Henry David Thoreau said, If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common life. He will pass an invisible boundary. New,
universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and
within him. He will live with the license of a higher order of beings.
This is what Bill Bartmann teaches and what he has lived in his life. All of us love
a ‘rags to riches’ story, an underdog, against all odds, comeback, a survivor.
Bill is all of these. He has been a millionaire three times, been bankrupt twice
and a billionaire once.
Bill is the ultimate expression of the underdog survivor achiever who overcame
personal circumstances and tragedy to rise to the top of corporate America.
Homeless at age 14, a member of a street gang and a high school dropout, he took
control of his life by taking the high-school equivalency exam and putting
himself through college and then through law school.
Today, his ups and downs have helped him understand the business world from the
ground up, as few others do. Bill may be the only high-school dropout in history
who has, one, created novel, financial instruments that are still being used on
Wall Street; two, has had the Harvard Business School use his story as a case
study; three, been included in the Forbes magazine list of the 400 wealthiest
Americans; and four, been named as one of the top 100 entrepreneurs of the last
100 years by the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, www.AllBusiness.com
and Apple Computer.
Bill has transformed his life from a failure to a success story and has done so for
countless other people. We are thrilled to have him share his insights and
wisdom with us.
Note: Because of technical difficulties with this recorded call, the
transcript will pick up the interview a few minutes into it.
They want to go, and when I have applied that principle in any business, whether
it be the practice of law, the debt-collection business, the personal-finance
business, or now the business I’m in-the speaking, training, teaching
business-every time I go back to my passion, every time I go to the one thing
that I really think I’m truly all about, that’s when I do so much better than
all those other times when I’m trying to do things for money.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Yes. I so understand that. Now I know you mentioned in your
bio section, that you started off in a street gang and then you put yourself
through school, and you’ve gone through a lot of changes. Would you tell us the
story of how you got started, how your career got started, and what were your
passions as you got through the various changes to your life? Let me hear the
BILL BARTMANN: Okay. I know we don’t have all night because that’s a long
story, so I’ll try to give you the Reader’s Digest version. The essence
of it is growing up in poverty, living on welfare, literally living on the
street when I was 14 years old and running away from home.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Where did you grow up, Bill, if I could ask?
BILL BARTMANN: Pardon me?
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Where did you grow up?
BILL BARTMANN: I grew up in Dubuque, Iowa.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Dubuque, Iowa.
BILL BARTMANN: Actually, when somebody mentioned that they were from
Michigan, you mentioned you were from Ann Arbor. One summer, actually part of
the summer and part of the winter, we lived in Iron Mountain, Michigan. That’s
about as cold a place as you can get in America, I think, at least we thought it
was. In any event, I grew up on the street and learned a lot of skills, and
learned a lot of things about people.
As I move forward, something really fortunate happened in my life. I met my wife, Kathy. Kathy and I have now been married for 33 years this August, and next month we celebrate number 34. She is absolutely, beyond doubt, the reason I am, and you can fill in the rest of that sentence because it doesn’t matter what it is you think I am, she is the reason.
Without her, without her involvement, without her being there for me through thick and
thin-because you said it well, Chris-I’ve been a millionaire three times, I’ve
been bankrupt twice, and I’ve been a billionaire once, and that is a roller
CHRIS ATTWOOD: That is a roller coaster.
BILL BARTMANN: That’s a roller coaster that most people cannot comprehend
and, quite frankly, wouldn’t want to have to comprehend. It’s one thing for the
principal, the main character in the movie, to go through all of that, but how
would you like to have been that guy’s spouse? Imagine how difficult it had to
be for that person, and yet this woman was with me every single day through some
wonderful days and, quite frankly, through some very, very ugly days. My real
success is mostly attributable to Kathy. She is just a wonderful, neat lady.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Bill, in our
book, in the Passion Test, one of the ways we talk about passion is
passion being those things that are most important to you in your life, the
things you care most about, the things you love most, and it sounds to me like
Kathy has been, your partner has been, one of your core passions and, in fact,
has been one of the reasons that you have been able to pursue the other
passions. Is that true?
