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Jump off the donkey!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some years ago two IBEC consultants and I were consulting with several businesses in Kazakhstan. One business asked two of our guys Ken Leahy and Rick Hamm (both former senior executives of Fortune 500 companies) to provide some training on relationship marketing and on mentoring.

That business is Gateway Ventures.  Their story is simply amazing and contains many of the elements of how God and his servants work to bring the Quadruple Bottom Line to the ends of the earth. Thanks to Jo Plummer, editor of the BAM Review, for writing this story in 2014 and recently republishing it as part of their 'BAM is Global: Around the World in 40 Days' series. Here's the story in its entirety or visit the Business As Mission website for the original, The Extraordinary Story of Gateway Ventures: From India to Kazakhstan.

Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

The Extraordinary Story of Gateway Ventures: From India to Kazakhstan

By Jo Plummer, Business As Mission

Daniel Gunaseelan has a very colourful story indeed. Starting in a tiny village of 100 houses in his native Tamil Nadu, a state on the southern tip of India, Daniel’s story stretches all the way to a multi-million dollar company in the oil and gas industry in Kazakhstan. On the way he tells of false starts and successes, of making and losing his fortune and of a business breakthrough in a blizzard. At every turn, one theme stands out. It is very well summed up by the verse in Psalm 119, ‘’Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path’’. Daniel’s story is about the extraordinary impact we can have for Christ in business as we are faithful to follow Him. As Daniel puts it, ‘As we are prepared to make Jesus our CEO, our boss, He can bring fruitfulness far beyond what we can imagine.’

The Call

To Daniel’s father living in a tiny village in South India, Christianity was just another foreign religion. He came from a very traditional Hindu family of priests, but he heard about Jesus at college and was saved. It was a radical conversion and Daniel’s father became an evangelist and church planter all over rural India.

While Daniel was being born his father was praying and God gave him a vision. In the picture he saw the biblical Daniel praying in the lions’ den. Just as Daniel was born, his father shouted out a prayer that his new son would be called Daniel and would become a missionary to the communist ‘lions’ of the Soviet Union. ‘I knew from early on that I was called to be a missionary to Russia,’ Daniel jokes, ‘but to me it seemed whenever I was a really naughty boy, my father would pray that prayer over me again, but extra loudly!’

In school, the routine question, ‘What do you want to become after your studies?’ always gave Daniel a dilemma. ‘It killed me to have to answer that,’ he recalls, ‘I knew that being a missionary was in my blood, it was my calling, but at that time I was away from God. Instead I used to say that I wanted to become a businessman and then I would sit down quickly!’

Closing Doors

In 1985, at the age of 17, Daniel became a Christian, dedicated his life back to God and began to focus on his missionary call once more. However, Daniel often struggled with his father’s vision, ‘I was living in a very needy country, I was involved in student ministry and I often wondered why I needed to go somewhere else’, he says. Then in 1989, during a prayer time, the Holy Spirit spoke to him from Genesis 12 v 1 “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Daniel felt God speak to him that India had been a recipient of the gospel for generations, that giving is more blessed than receiving and that he must go.

The vision looked like it might become a reality in 1991. Daniel had just completed a Masters degree in Russian Language and Economics at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, when he got the chance to go as a PhD student to the Moscow State University. However, the opportunity never materialized, the Soviet Union was collapsing and the doors for him to go as a student began to close. Finally, when there was no hope of going to Russia as a student, Daniel began his PhD studies at the JNU in Delhi and the dream of getting to the Soviet Union felt distant.

Jump off the Donkey!

In 1993 God started speaking to Daniel again about his calling, reminding him that he would be a blessing to the nations. Shortly after that, Daniel got a job in the 3rd largest company in India, the Thapar Group. His job was in overseas business development and required him to travel into the ex-Soviet countries. ‘It was an extraordinary time’, shares Daniel, ‘I was traveling all over the former Soviet Union for 15-20 days out of each month. It gave me a great exposure to all sorts of people and experiences. I traveled extensively and met many top business and political leaders.’

Daniel was able to start a student ministry out of his excess income and spent over 3 years in that job. In 1995 his directors wanted to send him to manage a new project in Africa. However, it was at that time God clearly spoke to Daniel about taking the unexpected step of leaving that company. Daniel shares, ‘I felt I should stick with the area that I was called to, the former Soviet countries. God gave me a vision of myself riding a donkey and told me I needed to jump off that donkey because instead he wanted to give me a horse!’

Running Away?

Daniel gave in his notice and left the company on a Friday. On Saturday someone called to offer him a job in another business. He accepted the new job which involved a posting in Kazakhstan to do project appraisals and financing. Once again this new position was an opportunity for Daniel to learn more about business, but he was still uneasy. ‘I was running cell groups three times a week in the office, actually in the board room of the company. But even so, in the back of my mind I kept thinking I was wasting my time doing business. I felt I was running away, wasting time in the marketplace doing only a little Kingdom work,’ says Daniel. This message, that only traditional church work was ‘true ministry’, was the established way of thinking in the church in India and therefore was part of Daniel’s worldview. This was only reinforced again when in 1997, he felt he should finally commit his life and become a staff member of his church in Kazakhstan. Many people congratulated him on his decision to pursue his ‘real’ calling to ministry.

