I Was A Loser, Baby, So Why Don't You Pay Me?

Bill Bartmann milks his losses on the motivational circuit

"The secret of success is elegantly simple, like the law of gravity. This is how the world works: You need to be willing to take risks. You don't because you are afraid of failure; you are worried about what people will think. And that's because of low self-esteem. To succeed, you have to raise your self-esteem."

This is Bill Bartmann's come-on, his preamble, the most concise explanation he can offer for why he became a billionaire and those listening to him haven't even come close. On a Saturday in September, a couple dozen people, mostly entrepreneurs, of their own volition or at the urging of frustrated spouses and business partners, have paid $49 to attend a daylong motivational seminar with Bartmann at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Nevada.

None are familiar with his name. Bartmann, 58, made (and lost) his fortune in the debt collection business, and both his rise and fall brought him to national attention, if fleetingly. He was well-known in the financial world and in the business schools that studied his then-pioneering approaches to raising money; in Tulsa, where he was among the biggest employers; and in certain Las Vegas casinos, where he was a regular at the blackjack tables. But few outside those circles would have followed his tumultuous career.

"Why am I an authority? Because I've lived it. I've seen both sides of self-esteem. I went from poverty and welfare to being the 25th-wealthiest person in America. I went from being a high-school dropout to becoming a lawyer. I went from working at a traveling carnival to being named National Entrepreneur of the Year. I went from being a million dollars in debt to a billion dollars to the good. I learned how to change. I went through a significant, some say remarkable, transformation."

Bill Bartmann's career has been one of seized opportunities: oil in the 1980s, consumer debt in the 1990s, and now, in the age of Oprah, inspiration. Motivation, in all its guises, has become a $10 billion industry even as its very premise--that its advice can change lives--remains unproven. Companies spend close to $3 billion a year to hire people, among them former executives, sports coaches, and survivors of all kinds, to inspire and train employees; books ranging from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to The Millionaire Next Door are on BusinessWeek's list of longtime best-sellers.

Richard, one of the main characters in the recent indie film hit Little Miss Sunshine, is a struggling motivational speaker. Michael Arndt, who wrote the movie's screenplay, which won this year's Academy Award, says: "Richard thinks he has a big idea that is going to transform his life. That's a very American fantasy." The success of motivational gurus such as Tony Robbins, Stephen R. Covey, and Zig Ziglar, all of whom have become multimillion-dollar brands, has helped promote the notion that selling inspiration can be a career choice. "If this becomes what I think it can, I'm back," Bartmann says.

The tradition of teaching success goes back to Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack and runs through Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People to Robert J. Ringer's Looking Out for #1. The motivation business is sustained by a peculiarly American belief in reinvention combined with our nearly perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction. The big ideas, the supposed secrets of achievement, reflect and influence the cultural zeitgeist. Today those who have overcome adversity--they may be victims of disease, accidents, or their own daring or recklessness--have captured the national imagination. Such as: the guy who chopped off his arm to save his life (Aron Ralston); the woman who treated herself for breast cancer in the South Pole (Jerri Nielsen); the prison guy who became a top chef (Jeff Henderson).

In business, it is adversity of your own making that resonates today; learning from failure is an animating force for everything from innovation to ethics. "Redemption is big," says Jonathan Black, author of Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz. "But you have to admit you've failed. Otherwise people think you're covering up." One notable player on the failure circuit is Scott Waddle, commander of the nuclear submarine that accidentally sank a Japanese fishing boat in 2001, killing nine. Stripped of his command and retired, Waddle now earns $10,000 a talk, the most popular of which is "Failure Is Not Final."

By anyone's estimation, Bill Bartmann's life has been one of head-swelling highs and depressing lows. Bartmann made his first fortune running a company that manufactured oil pipes; the collapse of crude prices in 1985 left him without any customers and a million dollars in debt. A year later he had started Commercial Financial Services Inc. with the notion that he might be able to squeeze money out of debtors everyone else had given up on.

In 1997, Bartmann and his wife, Kathy, who together owned 80% of CFS, made Forbes' list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, a distinction Bill had long coveted. The magazine estimated the couple to be worth about $1.1 billion. "We had lots of arguments about getting rich," says Kathy. "I don't care if I'm on any lists, if anyone knows me." Bill worked in an office with a statue of Don Quixote, traveled with a security detail, didn't join the country club as was expected, and generally annoyed the Tulsa business community with his swagger.


By then CFS had become the world's largest holder of bad consumer debt; unlike its competitors it owned the debt outright and was trying to collect on some $14.5 billion. A few skeptics wondered at the company's rapid growth; by many accounts its revenues had doubled every year since 1994. When Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS ) proposed taking the company public the summer of 1998, CFS was reckoned to be worth $3 billion.

Four months later, credit agencies received an anonymous one-page letter accusing CFS of shady dealings. Bartmann would eventually be indicted on 57 federal counts of fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering related to an alleged scheme to make the company's collection rate appear higher than it was. After an 89-day trial in 2003, he was acquitted of all the charges against him (his partner, Jay L. Jones, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and served 3 1/2 years of a five-year prison term). It took Bartmann until 2006 to contend with various civil suits, and during that time he declared bankruptcy. He and Kathy had to give up 19 acres of their 20-acre estate. They lived off credit cards, borrowing from their two daughters when they had to.

