Business for the kingdom – John Laing

Here’s another set of notes from New Word Alive. These are from Garry Williams’ talk on the twentieth century businessman, John Laing, who funded some much crucial gospel work.

John Laing died in 1978. Laing was a massive construction firm (which has now been broken up into smaller companies). The family business started in the nineteenth century, but it was Laing he oversaw its growth into a national company. By 1970 the company was 1,600 times bigger than it was seventy years before.

Laing joined the firm as an apprentice, competing to lay bricks faster than others. He was soon moved on. At aged 19 he supervised the building of the first power station in the north of England. The key to his success was his accurate costings. He knew how many bricks a man could lay in an hour. He had notebooks with many such statistics and this enabled him to provide accurate estimates so he could confidently compete with other tenders. World War One led to big growth for the firm with so much construction required. At first Laing enlisted, but was discharged because his building work was so important to the war effort. Realising bricklayers would be in short supply after the war, Laing developed a new form of construction using concrete. The firm grew throughout the twentieth century, building, for example, the first motorway in Britain.

What difference did it make that Laing was a Christian?

Things did not go well in his early career. One major project in Barrow involved laying sewage pipes having been told the soil was dry clay, but it was wet sand. The route was also changed. So the project went overtime and went to court.

During this crisis Laing threw himself on the Lord, saying he would make the Lord a partner in his work. At this point he wrote his ‘programme for life’. The first statement was that the centre of his life would be God as seen in Jesus Christ.

Laing could be tough on staff. But he was also generous. He knew them all by name. As the firm grew, he had lists of staff drawn up so he could keep up. He styled the company as a family. He once found a man looking tired and asked after him. The man told him he was looking after his children because his wife was ill. Laing disappeared and then returned to give the man two weeks off with full pay. The man discovered Laing had checked out the situation at home. So he was generous, but also careful and wise in his generosity. Laing began practices like sick pay, pension schemes and pay during poor weather lay-offs – all before they were law. When the firm issued shares, shares were given to employees.

Laing also kept his word. A client was told they would make a house with a garage. At the end there was no room for the garage so Laing ordered the workers to pull down the house to start again. Similarly, he ordered the approach road to a factory to be broken up and re-laid because it was a quarter of inch thinner than what they had said it would be.

Laing’s plan for life included a financial plan. He decided how much he would live on, how much to save (this was not saving for personal use, but for the security of the company) and how much to give away. As his income rose, the savings increased (though the interest was given away) and the giving increased. But once the earnings hit £500 his income remained the same.

Laing was a significant funder of IVF (now UCCF), London Bible College (now LTS) and Tyndale House. He would drop into the IVF offices for an hour each week and always his question was the same, ‘How many students have become Christians this week?’

Laing also used the business generously. He built Coventry Cathedral and then returned the profit. Many brethren churches were built at cost price. When the company built houses, they would built extra houses for missionaries.

When Laing bought a ‘radiogram’ he resisted also buying a new car because he felt one luxury a year is enough. When away on business he made sandwiches rather than pay for a meal or he would eat in the canteen with the workers.

Most of Laing’s giving was in secret. This we do know: he presided over a multi-million pound company, yet at his death his estate was valued at £371.

Laing also led Bible studies at church and led a Crusaders group, going on Crusaders camp into his seventies. He was also bold in his witness. When he was waiting to receive an honour from the Queen, for example, he asked the person standing next to him whether he was ready to be received in the court of heaven.

Points for reflections

Have you consciously resolved that God as seen in Christ should be at the centre of your life?

Do you care for staff in a distinctive way?

Do you keep your word in your work? Even if it costly?

Will you fix your eyes on Jesus? And so plan your giving, restrain your expenditure, and give joyfully?

Are you regularly involved in the local church?

Will you be a witness for the Lord Jesus?

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