Clearly, she is. She is both my positive motivator and a negative motivator all
wrapped up in one. She gives me reasons to do things on a very positive note.
Then there are times when I have to go do it to show her that she was wrong, and
I don’t mean that in a hateful way or negative way, but just in a healthy way.
Sometimes she prods me by telling me, Are you sure you can do that? As soon as
she says that it’s like throwing down the gauntlet, it’s like slapping me with a
glove and saying, Aha! Now I have to go prove I can do that. I know what she’s
doing. She knows that motivates me.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: How did you get your start? You met Kathy, and then how did you make it to millionaire
status the first time? How did that happen?
Let me run you through it quickly. When Cathy and I met, she talked me into
getting a GED. I didn’t believe I could, but she did believe in me and literally
convinced me that I should go do that. With that, I got into college on
probation, stayed on probation for four years, and graduated on probation. I got
into law school by the skin of my teeth, flunked out, got back in a year later,
and graduated on probation.
Academics were never my strong suit. I spent
five-and-a-half years in high school without graduating, so school was not my
strong suit at all, but when I started practicing law I went back to the thing
we first talked about in terms of passion. I opened up a law office and started
doing what they then referred to as ‘poor people law.’ I was representing the
people who couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer.
I don’t want to say I was good at it, because that
sounds egotistical or immodest, but I did it with a passion. I really did do it
with a passion because I believed in them. I believed that they had the right
to have somebody champion their cause, and I won’t say this pejoratively to the
legal-aid societies or some of these other social groups that are wanting to
help poor people, because I’m sure they want to help.
Mostly they aren’t getting the best and brightest to do that kind of thing. Mostly
these are people who have a good heart but maybe don’t have all of the
qualifications. Again, I’m not trying to put myself up by putting anybody else
down, but I went into that role thinking that I was going to make a difference.
I was just going to do something that nobody else had ever done.
I was going to go and try to help a large chunk of humanity and, quite frankly, I think that I accomplished that during the years that I practiced. I only practiced law for five years, and in that five, I had all that I needed. I really wanted to go become an entrepreneur. With that, I set out to start making money, and I learned how to do that pretty well.
I did very well in the real estate business, and became a millionaire by the time I
was 30. Now back in those days, that wasn’t hard. That was the mid-70s, so
anybody who bought a piece of dirt became pretty rich, pretty quickly. It’s kind
of like being a homeowner in California. You don’t have to be real smart if
you’re in the right place.
I’m not saying that’s bad, but I’m not trying to give myself a lot of credit by saying
that I’m so smart. I wasn’t; I was just in the right place at the right time.
Then I went into the oil and gas business in Oklahoma, and did really well.
Eventually, the price of oil went from $40 a barrel to $14 a barrel. I don’t
care how smart you think you are, that’s the end of that parade.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Then you created a new business, I know, and as we mentioned in the introduction, you
became what Forbes called one of the richest people in the world.
BILL BARTMANN: It’s a great story, Chris.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: How did that transition happen?
BILL BARTMANN: It’s kind of interesting. I had gone broke in the
oil-and-gas business, and when you go broke you get all these bill collectors
calling you up and yelling and screaming and threatening you because that’s the
way the industry was geared. Kathy and I literally were broke, we didn’t have
any money. We were living off of one $10,000-limit credit card, and we had to
live off of that for a whole year with feeding both she and me and our two
Obviously, that didn’t go very far. These people would call us up and yell and
scream and threaten us to try to induce us to pay, but we didn’t have any money
with which to pay. We’d hang up the phone and almost invariably look at each
other and say, You know, even if I had money I wouldn’t pay that jerk, because
of the way he had treated us. It kind of was one of those epiphany moments where
that light bulb goes on and where you think, Why can’t they just treat you with
dignity and respect?
Why can’t they be decent to you? Why can’t they treat you like a human being? It was almost said in a rhetorical sense because there is no answer. Then, lo and behold, opportunity showed up where there was a chance to go buy some bad loans
that the federal government was selling because they were shutting down banks
during the mid-80s, and they had more loans than they knew what to do, so they
began selling them.
