meeting having identified only one job opening at Star Sprinkler. A question struck him: Why did the pastor even agree to see me? Why invite me to come to his office just to tell me he didn’t trust me?

Milt pressed forward and asked the group to write down their names, addresses, past work history, and job preferences. He thanked them, put the resumes in a folder, and drove home with them in his briefcase. Though he had arrived at the chapel with a sense of excitement, he was leaving it in a panic. “What in the world am I going to do?” he groaned out loud. He had intended to hire one person, but now he’d created a sense of expectation for 19 people. What had seemed like an excellent idea just hours earlier appeared now to have been a huge error in judgment.

But in the next two weeks something unprecedented occurred. Orders came in so fast that Star Sprinkler needed to hire new workers immediately. All 19 members of Light House Gospel Chapel were put to work. Stable members of the church agreed to provide the accountability assistance needed to help their newly-employed members succeed. Transportation was offered for those who ran into difficulties getting to work. Light House began a daycare center to serve the single mothers who became part of the program.

Pastor Carrington remained personally involved. He made regular phone calls to Milt, alerting him when one of the church-member employees was having unusual difficulties. Through this partnership Milt and his friend James Carrington were able to impact more than 100 members of the Gospel Chapel.

As Milt finished his cup of coffee, he smiled at me. “That was the beginning of Milt the businessperson seeing there is a lot more to life than running your own company and becoming financially successful.”

Hope, Purpose, and Transformation

A few years later John DeHaan called again, this time with an invitation for Milt to accompany him and some others on a “discovery trip” to Central America. Milt recognized that as executive director for the CRWRC, John might have a hidden agenda behind the call. “I knew that John was trying to build a stable donor base of businesspeople,” he said, but he agreed to go anyway. The trip opened his eyes to the impact of Christian community development. The group was exposed to the dramatic contrast between a village with hope and purpose and one where the atmosphere is clouded with despair. Seeing with his own eyes profound economic, material, and spiritual transformation only deepened Milt’s excitement. “That was the beginning of Milt the businessperson seeing there is a lot more to life than running your own company and becoming financially successful.”

In 1992 Milt and Carol traveled with John and Alice DeHaan to Kenya on another “discovery trip.” Also joining the group were Tony Betten, Marv and Joan Cooper, John and Margaret Vander Ploeg, Ed and Marcie Muller, Doris Tuinstra, and Meg Van Tol. Walking through the garbage dumps of Nairobi, which are home to hundreds of people, made a profound impression on them. They were used to seeing problems as challenges to be solved, but what they saw in the slum was overwhelming.

However, as they observed the substantial economic impacts in areas where CRWRC was making inroads, this oppression began to lift. They began to see the potential for businesspeople like themselves to make a significant contribution.

At each project the team would ask the development workers the same questions: “What happens when these microenterprises become successful? What is your strategy when they expand beyond meeting their immediate needs and begin hiring employees?” In each case the answer was the same: “There is none. They don’t need us anymore. They are successful.” The business owners were stunned. Not always as tactfully as they might have, they responded, “But, you need them!” They came to see that relief and development workers often looked at poverty through the lenses of social sciences rather than business. As a result, their focus tended to be on meeting the immediate basic needs (a good thing!), but not on broader economic sustainability.

These businesspeople understood immediately that successful businesses and business leaders are essential engines to ending poverty. Not only will an expanding business create jobs, it can also help pay the bills that the agencies depended upon donations to cover. But as owners of companies and as hard-headed realists, they also recognized that if a project cannot sustain itself there will come a day when the outside resources dry up and those who have been trained to be dependent will be worse off than before.

Milt and John Vander Ploeg decided to partner with John DeHaan in developing a funding arm for CRWRC comprised of businesspeople who wanted to do more than give money. Partners for Christian Development would be an organization that would measure success not by profit but by the number of jobs created. The vision was to link arms with capable entrepreneurs to help them succeed so they could in turn help their neighbors succeed. Ultimately, success would be achieved not when a family was able to feed itself, but when an entire community was freed from both poverty and charity.

It became obvious to Milt and to John Vander Ploeg that their first priority was to change the mindset of businesspeople. The revolutionary message needed to be delivered emphatically and unapologetically: business is not just business; in reality it is an outstanding Christian calling.

In 1997 Doug Seebeck took Milt and some of the other business people back to Kenya to investigate a pilot project. They met with a group of successful business people in Nairobi who had been gathering for weekly Bible study. The Kenyans described the unique cultural issues and needs of their country. Following these sessions there was an agreement that a real partnership as Christians for business development was possible.

The business people broke up into two groups to hammer out the details. The North Americans sat under one shade tree in the Lanana House courtyard and the Kenyans under another. When they came back together they agreed to establish a $100,000 loan fund to be administered by an organization that would be called the Kenyan Investment Trust (KIT). It would be overseen by trustees from both sides of the partnership. The Kenyans committed to identifying trustworthy Christian entrepreneurs who needed loans to grow their businesses.

Looking back, Milt concedes that there might have been a strategic error in the formation of this first partnership. Despite its promising start, KIT was exclusively a loan organization, and the members were encouraged only to borrow, not save. That caused great difficulties, but it was an important lesson that resulted in a savings plan being hard-wired into all future agreements. It was implemented by Simon Ngeru in a new organization: CHESS (Christian Entrepreneurs Savings Society). It began with 25 businesspeople pooling their savings and has grown to include over 400.

