Lawrence Yeo’s marketplace calling demanded a faith and perseverance that only God’s grace could sustain.
Contributed By Yong Yung Shin
Not too long ago, Lawrence Yeo was so down-and-out he could not even get a job at McDonald’s. Today, he is the CEO and principal consultant of a management consulting firm that helps corporations and government clients penetrate the Asian market.
To date, AsiaBIZ Strategy Pte Ltd‘s consulting services has resulted in an overall Fortune 500 client investment portfolio in excess of US$2 billion in Asia. On Jan. 1, 2012, Yeo was featured on the Channel News Asia’s television program The Strategist, where he advised a local enterprise in its overseas regional expansion strategy.
Success did not come overnight for the entrepreneur. In an exclusive interview with City News, he shares the trials and tribulations he and his wife weathered for more than 20 years to pursue God’s destiny for them.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
It was in Secondary 4 at Balestier Hill Secondary School when Yeo met Lilian, the girl who would later become his wife. But it was no blissful state of puppy love for the young couple. At home, Lilian constantly suffered verbal and physical abuse; she was a troubled youth who struggled with nervous breakdowns, depression and suicidal tendencies; more than a boyfriend, Yeo became her counselor. At the verge of yet another of her nervous breakdowns in 1988, Yeo staged a desperate rescue mission with the help of his younger brother to extricate his girlfriend from her home. They registered their marriage immediately after—with the blessings of Yeo’s parents and fierce opposition from his in-laws.
In 1990, the couple left for Canada, where Yeo pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. He was financed by his father, a struggling general contractor and his mother, who juggled up to three jobs to save enough just to cover his tuition fees.
The period of testing came soon enough. With only CAD250 in her pocket, Lilian had to find a job quickly, but opportunities eluded her for the first three and a half months, until she found work waitressing at a Cantonese restaurant. Money was so scarce that the high point of their first few months was the discovery of an unwanted bed frame salvaged from the neighborhood dumpster. “We had no expectations; we knew we were operating on bare bones, just there to obtain a degree and come back.”
After Lilian started working as a waitress, a phone call came from the Royal Bank of Canada for a part-time, casual position as a bank-teller—not the cushiest job, but a breakthrough nevertheless. “She was then temp-ing around in many branches before they offered her a permanent position, as she had a good attitude and strong customer servicing skills. Looking back now, we could see how God started us from rock bottom, teaching us to be faithful with the small things,” says Yeo now.
SIGNS AND WONDERS
After two semesters, the University of Lethbridge tripled its school fees, forcing the Yeos to make the decision to transfer to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where fees were cheaper.
And that was how they found themselves on a 1,800-kilometer road trip across the mountainous Banff National Park, with all of CAD70; but being Christians by then, they banked on the mustard seed of faith they had in God to reach their destination.
Trying their best to stretch their money, they opted for the cheapest form of accommodation—an open camp ground and a secondhand tent from the Salvation Army. “There was a warning sign stating ‘Beware of Bears.’ Other people had camper vans with locks, ours was just a tent. Nobody would have known if we got mauled by bears. Also, temperatures dipped to -20 degrees Celsius because of the wind chill factor. We were really at the mercy of the elements!” Yeo reminisces with a laugh at the wholly unenviable situation they were in.
The next morning, they could only afford to share a CAD5 quiche for breakfast. Back on the road, they traveled until sundown and their fuel gauge indicated empty. The nearest gas station was about 50 kilometers away. Not knowing what to do, they drove on, waiting for the inevitable. But a strange thing happened—the car kept going. Till this day, Yeo’s only explanation was that God must have sent angels to carry their car for the whole 50 kilometers until they reached the next gas station.
Upon reaching Simon Fraser University, completely penniless and without a roof over their heads, they were approached by a young male Singaporean Chinese student who offered to house them for the night. After Yeo settled in, he asked around the student community about his Good Samaritan but nobody seemed to know him, and the Yeos never saw him again.
