Ron Brumbarger, President of Bitwise and Apprentice University, speaks on Bottom Line Faith about his ongoing adventures as a Christian business owner.
With Bitwise being around for 25 years and Apprentice University recently getting its legs, Ron has amazing advice on hard business decisions, leading with integrity, and dealing with people, all while keeping Christ as the center, through it all.
Full transcript below:
Adam: And we are back for another great edition of Bottom Line Faith. Ray Hilbert, founder and former CEO of Truth At Work. And his brainchild, Bottom Line Faith is sort of the radio show, the podcast version of Truth At Work. Ray, glad to be back with you. I’m Adam Ritz, your sort of co-host as we journey through this conversation with business leaders, coaches, celebrities, notable people in the marketplace, to talk about how their faith drives them, and maybe even helps them through their journey, not only in spirituality and Christianity but in the business place, in the marketplace.
Ray: Great, great to see you Adam. It’s great to be back for another edition of Bottom Line Faith, and I am really excited about today’s episode. I’ve got one of my closest friends in life that I’ve come to know over the last a couple of years, and he’s just one of these kind of partners in crime, if you will, that our paths keep intersecting. We see each other several times a month, and that’s Ron Brumbarger. And I am so excited that Ron’s with us in the studio today.
Ron: Thank you guys, for having me on here today.
Adam: I’m so happy you’re on here. I know you, I know your past at Bitwise; I can’t wait to hear more about that and how it’s led into this university that you’re the president of, apparently.
Ron: Well, pain begets aspirin, and so the solution to the shortage of talent is to grow our own. Hence the roots of Apprentice University.
Ray: Yeah, well, that’s great Ron. In anticipation of having you in on today’s episode, we you know we sent some questions to you that we ask every one of our guests here on Bottom Line Faith, and so Adam, if it’s alright with you, I would say let’s just jump right in, because our audience is going to learn a lot today.
Adam: We’ve got gold here, right in front of us, so let’s tap into that gold.
Ron: Thanks, Adam.
Ray: Ron, we’re going to learn more about your experiences and the wisdom that God has given you of all the years that you’ve had in the marketplace. We’ll get to that in just a few moments, but why don’t you give our audience just a little bit of an understanding of your background. Tell us about, maybe about your family, growing up, and how and why you started Bitwise. And then tell us a little bit about Apprentice University.
Ron: Well, I’m a Hoosier boy. Corn-fed kid from Frankfort. I grew up in a Bible-believing, Christ-following family. Was saved at the age of seven, attended a little church up in Middle Fork, Indiana called Oakland Christian Church. Middle of nowhere where the preacher was a former boxer; so it was a bottom line, verse by verse, and if you don’t get it, well, get it. There’s not a plan B. So that was my background. I went to a little country high school there, Clinton Prairie. Graduated 70 some students, so very small, and went on to Ball State after that.
Adam: So Middle Fork, Indiana, and in the middle of nowhere, rise from the dust and the weeds to move on into the tech world of Bitwise.
Ron: Yeah, so right out of college I helped start a software company in Marion, Indiana. Again, not far from the middle of nowhere, but helped start a technology company there. We moved it to Carmel, with that company and then went on to work in a digital mapping firm. Was fired for refusing to violate copyright laws for software. Got married, came back from our honeymoon and was fired. That was fun. I took another job, a few months later I started Bitwise, but took another job a few months later. And then knowing that I was about to get canned again, had an opportunity to close a quarter of a million dollar contract for Bitwise in Hartford, Connecticut. And I couldn’t get the signature from the CEO, try as I might for weeks, and weeks, and weeks, so I took my last $384, flew out the night before. I was certain he was to be in the office, met him in the lobby of his office building, and that same day about 11:30, flew home with a quarter of a million dollar contract signed and a $20,000 deposit. That was in April of 1993.
Adam: That’s faith, flying out there.
Ron: Yes. Faith, a little desperation, a little urgency. Yeah. That’s what you get when you get your back to the wall.
Ray: Well, it’s amazing. Now, Ron, so Bitwise; how many years have you been in business now?
Ron: 25 years.
