Talk about ups and downs: Bill Bartmann grew up poor, was no stranger to booze or gangs, had a bad accident and was told he'd never walk again, got rich, went broke, and is now on the rise. And mobile. No wonder his memoir is titled Bouncing Back. Who better to offer advice on how to recover from failure than a guy who has recovered from many and is now standing taller than ever?

 

Bill Bartmann: The Comeback Kid

How do you succeed after failure? The founder and CEO of CFS2 Inc., a debt collection company based in Tulsa, tells Inc.'s Scott Gerber how it's done.

 

What's the secret to getting over failure?

You can't be in denial about whose fault it is. We entrepreneurs tend to think we're the smartest guys in the room. When a business fails, almost always it's our fault. Once you take the blame, you've already solved half the problem. When you learn failure isn't fatal, you become less afraid of it.

But it can't be that easy.

When your business fails and your life goes to hell in a handbasket, you think depressing things, from "Where did I go wrong?" to "How do I end this misery?" But you don't act on that. You say, "What do I do to get out of this hole?"

You bring a unique perspective to debt collection.

I was one of eight kids in a family that often had to choose between paying bills or buying groceries. I saw bill collectors being mean and nasty. Forty years later, when I had a chance to buy delinquent loans for pennies on the dollar, I thought, What if I treat the people who owe this money with dignity and respect? You collect more by using honey instead of vinegar.

You've been rich but also missed chances to get richer.

I've had people offer me a billion dollars more than once. We voted as a family and said no. Part of that is the optimism of the entrepreneur. If you think you're at the top, you'll sell. But if you think you're on the upslope, you won't.

Any regrets?

In hindsight, I look back and say, "What the hell was I thinking?" But we got to maintain total control. We chartered a fleet of 747s one year to fly 6,000 people to Disney World. What investor in my company would let me do that?

Gut instinct versus expertise. Which is more important?

Gut. A couple million years of evolution have taught us how to survive by making right decisions. We should trust that more.