Bill Bartmann is Tulsa's resident Horatio Alger story. At age 63, he's looking back at a unique life.
Now, Bartmann is back on top again. A year ago, he opened CFS II, 13 years after CFS I went bankrupt and then underwent what he calls "a very ugly ending" in 1999.
In an exclusive interview with UTW from his sixth floor office suite in the CityPlex Towers, Bartmann told us how he survived the worst of times and offers his best advice for those struggling in today's uncertain economy.
"I have led this weird, eclectic life," he said. It's had "mountains, valleys, deserts, forests. You know, it's just like Forrest Gump, when you watch the movie."
Son of a Janitor and Housecleaner
"I think I'm kind of a collection of weird moments."
Bartmann has gained and lost billions. In his motivational speeches, he tells listeners he did a stint in a homeless shelter. For two years, he hopped from city to city with a traveling carnival. His parents were a janitor and housecleaner, reads the biography from his latest book, Out of Control: Cases of Debt-Collection Abuse in American and What We Can Do About It.
He put himself through law school by working nights at a slaughterhouse. From a youth spent in poverty and on welfare, Bartmann pulled up his proverbial bootstraps to become a billionaire and 25th wealthiest person in the world.
Bartmann opened Tulsa-based Commercial Financial Systems, or CFS I, in the late 1980s after stumbling into the debt collection business. The company was a wild success, which he said was the culmination of years of hard work by him and his staff.
And in 1999, it all came crashing down. CFS I shuttered its doors, thousands of employees were out of a job and Bartmann was dealt a massive blow, to the tune of $3.5 billion, according to his estimate.
A Teachable Moment
Now, Bartmann wants to offer some advice on how he was able to endure dark days, the valleys between great gigs and how he's stayed flexible in the job market.
"Every single person has moments where they're in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time or even on the wrong sidewalk at the wrong time," Bartmann said.
"Almost every one of us has had these moments where we go, 'Oh crap.' Then, it's, how do we deal with it? How do we react to this stuff?"
Bartmann considers himself well-versed on failure. "How you deal with [the bad] is how you're defined ... I guess I'm a lesson on failure, on how to fail well," he laughed.
So what can we learn from Bartmann's rags to riches (and back again) story? He's got a few ideas.
"In 2005, when I was flat broke and lying on my back one more time, and that's happened to me a number of times in my life, well, that's probably where some people in this town and the world are for the first time," Bartmann said.
"It doesn't matter that the scope of [my failure] is different from theirs, but we've both been knocked down. How did I deal with that? What caused me to pick myself up? And I clearly have picked myself up," he said.
Nobody wants another Horatio Alger story, he said. People need direction.
Bartmann's first tip is, "When you get knocked down, you have look to see what it is you have left," he said.
"I didn't think I had anything left. Because my business was gone, my reputation was gone, my friends were gone. It was pretty lonely," Bartmann said.
He had to figure out how to make a living again, after CFS I crashed. Bartmann was acquitted of wrongdoing in 2003, while CFS I co-founder, Jay Jones, was convicted of fraud and was sent to prison.
So Bartmann took stock of his life. He asked himself, "How do I make a living? How do I pay my bills? How do I feed my family? Forget about all this rich guy stuff," he said. "How do I pay next month's mortgage and car payment?"
He found he had a story, and a pretty interesting one at that. "So I took that and I started giving speeches," Bartmann said. "I'd never given a speech in my life. I would just as soon have gotten hemorrhoid surgery as give a speech."
But he did it anyway because as Bartmann figured it, he could make a living from this great story if he could harness the power of the motivational speech. Bartmann scheduled a 22-city tour -- in Canada, a training ground far from his hometown.
"I did the thing I hated to do, that I was the most afraid of, that I thought I was terrible at. And quite frankly, when I started, I was," he said.
To Canada and Beyond
"The first time I gave a speech, it was terrible. It was a terrible speech and it was delivered badly," Bartmann laughed. "It was a terrible, humiliating experience."
But Bartmann didn't quit. By his 22nd and final speaking event in Canada, he'd developed a solid speech. "But that meant I had 21 embarrassing, perspiration-filled events before I got to a place where I could be a speaker," he said.
He recommended that everyone have a backup plan, even if your career or job is going well. "The truth is there's so much more you can do, but it requires a little bit of walking in fear, a little training or school or in my case, it was real simple. I went to Canada," he laughed.
With CFS I behind him, Bartmann resurrected himself as a world-class speaker, talking alongside notables like Colin Powell, Michael Jordan and Rudy Giuliani. "Not bad for a guy who had to learn how to give a speech in Canada and once gave a speech to eight kids at Bixby High School," he laughed.
But the lesson isn't about public speaking or even about Bartmann. "You've got to be willing to do something uncomfortable. You've got to wade out there in the middle and get through it," he said.
Sell What They're Buyin'
Bartmann's second piece of advice for succeeding during hard times is to stay flexible in the job market. "When they're not buying what you're selling, you need to sell something else," he said.
If you're unemployed and having trouble finding a new job, maybe it's time to find a different career path. "When they don't want what it is you have, you have to find a way to give them what they want," Bartmann said.
"I think, mostly, people need to get into their heads that it's no longer about you. It's not about what you trained for, what you're good at," he said.
Bartmann moved on from CFS I and became a successful public speaker, but he said, "Forget what I did, it's the principle of what I did."
Check out the classifieds, find something you're interested in, enroll in that master's degree program you've always wanted to complete. "I'm not pitching anything," Bartmann said, "Just turn that little toggle switch in your head" to start looking at other options.
Bartmann was rewarded for wading out into unknown waters. His new business earned him millions and a spot back on top. But that wasn't enough. He decided he'd try his hand at writing books, too.