Being highly-driven and self-motivated, Yeo made the most out of his summer vacations and took extra courses, including an investment course by the Toronto Stock Exchange. He was also president of Singapore Lion’s Club and a student coordinator for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At night, he took taekwondo lessons. Lilian continued working at RBC, having succeeded in getting a job transfer to the Vancouver branch. She was shortly transferred to its Private Banking unit and earned two promotions and three awards.
In April 1994, Yeo obtained his Bachelor’s Degree with a double major in economics and political science as well as a certificate in liberal arts, and the couple returned to Singapore. Despite being diagnosed with “unexplained infertility” by doctors in Canada, Lilian gave birth to a son, Zachary, in September. They also collected the keys to their new HDB flat in December. “The changes came in rapid succession—all of a sudden we were coping with parenthood, flat ownership and I was looking for my first job.”
For the first eight years, Yeo found work with a string of reputable companies such as Arthur D. Little, Deloitte & Touche Consulting and Synovate but it was far from the smooth-sailing trajectory of a graduate from a top university. Due to various factors—including the closure of branch offices and the cessation of key accounts—Yeo grappled with multiple periods of joblessness. Lilian was by then a housewife, having made a commitment to God to be a stay-home mother to bring up her young son.
With no job stability, the Yeos found themselves financially strapped again. “We thought our time in Canada was bad enough, but when you have an infant, it is even more stressful,” Yeo notes. Yet through it all, God showed His faithfulness. One day, at 8 a.m., the young parents found themselves down to the last scoop of milk powder for their son. In desperation, they cried out to God, but did not tell anyone about it. At 11 a.m., Yeo’s sister-in-law’s helper appeared at their doorstep with a can of milk powder. Testifying of God’s timely provision, he says, “God had planted the thought in my sister-in-law’s heart in advance to deliver the milk powder to us.”
In his last job in 2001, he spent nine months praying, for he had felt the leading of God to start his own business, a dream he had harbored since he was a school-going boy. “Despite the financial lack, the passage from Joshua 1, which contains five times the command from God to be strong, courageous and not fear, kept jumping out at me.” With that, he incorporated his consulting firm on Mar. 1, 2002.
That was also the year the Yeos started attending City Harvest Church, being edified by a cassette tape sermon series by Kong Hee, the church’s senior pastor. Yeo recalls something Kong preached that struck him: “He said, ‘You may be poor today but with Jesus, you will not be poor forever.’ I remember telling my family, ‘Poor people also must worship God.’ So I forced my family to go to church.”
One day after service, without them telling anyone about their financial predicament, a church member pressed a S$50 note into Yeo’s hand and said, ‘God told me to give this for your dinner.’” It was little signs and miracles like that, along with the milk powder episode, that reassured the family of God’s presence, as there were no regular sales at all for the first few years.
During that time, Yeo quickly realized who his real friends were. There was only a handful of Christians who believed in them and supported them, and Chew Eng Han and his wife Janet, leaders from the Business Breakthrough Group at CHC, were two of them. “They were, and continue to be, our immediate shepherds and pastors. It was also a test for us, to see if we would get offended by those who despised and looked down on us. Initially, we were angry, of course. But we learned to look upon God and His grace. If men are not dependable, it’s all right. It’s a bonus if you have brothers and sisters around to support you once in a while, but if they don’t, you cannot blame them. They’re not Jehovah Jireh; it’s not their responsibility to provide for us.”
It was at a BBG prayer meeting that God revealed to Yeo that He would give him the key to governments. “’Billions of dollars will flow across economies and you will help to create jobs for the poor.’ That was the sword of the Spirit given to me,” he remembers. It was this word that kept him going when criticism was leveled against him by Christians and non-Christians alike, who reasoned that his business was a flop because he might be harboring “secret sin” in his life, and that he had no value because he had been out of the corporate world for so long. Refusing to wallow in self-pity, he answered recruitment advertisements for truck drivers, and even applied to McDonald’s, but was rejected because he was “over-qualified.”
