How successful leaders keep bouncing back

Peter Drucker

CEO and Nobel prize winner Bill Bartmann is a living legend who gives new meaning to achieving success as well as bouncing back after meeting the dragons in life - and Bartmann’ s dragons were bigger than most.

I met Bill because he was carried in a listing of the richest men in the U.S. and an entire article was written about him in Forbes magazine. He was a billionaire and his wealth ranking was right ahead of Ross Perot’s. I was so impressed with what he had accomplished that I called and asked him for an interview for a book that I was working on.

Tough Times

Bartmann had seen tough times in his life. Really tough times. He dropped out of high school and left his impoverished home when he was 14. He became a homeless gang member, eating out of dumpsters. Later he got a terrific job . . . working at a pig slaughterhouse.

He managed to become an alcoholic at age 17 and became a paraplegic after falling down stairs drunk. Paralyzed, he was told that he would never walk again. Against his doctor's wishes, Bartmann began a daily regimen of physical activity until he eventually regained the use of his legs. He proudly walked out of the hospital totally recovered.

Someone told him about a high school equivalency test which he took and passed. So, he got into college. Successfully completing college, he went on to law school and passed the bar.

Into the Money and Out Again

He hung out his shingle and made enough in five years as a lawyer to start a business manufacturing pipes for oil rigs. Amazingly, the once homeless gang member was pulling in $1,000,000 a month.

But then the oil cartel collapsed and the call for pipes for oil rigs disappeared. In one month, his sales dropped from $1,000,000 a month to zero. The company closed its doors, and he found himself broke, owing the bank $1,000,000, and trying to support a wife and two daughters with no income. Bartmann wasn’t worth a nickel.

Bartmann Becomes a Billionaire

Looking for a way to repay his $1,000,000 debt Bartmann saw an advertisement where the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was auctioning off delinquent loans. In other words, they were looking for some poor soul to buy loans that had already gone bad.

Only a heroic leader like Bartmann who expected positive results would even think of doing such a thing, especially since Bill found his own portfolio among those delinquent loans that were being sold! So Bill Bartmann went to his bank to which he already owed $ 1,000,000 and asked for another $13,000. In an understatement, Bartmann told me, "That was a tough sell." Bill Bartmann, however, had a secret weapon. He knew how to visualize his ideas into reality and he convinced the bank to make the loan.

He made $64,000 from that initial $13,000. With increased confidence, he returned to the bank and asked for another $100,000 to buy more bad loans. He promised to take out only $20,000 from the money he collected, and to use the rest toward paying off his loan. Impressed with Bartmann’s success and positive expectations, the bank president agreed. Several months later, Bartmann returned with over $200,000 and asked for more money to purchase more bad debt. As his firm grew he hired others and imbued them with his philosophy of positive expectancy as well. He trained his staff. Many became as successful at collecting bad debts as Bartmann himself had been.

Bill Bartmann, Billionaire

Twelve years later his company, Commercial Financial Services, or CFS, had 3900 employees. His collection philosophy was 180 degrees out of threatening people or breaking their legs. He told his employees that these debtors weren’t deadbeats or derelicts . . . they were CFS customers. That was certainly a new concept in the collection business. If they couldn’t pay everything right away, he’d ask them to pay what they could.

He wasn’t just successful - he had bounced back from million dollar debt to billion dollar success. And he did things that no other company did.

When I interviewed Bartmann for my book he had just returned after spending a weekend with his employees and their spouses in Las Vegas. He had successfully completed a logistical move of some 6000 people from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Las Vegas and returned, with the largest collection corporation in the world shut down in the interim.

It was comparable to West Point and Annapolis who played their annual Army-Navy game in Pasadena, California’s Rose Bowl in 1983 and moved the Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen of about the same number in the same fashion. One of the main attractions for CFS members was to watch Bartmann and his Director of Credit wrestling. "Neither of us were very good," Bartmann claimed. He also wrestled Hulk Hogan at the Thomas & Mack Center, who must have been tougher competition since he out-weighed Bill by at least 100 pounds.

On another vacation, Bartmann leased 27 Boeing 747 Jumbo Jets to fly thousands of employees to Disney World. All of this was typical of what this heroic leader did to take care of his people. Families were never neglected. CFS offered free on-site daycare that grew to 500 children, as well as free healthcare and a 250% company match in its 401(k) program. No wonder BusinessWeek magazine called CFS "One of the top 10 family-oriented businesses in America" and Working Mother Magazine named it "One of the top 100 best companies for working mothers."

But all this came to an end as tragedy struck again. Someone in his organization had conducted highly questionable financial transactions. In a flash, he lost everything. After several years of legal struggles he was judged innocent of all wrongdoing, but a bankruptcy court laid off all of his nearly 4000 employees. That was in 1999.

Bouncing Back Again

Only a couple years later we met in Los Angeles and had lunch. He had already begun the road back and had written a book, Bailout Riches, which became a #1 world-wide bestseller on Amazon, and also made it to the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and BusinessWeek bestseller lists. He asked me to serve on one of his nonprofit boards which investigated claims of corporate wrongdoing on behalf of whistleblowers who were afraid to act. The need became obvious because several of his former employees said that they were aware of what was going on but that they were afraid to tell him for fear of retribution by the guilty party.

Where We’re Up to Now

Only a couple of weeks ago I was watching television and one of the major networks had a special about my friend Bill Bartmann. He had started what they called the most unusual collection agency in the world. It was called CFS2. It does more than the old CFS in treating debtors as customers. CFS2 offers a unique array of free services to those they are collecting from, including: employment assistance, credit specialists who negotiate reductions of other personal debt, resume writing, medical discounts and help accessing government assistance. An agent of CFS2 can get in trouble with Bartmann not by failing to collect debts but by failing to help debtors.

Bill Bartmann is doing things in his new company that no competitor is doing. I won’t spoil things by telling you everything, but I will tell you that he recently wrote a book, Bouncing Back available in hardcover as well in ebook format that I am happy to recommend. I am greatly honored that Bill Bartmann is also now the newest member of my Board of Advisors of the startup graduate school of which I am president, the California Institute of Advanced Management or CIAM.