Ray: That is incredible, and congratulations on that; that is an incredible milestone. And I know you’ve had some ups and downs and some highs and lows, and we’re going to talk about those in just a moment, but you also have another venture that you’ve started in the past few years called Apprentice University. This is one of the most fascinating ideas that I’ve ran across. You know my passion behind what you’re doing and some of the things that we’re doing. We’re not on the air together, but what is Apprentice University? What are you trying to accomplish, and why did you start it? Why and how did you start it?
Ron: British university is a competency-based college. So we swap out the idea of credits and hours for about 4,000 hours of on-the-job training through apprenticeships. It’s a very intentional model, backed up with some kind of core academics that help provide the scaffolding around the understanding of what you’re doing as a young professional. So the the model came about because I can’t find people, enough people to drive the growth that we need at Bitwise. And every technology firm around is struggling finding the right people. And everybody’s been creative about finding ways to grow their own, and this is our method to amp it up and find opportunities for young people. And the theory goes that if I have that problem than everybody else does too. And why not capitalize on that problem?
Ray: Well, without question, Ron, for our listeners here with what we do at Truth At Work and working with Christian business owners and executives, that is an across-the-board issue today, is finding good, qualified, quality people with a good kind of get-up-and-go work ethic, with the background and training. And so there you decided rather than just complaining about it, you wanted to do something about it. So you’re taking a real problem that is existing in the marketplace today, and you’re you’re putting a solution around that. And that in essence is what entrepreneurs do. And I know at the core, you’re an entrepreneur. So why don’t we begin to transition to some of the lessons that you’ve learned, tried to learn. How you live out your faith, and so forth. And so why don’t we start with this question: What is the hardest business decision you ever had to make, and how did your faith play a role in helping you make that decision?
Ron: I’m not sure it’s the hardest, but I think it’s the one that has the most tangible evidence of confidence in faith. Part of it was leaning into the idea that this thing called the Internet back in the fall of 1993 was actually going to mean something. This is way before any of us had heard about it here in the Midwest, was just before Al Gore invented it, just after Al invented, okay. Thank goodness he did, because our work would be sitting in a closet somewhere. But really sort of leaning into the idea that this thing called the Internet’s going to be around, and we’d spent a lot of time in the West Coast at Silicon Valley, so we heard a lot about this thing called the World Wide Web. Remember those days? And we decided there might be an opportunity here. So we really said this is where we’re going to stake our ground. And 22 years ago this spring we launched our first web site. Maybe luck, maybe fate, but I think God’s providence was there that led us to do that investigation, and our paths kept crossing with this thing called the Internet. And that’s where we are today.
Ray: How did your faith play a role in all that? Because you obviously were taking the best of the information that was available at the time and looking at, you know, predicted trends, and so forth. But can you kind of take us through that? What role does your faith play in making those decisions?
Ron: Thank you. Good question. I think the the bottom line is, I know that as a child of God I’m not going to starve to death. I promise that, so there’s a certain level of comfort that you can take. Two, doesn’t mean your day’s going to be easy. We’re never promised an easy day of work, but there’s a certain level of confidence that God’s got your back in that regard, and you know I think if you’re staying true to what God would have you do, and stay focused in God’s will, that those provisions will be there. Maybe not the level you want or expect, but to the level God needs them to be. And I constantly pray for patience every day, and I pray for it to happen that moment in time because I’m an impatient person. And I think that’s where the temperance comes in, is letting God’s hand steer the wheel.
Ray: So you’re not really driving the bus. As you said here today, it’s not your bus to drive, right? It’s God’s bus. But we all get to kind of be that co-pilot and pull our share. So what I hear and that you mentioned patience. And you mentioned, you know, prayer. What are, and those certainly are biblical principles – those are certainly biblical guidelines – what other driving biblical principles really guide you on a day-to-day basis in your leadership?
Ron: I think first and foremost, as I promised all my staff, I will never surprise you with an out-of-the-blue, knee-jerk reaction, if you’re fired. And I think that builds that trust and confidence similar to what I just described that God wants us to have. Trust and confidence in Him. I’m certainly not God to my employees; I would never want to be that, but I want them to have a certain baseline of confidence that when I say this is the way it’s going to be, that that’s the way it is. That I’m not hiding anything from them.