New Vision, New Ventures

However, it was about that same time that God started speaking to Daniel in a new way. Three times, from three different sources, Daniel received the verse in Micah 4:13, “I will give you hooves of bronze, and you will break to pieces many nations. You will devote their ill-gotten gains to the LORD, their wealth to the Lord of all the earth.” Another word came that God was about to do something interesting and big in Daniel’s life. It was then that Daniel met a pastor from Singapore who challenged him and encouraged him in his calling to the marketplace.

The connection with the Singaporean pastor turned out to be a crucial relationship. Essentially God had given a group of pastors a vision in the early 1980s to start a cell church movement. They had been teaching about cell church principles in parts of Central Asia, but in order to be able to do so had started up a business in Kazakhstan.

Daniel was invited to join the Board of that business and began looking for opportunities to make some money to support himself. His first business venture was importing containers of tea from India, since he had lots of friends who could supply tea. That business took off, as Daniel explains. ‘We made a lot of money importing tea, we did that for a year or so in 1998 and 1999 and it was a great business’. In the summer of 1999 Daniel returned to India to get married to his wife Sarah. Riding high on a wave of success and at the beginning of his married life, he returned to Kazakhstan with his new bride.

Just one month later, in June of 1999, the currency of Kazakhstan devalued by 50% and there was an economic crisis in the country. Daniel was selling his tea in the local currency which suddenly was not worth very much. His supplier trusted him and had extended credit to him, but when it came time for Daniel to pay up, he couldn’t. Daniel’s once thriving tea importing business was suddenly bankrupt. To add insult to injury, one week later the company was robbed. Daniel recalls, ‘Everything we had built up was gone. Our office was cleaned out. I went into work one day to find that everything had been taken, computers, equipment, even our documents, gone. All we had left was our car and then the following week the driver ran away with that.’ It was not an ideal start to married life!

Rock Bottom

Daniel was at the end of himself, not knowing what to do. The church in Singapore invited him to visit for a week so that they could pray for him. When he met them, he confessed, ‘I’ve lost everything’. Their response was to comfort and challenge him, ‘Who told you you have lost everything? You haven’t lost us and we haven’t lost you!’ Daniel didn’t feel worthy to be up in front of anybody, but the 12,000 strong congregation in Singapore prayed for him on stage in their church service and re-commissioned him in his call to the marketplace. The group of pastors eventually offered to raise half a million US dollars to cover the debt that the business owed and another half a million dollars to start up the business again. Daniel did not accept the money. He explains, ‘I felt the verse in Micah was a promise that we would take the ill-gotten wealth of the nations from the world and bring it into the Kingdom, not the other way around!’

Nothing to Lose

What followed were two very hard years for Daniel and Sarah as they began to look for new business opportunities. Towards the end of 2000 someone gave Daniel a printed catalogue and CD-ROM of household and electrical products. He explains, ‘I had this catalogue, it had 165,000 products in it, anything and everything that could possibly be needed by a business. I heard about a big oil and gas project in western Kazakhstan and thought I could relaunch my business by supplying products to them’. Feeling like there might be an opportunity in the oil and gas fields in the west of the country, Daniel and a couple of friends decided to go and try to make some sales. However, western Kazakhstan was a US$500 plane ride away and they did not have the money to go. Instead they opted to take a $40 train and they set off with hope and just one lead.

The train journey to the oil and gas fields took 72 hours and they arrived at their destination, an isolated town, at 7:30 pm in the middle of a blizzard. A friend had told them to go to a particular office and they would be taken care of, but when they arrived it was deserted. The only available accommodation in the town was in the camp for the oil field workers. When they asked for a room to stay the night, the camp manager relented but warned them that they could stay for one night only.

The next morning, with nothing to lose, Daniel and his friends set off to try and sell some products. ‘We only had the catalogue and the CD-ROM, so we split up. Somehow my friends got the nice, thick, printed catalogue and I got the CD!’ Daniel recalls, ‘I called it my “magic CD”, you put it into a computer and it loaded up with 165,000 possible products to sell. I toured round the different company offices telling them that we could supply whatever they wanted. I was willing to make a fool of myself to sell something. I prayed for favour and got the sense that I should let nothing stop me.’ The group agreed that if they stayed out late, the camp manager would be forced to let them stay one more night.

However, Daniel’s confidence was sorely tested when at 7:30 pm that evening the three friends regrouped and not one of them had managed to sell a single product. To top it all as they approached the camp, they saw something familiar lying in the street. The camp manager had packed their bags himself and had thrown them out into the snow. He greeted them with a none too welcome, ‘Get the hell out of this place!’

