So did his 71 employees. Their final work shift complete, they filed past Bartmann to shake his hand, return his embrace, clap one another on the shoulder, and cry some more. It was the most tearful, soul-wrenching experience of my life. The demise of Hawkeye Pipe Services Inc. Prices dove as crude flooded the market, bringing drilling in Oklahoma to a near halt virtually overnight.
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So did his 71 employees. Their final work shift complete, they filed past Bartmann to shake his hand, return his embrace, clap one another on the shoulder, and cry some more.
It was the most tearful, soul-wrenching experience of my life. The demise of Hawkeye Pipe Services Inc. Prices dove as crude flooded the market, bringing drilling in Oklahoma to a near halt virtually overnight. As Bartmann puts it, it was as if a hand had reached out from 10, miles away and turned off the faucet.
He snaps his fingers: "It was just that quick. To declare bankruptcy would have been to stiff them. The goal was outlandish, considering there were only a few cans of food left to feed his household, which included Bartmann, his wife, Kathy, and two daughters. Clearly, salaried employment would not do the trick. Risk, he knew, was the reciprocal of reward, and the reward he required was very, very large.
He shared that insight with Jay Jones, his former chief of operations "One of the few people in town who would still associate with me," Bartmann says , and the pair sat down to draw up a list of possibilities. How about a chain of pawnshops, offered Jones.
Or what about a franchiser of hot-dog carts? Nothing quite fit the bill--until Bartmann spotted an unusual advertisement in the local newspaper. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In so many words, the FDIC wanted people to throw good money after bad debt, a concept that drew howls of derision from Jones and Bartmann.
They tossed the ad, only to see it reappear the following day. As if to emphasize the absurd nature of their mission, only one other bidder showed up at the auction. Some portfolios of bad loans were for sale, ranging from the mildly delinquent to the long-since-considered-unredeemable.
Bartmann began inspecting the latter. Nobody had done that before. Now, here, Bartmann said to himself, was a suitably excessive risk. But no one could have guessed what the reward would be. The present day, 12 years later: Bill Bartmann strides into the 55th-floor boardroom of Commercial Financial Services Inc. The chart is 30 feet long. Few outside Tulsa and certain financial circles have ever heard of year-old Bartmann or his year-old Commercial Financial Services.
Fifty more such agents are being hired every week. Revenues have quadrupled, on average, every year since and are poised to triple this year. Surely, something has been overlooked. Few companies attain the double-digit range. And here is obscure CFS, quietly on track to generate nearly half a billion dollars in income this year on just under a billion in sales. The supranormal numbers are enough to make normally circumspect Wall Streeters punchy.
Jones owns most of the remainder. Which, according to the best information available, puts him among the 25 wealthiest people in America--just ahead of Rupert Murdoch and Ross Perot. True, he goes home to a acre estate with a driving range, and two off-duty policemen stand watch there around the clock. The Comeback. The bank president looked puzzled. What would I tell my board of directors? Would they even talk to me? Would they be polite? Would I be escorted out by a guard?
And in what must have been a bravura performance, he wheedled the money out of the bank. He did it alone, using the telephone on his kitchen table. And so it went. Bartmann resisted. Meanwhile, Bartmann wrestled with an abiding sense of shame. Worst of all were the run-ins with former employees in the streets of Muskogee, a conservative and insular town of 35, Real awkward," he says softly.
At times Bartmann succumbed to profound self-doubt. But he kept collecting them, and kept trying to repay his own creditors, and kept trying to keep those creditors from forcing him into bankruptcy. Maverick Tube Corp. And there, at last, the court adjudicated that Bartmann was not bankrupt. He had won his right to owe a million dollars. The legal victory set the stage for a full-blown comeback. Remarkably, he had dug himself out of his million-dollar hole.
In the process, CFS had picked up an unexpected head of steam. Profitable since year one, it reached 71 employees by And as the wave of bank failures that had begun in Oklahoma rolled through the rest of the country, it occurred to Bartmann that he might be sitting on an opportunity the size of the Glenn Pool Strike, the massive oil reserve discovered near Tulsa in So he did the obvious: he decided to shut down the business and start it all over again.
Do you let that 11th person climb in and therefore put everyone at risk? I made it as merciful as I could. And then he was confronted with an unexpected last temptation. Why not simply return home to Iowa a millionaire?
Why tempt failure so soon after escaping its clutches? Bill, the teenage drifter, had spent the summer of his 14th year there, living in a barn and working odd jobs.
Now, after two days of intense debate, the two of them headed down to a favorite fishing dock at dusk and watched the sun settle into a lagoon on the far side of Lake Delhi. And in that instant, both the Bartmann family and the multitrillion-dollar collection industry were changed forever. If anything, the atmosphere feels like a PBS telethon. There are the silly games to track progress, the raucous self-congratulation as goals are met.
But the most striking thing, here inside the beating heart of the most effective collection machine in history, is that the collectors are, well, nice.
Having been broke, I understand the customer. Wayne Learned, managing director of operations, puts it best. If the customer lives in a state that requires the reading of the so-called "mini-Miranda" upon every call, her screen flashes red.
Of particular interest is the window in the bottom right corner of the screen. It reads like a catalog of the woes of the American debtor: "Cust called. He bought an edge cutter and returned it same day, it broke. All of this is part of an effort to bring to the collection business what it has traditionally lacked: a measure of scientific certainty and predictability.
The document looks like a pyramid of boxes. Each bad debt is figuratively dropped into the uppermost box. Each of those boxes has a number affixed to it. Then again, Bartmann had already thought of that. In , with the cockiness and foresight that are the hallmark of bona fide visionaries, Bartmann assembled the 17 survivors of his Muskogee massacre in their new Tulsa offices for a two-week summit.
The first order of business was to draw up a mission statement. So the group drew up pages of step-by-step process rules, right down to how the phones should be answered--an entire Napoleonic Code for a nation of only 17 citizens. What Bartmann knew was that every aspiration he had for CFS depended on one thing: the ability to collect debts at a rate no one had dreamed of.
The exhaustive systematizing now looks prescient: with the company expanding by 50 employees a week, its three-volume procedures manual, which is continually updated, serves as the centerboard of what by all accounts remains an extremely tight ship.
The militaristic principles are also hammered home at CFS University, the seven-week boot camp for newly hired collectors. Credit-card guru H. Spencer Nilson calls CFS "the largest, best-trained, and most efficient debt-collection operation in the world. Then there are the lavish junkets. CFS is making plans to rent two car trains to transport employees and their guests to a Kansas City Royals game--possibly the largest U.
Bartmann gave away the brides. Lately, Bartmann has been catching heat for driving up salaries in Tulsa. The work, those involved concede, is repetitive and grueling. The Mirage hotel, in Las Vegas, where Bartmann holds an annual planning session with his top officers. Bartmann loves the blackjack tables. The problem with their business, Bartmann proceeded to explain, was the extended time lag between the purchase of millions of dollars in bad debts and their actual collection.
To get through the interval, CFS had to take on expensive bank financing.
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Five ways to tell legitimate deals from stinkers By Bill Bartmann I was a street gang member and slaughterhouse worker who later made more than a billion dollars. What opportunity made me a billion bucks? It was the debt-collection business. Talk about an area with a bad reputation. We broke the mold, redefined an industry, and made lots of money at the same time.
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Personal life[ edit ] Bartmann was born in Dubuque, Iowa in At age 14, he dropped out of high school and joined a traveling carnival. He later joined a gang called the Manor Boys. Bartmann became an alcoholic by age 17, and one night fell down a flight of stairs while drunk.