Fortuitively, the very first time they decided to sell some was in Tulsa,
Oklahoma, which is where I happened to be, 40 miles away at that point. I went
back to the bank that I owed $1 million dollars to from the oil-and-gas bust
that I had just gone through, and borrowed $13,000 and literally started a
company from our kitchen table based entirely on one premise.
The premise was that most people who owed money really were decent people, and they wanted to pay but mostly they couldn’t pay. Mostly they were where they were
financially because something bad had happened in their life. They had lost
their job, they had had a physical calamity, maybe they just went through a
divorce. God only knows what might have transpired in their life, but good
people sometimes end up in a bad position.
We started a debt-collection company with the theory that people were good, and that if you treated them with dignity and respect-and if they had money; they can’t pay if they don’t have any, but if they had any money at all-they would probably pay us first, as compared to the other people who they owed money to.
That silly, little, Pollyanna-ish idea that people can scoff at took us from a
$13,000 loan on a kitchen table to growing it up to 3,900 people.
Now one of the people who identified herself on the call early, Janelle from Tulsa, is
one of my former employees. That’s 10 years ago. The good news is that I
remember her name, too, because I had 3,900.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: It’s an
amazing story. What I hear is that you mentioned earlier that your passion was
to be able to help people achieve their goals, to be able to help them to
make-and I’m not sure you said it exactly this way-changes in their lives,
positive changes in their lives. Isn’t that right?
Exactly. That’s what this debt-collection company did. We ended up with
four-and-a-half-million customers. I call them customers, not deadbeats or
derelicts or pond scum. No, we treated them with dignity and respect, and we
referred to them with a title that would denote dignity and respect. We want to
believe, and I think it’s true, generally, although I’m sure there will be some
anecdotal exceptions to the contrary, that we made their lives better.
We still expected to collect from them, we still asked them for the money, we still
wanted them to pay us, and we still did all the economic side of the business
that you would have to do, but we did it nicely. We did it with a smile and
CHRIS ATTWOOD: This was the
other thing that I heard, Bill, as you were speaking. What was unique about your
approach was that it sounds like you really came from the perspective of, How
can we help these people? You started with the assumption that these people
were good people, as opposed to the opposite assumption. I don’t want to do it
right now, but I know you talk in your book and in your materials a lot about
the role of beliefs.
Maybe we could come back to that a little bit later in the interview, but what I hear is that you, through your business, convey to your customers that you really believe that they would and had a desire to pay, and that you were there to help them do what they wanted to do. Is that true?
BILL BARTMANN: It’s exactly right. Chris, that’s why we have such a kindred
spirit in this thing. I come from one place and you come from another, at least
on its face. If people saw the two of us and tried to look at our respective
backgrounds, they would say, Those guys are really different from each other.
We might be cosmetically, but from the interior, we are exactly the same because we
know-we don’t believe, we know-that if you follow your passion, if you find the
thing that you’re really good at, if you find the thing that you really believe,
if you find the thing that turns you on, that wakes you up in the morning, that
makes you smile, if you find that thing and go do it, then good and wonderful
things can happen.
Mostly in America, and I have a lot of friends on the line from Canada tonight, too, so
I’ll say in Canada, too, mostly that isn’t what they teach us in school. Mostly
in school they teach us to go make money. They tell us, Go do that which you
can make a lot of money at even if it’s a job you hate, even if it’s an
enterprise you don’t care about.
You say, I can go be a realtor or I can go do this, and I can make a lot of money, but
you really don’t want to be one of those. It really isn’t your passion. I tell
people to forget the money side just for a second-and trust me, it’s going to
come right back. Instead just focus on your passion. What do you really want to
do? What’s really important to you? What do you want to be when you grow up?
What difference do you want to make in this world?
Go answer those questions and find out what job that is, and then let’s figure out how to go make money doing it. There’s nothing wrong with making money as long as you’re truly following your own passion.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: It is one of
the keys. One of the questions that we’re asked most often is, Now that I’m
clear about my passions, how do I go about monetizing them? One of the things
that both you and I know, Bill, and you know it perhaps even better than I, is
that even when you’re following your passions there are sometimes major
obstacles and challenges that arise in your way.
