Ten years after his debt-buying firm, Commercial Financial Services, closed under a fraud scandal, William R. Bartmann — vindicated in the eyes of the law, if not his fellow market participants — is back in business.
CFS monopolized forward-flow contracts to buy charged-off credit card receivables from major banking companies in the late 1990s. Mr. Bartmann paid up to twice as much as most of his competitors for this debt. He was also the first buyer to securitize such paper, raising $3 billion, an amount none of his rivals achieved.
"We started CFS from scratch in the middle of a downturn and built it into a substantial organization," Mr. Bartmann, 60, said in an interview last month. "Today the volume of bad debt is increasing exponentially."
With that in mind, Mr. Bartmann is buying debt again — and teaching others how to do it, so they will invest alongside him.
His new Tulsa venture, Bill Bartmann Enterprises, has been forming partnerships to buy the debt with private investors, many of whom attended his educational seminars on the business. Using their money and his own, Mr. Bartmann said, he has acquired debt with a face value of $1 billion.
He said he sees parallels between today's debt crisis and the savings and loan debacle of the late 1980s that gave CFS its start. Investors "see the opportunity I see, and they want to participate."
Many in the industry say they are surprised by Mr. Bartmann's return and skeptical about his prospects, since today's collection market is tougher, and securing financing to purchase bad debt is difficult.
"I would have concerns with nonprofessionals entering the distressed debt arena," said Lou DiPalma, a managing partner at the Harrison, N.Y., debt broker Garnet Capital Advisors LLC. "But who knows? Maybe it's a better mousetrap."
Bartmann Enterprises has eight staff members, a far cry from the 3,900 that CFS once employed. Mr. Bartmann said the seminars have helped him recruit about 100 investing partners around the country to finance debt purchases.
"We're putting together two pieces that are not usually put together," he said.
Two-day seminars cost $2,995, and five-day ones that provide nitty-gritty details about the business cost $10,000. Mr. Bartmann said that he culls partners from the pricier events, and that he expects to make more money from buying and collecting debt than from the seminars.
"There's a limit to how many people you can put in a room and what you can charge," he said. "The prospects of what you can make buying debt in a burgeoning market are not infinite, but they're unquantifiable."
Mr. Bartmann said his business processes are his "secret sauce," though the basic formula is simple and starts with pricing. "Collectability of loans has been reduced, but the price one pays for loans has come down even more, so profitability is up."
Each partner can outsource collections to an agency or build an internal staff to handle the work. Mr. Bartmann said that by the end of this quarter he expects to offer his partners services like portfolio reviews, skip tracing, and accounting and reporting functions.
Not every partnership will be a big operation like CFS was, he said. "We see this as a cottage industry."
In its heyday CFS catapulted to the top of the bad-debt buyers' roster by signing purchasing agreements with more than half the nation's 25 largest card issuers. Conservative estimates had the firm cornering a third of the card chargeoff sales market. At that time, Mr. Bartmann boasted that he commanded about half.
Rivals questioned his methods from the start, arguing that Mr. Bartmann was exaggerating recovery rates to build up investor interest in CFS bonds and paying a premium for debt portfolios to drive out competitors.
In late 1998 an anonymous letter sent to the bond rating agencies revealed a shell company had been set up to purchase bad loans at inflated prices to make liquidation rates look better than they were. CFS closed in June 1999.
In December 2003 a federal jury acquitted Mr. Bartmann on 57 counts of conspiracy, fraud, and money laundering. His partner, Jay Jones, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge. Mr. Jones could not be reached for comment.
"In hindsight, I wish I had gone through … [Mr. Jones'] garbage can, credenza, and computer every night after work," Mr. Bartmann said.
He spent several years after the trial working as a consultant and a motivational speaker, but then the economy's downturn got him thinking.
Last fall, he said, he took a call from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. asking him to help liquidate "significant" portfolios. "Bells went off in my head. I wasn't the only one who thought this would be an unprecedented opportunity."
Louise Epstein, the president of Charge-Off Clearinghouse LLC in Austin, is a vocal critic of Mr. Bartmann and, unlike others in the industry, does not mind being quoted.
"Even if his partner created the scam, the fact remains his business model did not make money," Ms. Epstein said, "and his secret model to price portfolios did not work."
She handled work for the bankruptcy trustee in two CFS-related cases and serves as an expert witness in other collections and fraud cases.
"I hope the most money these people lose is the money they pay for the workshops," she said. "If these people buy any debt [with Mr. Bartmann], they will lose their money."
Mr. Bartmann countered: "The company failed because the government accused me of a crime they couldn't convict me of. I don't apologize, blink, or blush."