"I don't know anything about writing a book," he said. "And I said to myself, 'You're absolutely ignorant of the process.' That means I better go try."
He's now written four books. The first, Billionaire: Secrets to Success, became an Amazon.com number one bestseller.
His latest is Out of Control, a thin $9.95 hardcover, and all proceeds from book sales are being donated to the National Consumer Law Center. His fourth book is an autobiography that hasn't hit shelves yet.
"It Gets Weirder"
After returning to millionaire status with a successful motivational speaking and book business, he decided to try his hand at seminars, too. He wanted to teach people how to make money in a bad economy, he said.
But he didn't know how. After receiving what he called "a little bar napkin advice" from his role model, Tulsa icon Jim Stovall, he threw himself into the business of seminars.
As Bartmann said, "It gets weirder." Not only did his motivation speaking and book businesses take off, but the seminars succeeded, too. And this winning trifecta -- speaking engagements, books and seminars -- is what ultimately brought Bartmann back around to CFS again.
He and his wife Kathy launched CFS II last July in the same place where CFS I was housed. The rapidly-expanding company has a 10-year lease on the fifth and sixth floors of the CityPlex Towers, and employs more than 150 employees. About 80 percent of CFS II's employees worked for CFS I.
"These were people who were with us last time and watched it come to an ugly ending," Bartmann said. "These weren't unemployed people ... I've got a lot of crap hanging on the walls, I've won some awards, but [getting his employees back] is greater than all of that."
In one year, Bartmann said, CFS II has grown to more than 160 employees in one year, while it took CFS I eight years to accomplish the same feat.
Since the downturn in the economy, the amount of delinquent debt available for purchase has increased drastically, from $10 billion per year to more than $100 billion per year according to Bartmann.
He compared starting CFS II to Christopher Columbus's second voyage. "We know where we're going, but the size of the ocean hasn't changed, the boat hasn't changed. We've changed, so this time around we're able to go a lot faster," he said.
"We've seen this movie before," Bartmann said, "Let's just go do it."
This past week, Bill Bartmann Enterprises, the parent company of CFS II, was again named to the Inc. 500/5000 list, alongside Microsoft, Oracle, Timberland and others.
In 2010, Bartmann's company was named the 234th fastest-growing company.
Stop These Criminals
Bartmann and his devoted team take pride in doing debt-collection right. In Out of Control, he wrote that his employees have "successfully settled debt for more than 4.5 million Americans. They accomplished it not by employing a 'boiler room' of commissioned, strong-arm debt collectors, but by creating a family-friendly staff of salaried people who would help customers to solve their financial problems."
Bartmann is proud that his company has never sued a single debtor. They've also never had a single Attorney General or Federal Trade Commission complaint, he said.
Being a good guy isn't enough for him. He wants other debt-collection companies to cut the strong-arm tactics and do the same. Fortune magazine has said Bartmann "is a populist capitalist. He put a seedy inefficient industry on the road to respectability."
"And that's what we're doing," Bartmann said. "I'm championing law changes in all 50 states to be more aggressive against bill collectors."
In March, he unveiled the Bartmann Bill for Ethical Debt Collection, which included 10 jumping-off points for new regulation. He wants to make it more difficult for debt-collection companies to abuse people.
"We want to have enough regulation out there so that [collection companies] will have to do it the right way," Bartmann said.
These 10 points include: Grant Attorney General power to prosecute violations; require licensing of collection agencies; require licensing of agents; ban collection on "zombie" debt; provide more disclosure to consumer; require response to consumer request for verification; require verification before litigation; require proof of personal service before litigation; require debt sellers to transfer consumer's information; and authorize consumers to record collection calls.
"I travel around the country, begging, pleading and persuading congressmen and Attorneys General to make laws harder on debt collectors," he said.
So why is a man who's banking on collecting debts stumping for harsher laws against his own industry? "I told you I was weird," Bartmann laughed.
"There's a right way to collect bills," he said. "If they owe a debt, they ought to pay it. But they can't. If they no longer have the same amount of revenue coming in, don't expect them to pay as much.
"We just have to be patient, work with people within their budget when their budget has shrunk," he said.
"I'm on a mission to change the collection industry in America, starting here in Tulsa, Oklahoma," Bartmann said. So far, he's met with Congressman Barney Frank and CFPB Special Advisor Elizabeth Warren.
Federal Trade Commission data indicates that 140,036 customer debt-collection complaints were filed in 2010, a 17 percent increase over 2009 numbers.
Last year, Governor Mary Fallin signed SB398 into law. The new bill prohibits a debt collector from threatening to sue someone over a bill that's passed the statute of limitations. For credit cards, the statute of limitations is five years.
Bartmann helped State Senator Gary Stainslawski and others draft the language.
Bartmann has also launched a campaign called Stop These Criminals, a nationwide movement to draw attention to debt collection abuses and the need for regulatory changes in the industry. Sign the petition online at www.stopthesecriminals.com.
There's no question Bartmann is a man who's gambled big in life, pushed all his chips to the center of the table, who's lost big and won even bigger. But, he said, he thinks the lessons he's learned, the ones tucked deep into the ups and downs of his rollercoaster ride life, are more important than the man himself.
Bartmann is confident that "if a person is flexible and if a person is willing to throw their baggage off" they can survive a depressing economy. "This country is so cool," he said. "We get so many opportunities ... To do whatever we want. It's up to you."
So, he said, by taking stock of personal inventory, by taking responsibility and by staying flexible in the job market, you can make your way through these tough economic times. "Then you start growing, and to me that's the most exciting part," said Bartmann, who thrives on change.
"It can be so good. It can be so much fun," Bartmann said, with a signature gleam in his eye. "Like a gambler pushing their money into the pot, I've put my money all in."
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