One of the things that many of our listeners often ask is, How do you get through those rough times? I know no better person to ask than you, because you’ve been through some of the roughest times most people could imagine, and you’ve come back to tell about it. Will you tell us what happened to you and how you managed to make it through some of those rough times?
BILL BARTMANN: I’m not sure where the question is going. Do you really want
the story or do you want me to tell you my theory on how you overcome?
CHRIS ATTWOOD: I want you to
tell the story, and then I hope you’d share with us some of the things you
learned from it.
BILL BARTMANN: Okay, I didn’t want to bore you and I didn’t want to take
you down a path that you didn’t want me to go. This is your audience, and I want
to respectful of you and them. The story is a great one. You heard the first
part of it and the first part is really wonderful, rags to riches. Isn’t that
the great success story of all time, the phoenix rising from the ashes?
born into poverty on the wrong side of the railroad tracks with all those things
against him rising up and creating a great and wonderful company with 3,900
wonderful people. You get all these accolades and you become a billionaire.
You’re the 25th wealthiest person in America, and you’re on the
Forbes 400 list. Everybody is fawning all over you. You’re on the cover of
national magazines, and it’s like you can almost do no wrong. They’ve got you on
this pillar, not just a tower.
you on a big old pillar, and now everybody’s kind of throwing pompoms at your
feet. I’m not exaggerating too much, Chris, because it’s kind of like that in
this world. When you get really successful, people almost treat you in a surreal
kind of way. It’s almost bizarre. Then, the bad thing happened. My business
partner, my friend, the fellow who had been my best friend for 20 years of my
life, a fellow by the name of Jay Jones, committed what then US Attorney General
John Ashcroft called the fifth-largest corporate crime in America.
Jones had done, essentially, some insider trading, is the short version. With
that, Mr. Jones pled guilty, went to jail, and was ordered to pay a $1 billion
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Wow. Ouch.
BILL BARTMANN: That wasn’t the end of it. It gets worse, because even
though we were a privately-held company, we had done a lot of transactions on
Wall Street, billions-literally billions with a ‘b’-of dollars worth of
transactions on Wall Street. When this thing that Mr. Jones had done came to
light, Wall Street did what they were supposed to do. They panicked.
say that in a bad way. They just said, Time out. There’s something rotten in
Denmark and we don’t know how rotten it really is, so let’s just close the door
to the vault. They did. They closed the door to the vault, and when they did
that, literally 3,900 hard-working, good, loyal, dedicated employees lost their
jobs. I lost nine-and-a-half billion dollars, but I’m not crying in my beer. I’m
a big boy and I’ll get over it. The real tragedy wasn’t me. The real tragedy was
the 3,900 people. We had a great company, Chris. We did things that other people
just thought were really stupid. We had free onsite daycare, we had free
healthcare, we had a 250% 401 K match program.
all of our employees on vacation with us every year. We didn’t just give them a
vacation; we also took them on vacation. One year we took 6,000 people to Disney
World. We rented twenty-seven 747s. This was not your average, plain-vanilla job
down the street where you said, Gee, the hamburger stand went out of business
and somebody lost their job. Big deal. That is a tragedy. This was a greater
tragedy. People didn’t just lose a job, they lost their hope. They lost a way of
life. In some cases, some of those people had been with me for 13 years, and
they had worked their rump off to get us up and to be successful.
all very successful. They are the real tragedy of this thing. The company
literally went into a spiral, it went into bankruptcy, and was ultimately
liquidated. Now just when you think, Boy, that’s bad,. no, it gets worse.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: It just occurs
to me, Bill, that there are a couple of things that I hear going on. One was
that you had the personal tragedies, several personal tragedies in your own
life. One, to discover that the man who had been your best friend had done
something that was illegal and had to be indicted for that. Then, to watch the
company that you had built from scratch collapse.
see the employees who you obviously had a close relationship with, since you
were going on vacation with them, lose all of their jobs. Along with that, to
see your entire wealth and status and all of the accolades that you received, to
see all of that disappear in a very short amount of time. It must have been
absolutely devastating for you and your wife.