James Gitao, a Kenyan trustee and KIT’s chairperson, had a coffee farm that was facing financial difficulties. That same year James asked Milt if he would be interested in partnering directly together on his coffee farm. This called for a drastic re-evaluation of the role of the North American affiliate and its members. Prior to this time, the affiliate partnered by providing loans, advising, mentoring, and encouraging. There was no personal, individual financial risk involved. This invitation to become a viable partner “with skin in the game” caused no small consternation within the organization.

As Milt thought over the proposal, he explains to me, “It was obvious that there was no good, logical, or compelling reason to invest in the high-risk, culturally volatile, and business-unfriendly climate of Africa.” But despite what his head told him, he felt convinced that the Lord still wanted him to do it. This was the first investment in what he would later call “heart entrepreneurship” or “leading with the heart.” That heart investment has helped to save and sustain around 400 jobs in the coffee industry in Kenya.

More Than Playing Shuffleboard

Now in the latter decades of his life, Milt is a very content and fulfilled man. “At the age of 72 I have more joy than if I were spending six months in Florida playing shuffleboard and planning where to go next to eat out. I want to be doing something productive in God’s kingdom.” I sit up. He has gotten my complete attention. I am not used to this kind of language from a multimillionaire.

“There is no biblical precedent for self-indulgence,” Milt continues. “That has nothing to do with God’s kingdom. God nowhere encourages his people to ‘eat and drink and take it easy now that you have reached your golden years.’ In fact, Jesus spoke harshly about the wealthy businessperson who embraced that lifestyle. He warned that he will return when people least expect it and declare: ‘This night your soul will be demanded since there is no place or purpose for you in my kingdom.’” This 72-year-old philanthropist takes a deep breath. He looks steadily at me and says, “I don’t want to be one of the people Jesus has to speak to in that way.”

Milt picks up his cup and finishes the last of the coffee. He shifts gears. “The strength that businesspeople bring to the table is that they have had a lot of experience with failure. They have learned to struggle and to overcome through dogged perseverance and a hard-won dependence on God. They understand that problems and obstacles are unavoidable. Success in only 1 out of 10 ventures is not grounds for discouragement; it is better than never having made the attempt. God makes it so hard. But, I’ve come to see that the struggles are God’s way of saying: ‘Milt Kuyers, do you know who is in control? You think you are so smart and that you can do all these things, but I’m the one who pulls the trigger. Although you have to keep pushing and struggling, I am going to open doors and close doors.’”

He smiles, but his eyes are very serious. “Through the adversity the successful businessperson has been taught the importance of not giving up. You still have to continue plowing forward through disappointments and discouragements. But if you have one success in the face of 10 failures, that’s more than you would have had had you given up or not even made the attempt.” Now he speaks more expansively as a member of the Partners board. “The businesspeople who are drawn to Partners Worldwide are folks who have learned through hard struggles to trust in God. These struggles have served to break them of their independence. Now they can joyfully celebrate what God has done, knowing that it was him, not them, that caused the success. This 72-year-old philanthropist takes a deep breath. He looks steadily at me and says, “I don’t want to be one of the people Jesus has to speak to in that way.”

“The reality is that God needs moneymakers in his kingdom who will be faithful and responsible with the wealth he allows them to create. They are the ones who realize that stewardship is not really so much about what you give but what you allow yourself to keep.” He continues describing the kind of stewards God is looking for. “Their goal is not to give a tithe and live comfortably on the rest, because they know that all their money is God’s. They understand there is coming a day when they will have to give an account for what they justified to themselves they could live on.”

I am stunned and convicted by the depth of this successful capitalist’s commitment to a lifestyle I usually hear spoken of in the abstract. This son of a factory worker who could not give as much as he wanted is destined to hear the same words undoubtedly spoken to his own father: “Well done, good and faithful servant: enter into the joy prepared for you.”

The beauty of it is that because of the wise choices Milt and Carol Kuyers are making now, they are experiencing that joy already.

Doug Seebeck serves as the President of Partners Worldwide which encourages, equips, and connects business and professional people in global partnerships into more than 20 countries to grow sustainable enterprises and jobs. Doug previously served 19 years with the Christian Reformed Relief Committee in twelve countries initiating and managing relief and development programs. He co-founded Partners Worldwide to expand the business as ministry model pursuing the quadruple bottom line: profit, people, planet, and purpose. Doug co-authored My Business, My Mission: Fighting Poverty through Partnerships, a book now at the forefront of the global business as missions (BAM) movement.

Timothy Stoner was born in Michigan but grew up in Chile and Spain, the child of missionary parents. After college, Tim received Masters of Divinity and Juris Doctor. He spent several years as a bilingual staff attorney with Michigan Migrant Legal Services. He now has a private law practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan specializing in estates and trusts. Tim is the founder of Orphan Justice Mission which is committed to caring for more than 450 Ugandan children, most of whom are AIDS orphans.

2 Comments

Filed under Exchange: The Journal of Mission and Markets, Faith in the Marketplace

2 responses to “Milt Kuyers Redefining Success

  1. mwansa mulamasa

    wow this is good would you consider coming to Zambia?

    • I did not write the article but I would love to come to Zambia! Unfortunately, my ministry is not at a place where I can expend funds for international travel very often.

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