From the archive: Bill Bartmann, from dropout to billionaire to bankrupt to his comeback. Read the Tulsa World 1999 series about the rise and fall of CFS: tulsaworld.com/billbartmann


Long-time Tulsan Bill Bartmann, whose spectacular rise and fall in the 1990s tended to overshadow his later accomplishments, died Tuesday following heart bypass surgery.

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He was 68.

A native of Dubuque, Iowa, and graduate of the Drake University law school, Bartmann became a billionaire in the 1990s through his company, Commercial Financial Services, which he and his wife, Kathy Bartmann, started with partner Jay Jones in 1986.

CFS specialized in collecting bad debt it bought at a discount from banks and other financial institutions. Instead of suing debtors, CFS tried to restructure their debt on terms they could afford.

Bartmann and CFS were known for extravagant employee perks, including cruises and trips to Disney World. He once paid for an employee to spend two weeks working with Mother Teresa in India.

At its peak, CFS employed 3,900 people in Tulsa and reported net profits in excess of $180 million. But the business collapsed in 1999, bankrupting the Bartmanns and nearly sending Bill Bartmann to prison for conspiracy and fraud. Bartmann ultimately was cleared, but Jones pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was sentenced to five years.

Bartmann, who considered himself a consumer advocate, began lecturing and writing on consumer finance and entrepreneurial opportunities. In 2010, in the wake of the Great Recession, he launched CFSII with some of the same employees who worked for him more than a decade earlier.

Operated much like the original CFS, Bartmann’s new company also helps debtors find jobs and offers credit counseling. A separate venture, Financial Samaritan, offers free web-based services to help users improve credit scores and retire debt.

In his 2013 autobiography “Bouncing Back,” Bartmann said he ran away from home at age 14 to join a carnival and by 17 was an alcoholic. A drunken tumble down some stairs left him temporarily paralyzed but also helped turn his life around. He went to work in a meat packing plant, earned a GED and eventually went to college and law school.

Bartmann is survived by his wife, Kathy Bartmann; and daughters, Jessica Allsop and Meghan Barry.

Services are pending.

From the archive: Bill Bartmann, from dropout to billionaire to bankrupt to his comeback. Read the Tulsa World 1999 series about the rise and fall of CFS: tulsaworld.com/billbartmann

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Randy Krehbiel

918-581-8365

randy.krehbiel@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @rkrehbiel

Randy has been with the Tulsa World since 1979. He is a native of Hinton, Okla., and graduate of Oklahoma State University. Krehbiel primarily covers government and politics. Phone: 918-581-8365