“When a potential client wanted to meet up at a hotel coffee lounge, I would put on my suit and tie and carry my briefcase, looking poised and professional but with an empty wallet. It was during times like this that God forced me to walk by faith. I would pray and plead with God to not let me be put to shame. So many times, even when there’s no money, we have to do the right thing. Was it the right thing to appear before the client? Yes. And so we learned never to look at external conditions—to walk by faith and not by sight.” Holding on to Deut. 8:2 “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands,” Yeo says he learned to surrender to God and to “appreciate the landscape in the wilderness.”
Several other verses from the Bible were key in seeing him through those challenging times: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8) and “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40).
DISAPPOINTMENTS BECOME APPOINTMENTS
Breakthrough came in 2005, when an invitation came from the UK government to participate in a global tender against 22 other consultancies around the world, some of which were the heavyweight industry players he used to work for. “The god of probability told me it was futile to compete, but we sought God’s will about it until we felt joy and peace to proceed.” Yeo then submitted his bid, and against the odds, was awarded the one-year tender. That same year, he was invited to be Asia’s contributing editor for the fortnightly fDi Magazine (published under London’s The Financial Times), for which he still writes till today.
In 2008, he was hired as the Asian director for sales and marketing for an Indonesian pulp and paper company, which came with a five-figure salary. It was a post he held for three months before recession hit and he was let go. Looking back, he realized the assignment was God’s grace to tide him over the next few months, as the income from the UK government contract dried up in 2006. He also had to find work as a tutor, but despite sending out almost 400 job applications and distributing stacks and stacks of flyers, he did not receive a single response. Still, Yeo did not give up on his own company and continued to persevere.
“As Dr. A.R.Bernard and Pastor Ulf Ekman preached, there are seasons in our lives when it will be dry; you can shake the money tree as much as you want, but no money will drop. God will send ravens to feed you some bread and once in a while, some quail and manna, but there will be no abundance, as there are things that God can only teach you in the desert—overcoming your doubts and insecurities, trusting God and discerning between your own voice and that of God.
“Those who are called to marketplace ministry have certain gifts that are irrevocable, such as the spiritual gifts of discernment and word of knowledge, and natural gifts such as analysis and advisory skills. When we experience challenges in our careers, we should not immediately change vocation or industry because Jesus says to ‘cast our nets on the other side.’ He doesn’t tell us to change our nets—the tool by which we earn our living—so why should I throw my gifts away and take up a role that I have no passion for just to avoid financial strain? When we take the easy way out, we also miss out on God’s training.”
He further advises, “Like what God said to Moses, see what’s in your hand. Look for other opportunities to use your gifts and talents, and plough your land—think like a farmer. There are no short-cuts. The only caveat is not to overspend, because when you get into debt, the pressure from your banks and debtors will cause you to take up assignments out of desperation, and it may not be what God has in store for you.”
From 2007 to 2010, Yeo continued to labour hard, juggling between his School Of Theology classes, adjunct lecturing at Singapore Institute of Management, Master in Public Administration night classes at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore, spending time with his family and managing his company’s client projects, sometimes until 2 a.m. After his graduation, more breakthroughs followed.
In March 2010, Yeo was appointed partner consultant by International Enterprise of Singapore to advise Singaporean companies in their overseas market entry and expansion needs.
In Oct. 2011, he was similarly appointed partner advisor by Singapore Manufacturing Federation’s Enterprise Development Centre to advice Singaporean manufacturers and exporters.
In Nov. 2011, he was again appointed to be professional advisor to the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and is recognized by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and has recently started to serve several Japanese multinational companies. For this faithful “farmer,” the season of harvest has finally arrived.
Ten years ago, Yeo was unable to achieve his vision. “But having God’s rhema and Lilian’s support was enough for me. Like Noah, it will take many years before the vision will come to pass. So we have to be determined like Jacob, who wouldn’t let God go until He blessed him. When we go through hard times, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will comfort us, and His word will guide us—the logos for daily sustenance, and the rhema for long-term determination to continue doing things that do not show quick fruit.
“I thank God for sending me an all-weather wife, a mature son and supportive mentors. Unwavering faith in God, obedience to His word, serving Him despite external conditions and long-term perseverance through trials are keys to achieving breakthroughs, dreams and entering the Promised Land.”