The situation did not look hopeful, and with nowhere to stay for the night the group had no choice but make the return journey empty handed. Just as they were loading their cases into a minibus, a man who Daniel had seen earlier walked by. He exclaimed, ‘Are you still here?!’ and suggested they try the company with offices just next to the camp. Daniel by this stage was sick and tired of trudging around in the snow, but the man said, ‘Why don’t you go in and make a fool of yourself one more time!’ With nothing to lose and his magic CD in hand, he ventured into this company office in a last ditch attempt to sell something.

Breakthrough in a Blizzard

It was late in the evening and the only person still in the premises was one guy all alone in a big room. Not knowing who this might be, Daniel nevertheless gave it his best shot. ‘I stood there and in 15 minutes gave what I thought was quite a good presentation, telling the guy that we could be his “one-stop solution” for all his required supplies’. After Daniel had finished, the stranger was quiet for a moment and when he finally spoke, it did not seem encouraging. ‘Tell me the truth’, he directed at Daniel, ‘you don’t know anything do you?’

With hope crumbling and at the end of himself, Daniel poured out his whole story, right from losing all his money selling tea to finding his bags sitting in the snow minutes before. The man took Daniel’s card, ‘For some reason I like you Daniel, so be faithful and I will build you up’. Daniel wondered who this man was who was offering to build him up. The man who had been the last one left at the office, was an Italian named Lorenzo. Lorenzo, it turned out, was the Director of Procurement for the top Italian oil and gas company in the world and was overseeing a 4.5 billion US dollar gas refinery project. He told Daniel that if he had come earlier in the day his staff would not have let him in. Daniel’s honesty paid off and 3 weeks later, Lorenzo called Daniel and placed his first order for US$2,450.

Growing as a Company

It was December 2000 and Daniel borrowed money here and there from friends to fulfill his first order. When he was faithful in meeting that commitment, the next ordered followed, this time for US$5000. Daniel kept trusting God as the business began to slowly grow and he could pay back his debts. The meeting with Lorenzo turned out to be the breakthrough that Daniel and the business, Gateway Ventures, needed. He explains, ‘After that and for the last 10 years and more, Lorenzo has worked exclusively with us. Not only that, everyone he has met in the industry he has told, “Work with Daniel, make him your supplier”. It was in that way that God blessed us and built us up as a company’.

Daniel had earned Lorenzo’s trust and over the years they developed a strong friendship. ‘Lorenzo would always make fun of my faith’, shares Daniel, ‘but he liked me’. When Lorenzo ended up in the Intensive Care Unit after a heart attack in 2005, he realised he could die at any moment. It was in his time of crisis that Lorenzo called Daniel and, revealing the level of trust he had in their relationship, he charged him, ‘If anything should happen to me, please take care of my family’. It was an extraordinary moment for Daniel, but full of faith he responded, ‘It is now time for me to bless you, I am going to pray for God to heal you!’

Lorenzo was restored to health and and over the years through that relationship Lorenzo and his whole family came to believe in Christ. On a visit to the city in Kazakhstan where Daniel and Sarah live, Lorenzo told a group of successful businessmen, ‘Listen to me, this guy Daniel told me how to believe in Jesus, go and visit his church because God is there!’

Gateway Ventures Today

Today Gateway Ventures is one of the leading service providers to the oil and gas industry, located in 25 countries worldwide, across 4 continents. Gateway employs almost 700 people and has it’s own engineering team and a fabrication yard.

Daniel reflects, ‘It is amazing what God can do through business. I have never pushed my colleagues, I have never even preached the gospel to them openly, but they know I trust God in every aspect of my business life’. Daniel shares that even the unbelievers in the company are used to miracles happening almost every day. When they went through a SWOT analysis as a company, “extraordinary favour” came out as a strength identified by the non-believing managers. ‘They tell me that it’s not a normal day unless some miracle happens!’ says Daniel. He adds, ‘I often say that as Christians in business we have an unfair advantage, it is not a level playing field when God is on our side!’

These days Gateway Ventures has grown so much that Daniel is largely freed up from the day to day operation of the company. ‘I spend all day talking to people about their personal problems. I find the Holy Spirit gives me wisdom as I talk to people. It’s easy to lead people to Jesus as we talk about real personal issues in the context of real life. Over the course of one year seven of my colleagues walked into my offices at various times and told me that they wanted to accept Jesus as their Saviour.’

Daniel has many stories to share of people he works with coming to Christ through his conversations and the things that God shows him as he prays for people. One day whilst having a serious business discussion with a long term colleague Daniel felt Lord telling him to stop the discussion and pray. ‘While I was praying, I felt I should stop praying and tell her that her heart was really hurting and that God wanted to heal it today. With my eyes still closed, I could hear the lady sobbing. She accepted Jesus then and there and today she is one of the leaders in the local church.’

Daniel reflects, ‘I feel like when you do business for the Kingdom it should be a fun process. It’s not about running after money, or grabbing power, it is about being an inheritor of God’s promises. Being in business gives you incredible access to every segment of society. As you take up this calling of God on your life, he will give you influence in the marketplace. In the process you end up being blessed so much and also being able to bless so many others along the way.’

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