BILL BARTMANN: It was, honestly. It was very hard for all of us, for my
wife and my daughters. That’s why I give them more credit than I give me,
because at least I was in the arena. I got to wrestle around in the dirt and the
mud and the blood and the beer, and I’m kind of involved in all activities that
were going on. Although they weren’t pretty and they weren’t pleasant, I at
least was involved in it.
many ways of thinking about it, were just spectators to it. They didn’t know all
the things that were going on. When you don’t know what’s going on, that’s even
harder than if you are in the middle of the arena, fighting the fight.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Absolutely.
BILL BARTMANN: It’s harder for the people in the bleachers than it is for
the guy in the arena.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Share with us, please. I know many of our listeners can
relate. While their circumstances may not be the same as what you went through
and may not on the surface seem to be as catastrophic, I know many of our
listeners, many of the people who on this call, have gone through their own
you share with us just what you have learned about it? How do you make it
through those things? How do you turn the corner on those things to be able to
come back again?
BILL BARTMANN: I’d absolutely love to. Chris, it’s so relative, pain and
suffering. If you’re drowning in six feet of water and another fellow is
drowning in 600 feet of water, you don’t really care that the other fellow is
drowning in 600 feet of water. You only care that you’re drowning in six feet of
CHRIS ATTWOOD: That’s right,
That I was deeper than somebody else doesn’t make it any less anguishing for the
person who is drowning in six feet of water. For anybody on the phone, for
anybody on the line who has ever suffered any calamity, I would say, honestly,
it’s probably every bit as severe to them as mine was severe to me, because I
think that’s the way it is.
have one of these tragedies in our life, it just sucks all of our energy out, no
matter how much we have, it just sucks it out. Yes, there are some things you
can do, and that’s part of what I do now as my coaching and my training, is I
show people how to overcome adversity and how to deal with it. There are some
really pretty simple things, but all of them kind of start back with one
premise, it starts with self-esteem. You say, Wait a minute. What does
self-esteem have to do with overcoming adversity?
have good self-esteem, you will deal with adversity differently than if you do
not have good self-esteem. If you are kind of challenging yourself, questioning
yourself, not feeling good about yourself, thinking that you’re not very
capable, you’re not very good, you’re not very strong, you’re not very
deserving, and any of those kinds of things, and then something bad happens in
your life-and trust me folks, it always happens; everybody has had something bad
in their life-then that bad thing can just literally bowl you over.
indeed you have learned how to raise your self-esteem, to build some good
self-esteem, yes, the bad thing is still a bad thing but at least then you’re
better equipped and better able to not only deal with it, but also to find a way
to move away from it. I’m not talking about denial. I’m talking about moving
away from it by some techniques that are teachable so people can put their
negative in the proper category.
us, Chris, when we have something bad happen, we exaggerate it. We are so quick
to imagine the worst possible outcome. We immediately let our mind run crazy
about what’s going to happen, who’s going to do what and what that means, and
we’re fantasizing one, two or three years into the future of how cataclysmic
this is going to be.
the time, we are wrong. Most of the time, it isn’t quite that bad after all. In
reality, mostly the failures we have gone through in our lives, the mistakes,
the cataclysmic screw-ups that we’ve done-and trust me, I’ve done more than
anybody-you look back at them in hindsight and you think, You know, that really
wasn’t that bad. At the moment we’re in it, it seems terrible but you get away
from it for a while and look backwards.
challenge every single person on this call tonight to look backwards on some
event in their lives that once upon a time they thought was life-ending. They
thought it was the most traumatic thing they could ever suffer in the course of
their life. Think back to that, and think back to how they felt then and how
they think about it today. Just knowing that, just knowing that you can get
through these kinds of things is a piece that is possible, another piece of this
a whole series of steps that you have to go through, and I don’t think we’re
going to do it justice by trying to get too deep in it in one phone call, but
there is a process, Chris, that allows anybody to deal with the stuff that
happens in their life.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Yes. You told
us how the disaster happened and how your company basically collapsed around
you. You mentioned that this had happened at least once before, that you had to
go through that challenge. You tell us the other side of the story, which is how
did you find your way back after going through that catastrophic experience?
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