How Bill Bartmann Lost It All and Got It Back
Bill Bartmann has known great success, but he is best remembered for losing some $3.5 billion in paper wealth and his status as one of the richest people in the U.S. That was 12 years ago, when his debt-collection company, Commercial Financial Services, collapsed in scandal. But Bartmann has been climbing back, using Bill Bartmann Enterprises first to tell his story through books and on the speaking circuit, then to teach other people how to make money collecting debt the way he did with CFS. And now, at 61, he has yet another big idea.
In October 2008, I was watching television with Kathy, my wife of 38 years. We were watching C-SPAN at the moment Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson stood up on a podium and asked Congress for $700 billion. After he said that, we just looked at each other with stupefied looks on our faces that said, "Is this really happening again?"
What Paulson was doing was running the same plays the government did back in the 1980s with the Resolution Trust Corporation after the failure of the savings and loan associations. We had built our company, Commercial Financial Services, at that time by buying up debts from the government on the cheap and then collecting on them. After we experienced that sense of déjà vu, I asked Kathy if she wanted to go do it all again. She said no, that was a lot of work and we're older now. That's when we decided to do it a different way. We would show other people how to do it.
We started CFS in 1985. It was phenomenally successful and was a four-time Inc. 500 company. We also had a lot of fun. I once leased 27 Boeing 747 jets to fly our 3,900 employees and their guests to Disney World for a weekend. Another time, I dressed up like Caesar and was carried on a throne into a Las Vegas casino, where I then wrestled Hulk Hogan in front of 6,000 people. In 1997, I was called the 25th richest person in the U.S. Then I lost it all.
CFS ceased to operate after an associate of mine was convicted of a crime. Everything came to light after someone sent an anonymous letter to the credit rating agencies. When I confronted my associate about it, he didn't deny it. He eventually went to prison for five years, but our reputation was ruined.
You can't imagine how hard it is as all of your friends start running away from you. The words of those people who accused me and made allegations have faded. But when I think back to the friends who weren't there -- that hurts more than strangers accusing me. It's easy to forgive strangers since they don't know any better.
It got worse when the federal government decided to indict me on 58 felony counts. That's a world-class problem. That's not like having a bad-hair day or losing a deal with a customer. When the government indicts you, it's calamity time.
Fortunately, Kathy and I mustered the courage and strength to deal with the adversity. I was innocent of the charges and refused to take the misdemeanor deal they were offering. I challenged them and went through a full-scale trial. Eventually, I was acquitted. I even received an apology from the government for prosecuting me, which rarely happens.
But I was bankrupt, and I wondered why all this bad stuff was happening to me. But what could I do? Blame someone else? Cry in my beer? It wasn't the first time I had lost everything. I needed to find a way to crawl out from the hole I was in, to come back one more time. I have always gotten back up after someone knocks me down. I grew up in a rough neighborhood and pulled myself up time and time again. I'm not sure why. Maybe I'm still trying to prove something to my third-grade teacher.
I took a good look at my personal inventory by asking questions like, Who am I? What do I know? What am I good at? What am I not good at? From that, I figured out I had a great story to tell about overcoming adversity and challenges. I decided what I should be doing is teaching my story so that when other people suffer their own calamities, my experiences might encourage them. So, I wrote a book and started traveling on a speakers' tour with people like Steve Forbes and Colin Powell. It was called the Get Motivated! tour. And so I stood onstage in front of 50,000 people and told my story.
I got to tell about what it was like to go broke, something most people don't like to admit. But I would tell them with a smile that I went from the 25th richest person in America to the 25th brokest person. I let them see that you can survive anything. It is every bit as bad for people suffering from losing jobs and their homes as it was for me to lose $3.5 billion. My job was to give them hope and inspiration that they could overcome their challenges.
But then there was Paulson on C-SPAN. Lo and behold, I recognized the same economic gaps that existed in the 1980s were back. I thought, Wow, this is too coincidental. There must be a purpose to this. At 59 years of age, I didn't want to build another billion-dollar company. But I could teach other people how to do what we did at CFS, to buy people's debts for nickels on the dollar and then treat them with dignity and respect. People want to pay their debts, but not everyone has to for you to make money. Now, we teach people how to create their own businesses during these tough economic times, which helps them make money and overcome adversity at the same time.
Our program is like going to school. We offer a two-day seminar in Palm Springs that introduces the topic and the industry. We also offer a five-day program where I'm the instructor. When people pay you money, they want to learn from you, not a surrogate or substitute. We have had more than 2,000 people go through the program.
As we saw how well our students were doing, Kathy and I looked at each other again. And this time, we said, "This is too good an opportunity to pass up. We need to do this." So, we launched a new company on July 1, 2010, called CFS II. We hired eight former CFS employees to get started and then started talks with hedge funds on raising $400 million, which we will use to build a new debt portfolio.
We are about to see history repeat itself. I see a great future coming out of this bad economy. I really feel bad for all the people on the wrong side of the coin. But if we help those people come out of it and we get paid, that's a great thing.
Going broke has helped me by providing me with opportunities to succeed. What separates successful people from those who aren't is the way you deal with problems. And, as an entrepreneur, there will inevitably be problems. It's the nature of the beast. I do understand that there could be another challenge in front of me, something I accept and embrace. But I do work hard every day to make sure it doesn't happen. I want my two daughters, who both work in the business, to succeed me and have a thriving business to manage in their lifetimes. You have to be a masochist not to hope for a happy ending this time.
Darren Dahl is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, North Carolina.