Then Bartmann had his next big idea. As a businessman he had used the story of his early life to put lenders at ease, motivate employees, and in general establish his credibility as someone who can prosper in any circumstances. His setbacks began feeling like an affirmation of sorts: The wild arcs of his life offered valuable lessons. "I think I am the message, the answer," he says. "I'm selling the one thing everyone needs: self-confidence."

Successful motivational speakers require a measure of arrogance: They must believe they can compel an audience, essentially, to do their bidding. Bartmann's charisma is more closely related to cunning than magnetism. A 2001 New Yorker profile described him as having "an uncanny gift for making those who work for him feel that they share in his powers." A former senior executive at CFS, Wayne Learned, knows all about that. He actually invested in another doomed Bartmann enterprise after the CFS collapse, and depicts his former boss this way: "Persuasive isn't the right word to describe him. You do it to yourself as much as anything.... He'll call when he wants something and then he sucks you dry. You're like a raisin. When you work for him, you're his raisin."

What so mesmerizes people seems awkwardly exaggerated onstage in Reno. Bartmann's physical presence can be intimidating: He has a compact body, a rough voice, and an almost feral energy. His hands are those of someone who spent his adolescent years brawling. He wears a tight-fitting shirt and dark suit. He uses the language of the bill collector; he retains an outsider's posture.


If anyone understands the value of seeming authentic, it is Bill Bartmann. "Dogs know when you are afraid," he says. "People know when you're b.s.-ing them. You have to respect that."

Hence that afternoon's onstage pitch: "I'm awkward about this. I haven't set you up for the kill," he says. "I don't want to be a snake-oil salesman. I'm in the motivational, self-help industry. It's an industry that ranks right there with car salesmen. I don't know if I'm any better, any different, but I do know a few things.... Have I done a good job of un-selling?"

Bartmann carries around a laminated card in his pocket. On it is typed the following goal: touch 10 million people in five years. "It's a giant, crazy, ludicrous number," he says. "But if I touch enough people, the money should follow."

Bartmann started out using a classic motivational business model: sell tickets cheaply, give them away if necessary, and push packages of DVDs and books (his is titled Billionaire Secrets to Success). In Reno, he sold several thousand dollars' worth. And he added 31 names to those already on his spreadsheet: nine million, nine hundred and eighty thousand to go.

Though there may be as many as 15,000 people trying to make a living as professional speakers, it is quite possible for the ones who catch on eventually to make a couple of million dollars a year. Bartmann, never one to shy from the grandiose, wants to make $100 million. So in the weeks after Reno he began holding free two-hour seminars around the country as a way to advertise a yearlong mentoring program, conducted mostly over the phone and by e-mail at a cost of $397 a month.

It hasn't escaped his attention that personal coaching has become a billion-dollar business itself. By December, he had visited seven cities and said he signed up 200 students. "If I don't make $100 million a year from now, I'll be disappointed," he said then. He had other aims, too: "At 25 cities, I'll get a little plane. At 50 cities, a bigger one. I miss my G-IV. The plane is my measure of success. If I touch enough people to get a plane, I'll be a financial success."

Bartmann's problem, though, was that success hinged on an admission of failure, which initially he was disinclined to make. That part of his story, he believed, couldn't so neatly be explained and wasn't appropriate at most of his seminars. "I don't amplify the CFS loss. It isn't inspirational," he said in September. "I say 'self-made billionaire.' I don't use the present tense. I know they can Google me and find out everything."

Then in March, Bartmann found himself in Hollywood, where the idea of him hosting a "Dr. Failure" talk show somehow, wondrously, came up. By that time Bartmann was ready to tell his whole story. "I talk about CFS first.... There is no more compelling story. Kathy said I should quit acting like I'm ashamed. It makes everyone else's problems seem smaller. It gives them permission to tell me about their problems." He came up with a new pitch: "To do for failure what Betty Ford did for alcoholism and Susan Komen did for breast cancer."

Bartmann has also made a decision that, in part, reflects his wish to be admired as well as recognized: All profits from his mentor program, for which he now charges $797 a month, and his appearances at Get Motivated! Tours (where he is one of dozens alongside George Foreman and Zig Ziglar) and Learning Annex Real Estate and Wealth Expos (where he is one of dozens alongside Donald Trump and Tony Robbins) will go into a foundation called Bill's Brigade. The foundation's aim is to gather 70,000 high school kids in the Texas Stadium in Dallas for a self-esteem revival meeting.

Bartmann hopes executive coaching, which will be his sole source of income, will pull in $100,000 a day. "I will do enough consulting that we will live well. But the G-IV can't happen, and I'm good with that. It would be a shame to make success a priority. There will be fewer zeroes behind my name, but it won't be bad. I've moved from success to significance."

By Susan Berfield

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