Adam: It’s so very open, honest approach to management; void of knee-jerk reactions and surprises. That’s great. And by the way, we see that a lot. You know, I talk with a lot of employers and frankly employees, and that there should never be a surprise when it’s time for termination. One of the fatal mistakes, and it also destroys our witness in the marketplace. I think that’s rooted out of conflict avoidance and frankly not really loving someone well. Maybe not performing up to speed, or whatever, so that’s pretty terrific. Got a question about the internet. We’re all old enough to remember a world without it, and I work a lot with college kids that they can’t imagine a world without the internet or social media. You’ve seen the internet, you’ve seen it when it was born, how it’s grown, what it’s evolved into. And a lot of people there’s a cliche that the devil invented the internet, because there’s so much sin on the internet. There’s a lot of time wasting, there’s a lot of gossip, there’s a lot of hating, and trolling. Where really sometimes the worst part of humanity can be found on the Internet. So as a soldier for Christ, and really a proponent of the entire industry of the Internet, how do you, I guess as a business leader but as a Christian leader, how do you advise your family, or friends, or your employees, or anybody that’s looking to you for advice on that world of ethics, Christianity, making good decisions in all the temptation and sin that’s out there on the Internet?
Ron: We have choices, right? Every day you’re faced with choices. You’re faced with choices to discriminate against this choice of A, or this choice of B, and I’m not speaking of discrimination against people necessarily but you have the opportunity to discriminate. Those with whom you hang out with, and that’s your choice. You do it in the real world, you do it online. It’s a choice; every day. And the temptations are, sure, there for everybody. Don’t be fooled. It’s not just a guy thing; it’s a girl thing, too. And you have to make those educated decisions every day, you know. I think lots of opportunities exist when you’re in a run-and-gun society like we are today. To have things kind of fall through the cracks and not be accountable, and not spend time with your family, and so forth. And I think the downside to the technology is that we can get pulled under that vortex, right? And that’s where we spent our time instead of spending our time with those that we care about the most. You know at the end of our lives, we’ll never think about how many likes we received on Facebook. But we’ll sure think about the hugs we got from our kids.
Ray: Yeah, well Adam, what I’d like to do is maybe just imagine we’re at a fork in the road. And I want to make a left turn, go down memory lane with Ron. So I once heard it said by a great business leader that life is lived looking forward, but understood looking back. Which I think that’s a powerful statement, right? And so let’s now take a look at some of the lessons you’ve learned along your journey of leadership as a follower of Christ, and business, and what you’ve learned, and maybe some some tips for our listeners. So think back, Ron, over your twenty-five, thirty year career in business. What’s the biggest mistake that you can recall making, and what impact did that have on you?
Ron: Biggest mistake, I was slow to fire a couple people that worked for me. My biggest mistake, it cost me a lot of money. I won’t get into the gory details, but I was too slow to fire, and I think that was probably the single largest professional mistake I’ve ever made. Two young ladies that decided they needed a drama club to be part of our business, and I let that fester. I let that fester longer than it should have, and I didn’t take decisive action at that time.
Adam: Why not?
Ron: I have no idea.
Adam: Because of your heart as a Christian; you didn’t want to ruin their–
Ron: I don’t know. You know, I look back at that and I think was I asleep at the wheel. What was I doing, you know, and kind of your comment, Ray. You always look back in the rearview mirror and it’s totally obvious. Well I don’t know. I don’t know why I didn’t say your last hour of employment at this firm is now. And I don’t want to surprise anybody, but like you said, they wouldn’t have been surprised. I don’t know why other than they were extorting.
Ray: Okay, well, on that note I’ll take a pause on memory lane, and just offer you this word of encouragement, Ron. And frankly for many of our listeners right now who are business owners and executives, you can totally identify with what Ron just shared. And Ron has been in Truth At Work. We’ve been working with Christian business owners and leaders for 16 years as of the recording of this broadcast, and that is the number one thing that I hear. Why is it that I have had underperforming employees, and I waited far too long to put a termination to that situation? And so you’re in, I don’t want to say good company per se, but you’re not alone in that. It’s the number one regret that we’ve seen with Christian business leaders. I choose not to play with if I can avoid it, right? So some great lessons there. And so yeah, I’d like to add a comment to what Ron is sharing with us right now, because the other aspect that I’ve seen with Christian business owners and who are in these decision-making roles. And they’ve got this employee or this worker who’s maybe not performing, and they know it’s time to make a decision. Here’s what I’ve seen happen so often. They take on a kind of called a messianic complex, you know the Scripture says that it’s Jehovah Jireh. God is the provider. And what can happen for the Christian business leader is they can take on that messianic complex that, well if I terminate this person, how will they feed their family? How will they provide for themselves, and we need to always be concerned just for our fellow man in that scenario, but we are not their provider. They are God’s child. So we’re not there to be their provider; that’s God’s role and responsibility. Did you ever feel any of those pressures?
Ron: Oh absolutely, absolutely. But I also think a lot about the question, what’s the next best thing for this person? And oftentimes it’s not on your payroll. And that’s a sobering reality to reach, and you think, okay I need to deal with this. And if you let it sit, it’s not going to get any better, right? It just got to be dealt with quickly. Delicately, quickly and with elegance and grace. I had a young man that worked for me; he was extremely talented young man, well overqualified for the job of my office manager, and a great guy. And he was expecting twins, and he was not making enough money. The position didn’t warrant the income that he needed, and I said, you have 60 days to find another job or I’m going to fire you. I will find you another job, I will help you set up interviews, but you have 60 days to get out. His name’s Tom, and Tom and I are still friends. I helped him network, I introduced him to people. I said if you need to take time off work during the day to go interview, go but get out of here. You have 60 days to find another job. And I didn’t have a position, I didn’t have someone to fill that role at the time, but it couldn’t be him going forward. It wasn’t that he did anything wrong; it’s just the next best thing for him was not on my payroll.
Adam: You were really concerned about helping him discover and live out his God-given potential.
Ron: Yeah, you know he went on to take on new responsibilities at his other place of employment. He got more involved in the community. So I think it was a bit of a wake-up call for him. And I struggled for several months trying to find somebody to backfill that position with, but that’s okay, you know.
Adam: If you were looking out for yourself first, you’re going to lose.
Ron: Yeah, that’s right.
Ray: So I take away from that part of the conversation that we should always be concerned about the next best move for the people that God has placed into our organizations. So you know, if you’re listening to the program, that’s a great piece of advice, wouldn’t you agree Adam?
Adam: I do.
Ray: Always be concerned with the next best move for your people, and God will take care of the results.
Adam: You could have not said anything and he could have worked for you for a long time.
Ron: He was real complacent,
Adam: And he could have just, you know, made ends meet and tried to provide for twins. And our listeners couldn’t see, but I was smiling during that story because that’s not something you hear every day, from from a boss, you know. I care so much about this employee, that I fired him.
Ron: He looks back, and he still says thank you from time to time.
Ray: Well so that’s kind of a great piece of advice for a listener here to really be concerned. So Ron I want you to think, what was the best advice you’ve ever been given, and how does it continue to impact you today?
Ron: I worked at Marsh in high school, in college, and I worked for a guy there. His assistant manager named Harold. Harold was a big boy, and Harold and I used to unload the trucks every Tuesday and Thursday nights, and he taught me the essence of of speed, and multitasking, and work ethic, etc. And Harold would always say, you’re using two hands on that box. There are two boxes, use two hands. Or something to that effect. And I’ve morphed that statement into the following comment. When you’re working with somebody, the comment is, we’re a pool and the comment is, welcome to the deep end. Tread with your feet and catch another brick. In other words, there’s a lot of work to do, get on it, and young people kind of shudder at that. Like what are you talking about? That’s cool. Let’s go; I’ll show you what real hard work, multitasking looks like. When you’re buried up to your ears in work to be done.
Ray: So Ron, along that vein of great advice, there’s a Christian business leader listening this program right now, and they’re maybe stuck, they’re not sure where they should go, what they should do next, and I don’t know what the scenario around that is, but what advice would you pass along to today’s Christian business leader on living out their faith in the marketplace?
Ron: First, people. We’re faced with all kinds of distractions and challenges as a Christian business owner of these days. So first people, and second, I would surround myself with just guys like gals like you have here; Truth At Work people that you can trust for counsel, that you can lean into, and say, Hey, how would you handle this? But stay focused in that regard, and I think also the one tip that I’m not sure where I heard about this, but that’s never confuse activity for productivity. And when you’re in a pickle like that, the last thing you want to do is to stand flat-footed. Do you want to, you want to get moving right? And so don’t misinterpret the fact that your calendar is busy for some silly reason for productivity. It’s really easy to do when we’re business owners and you’re accountable to yourself. To mix productivity and activity together, so I would say find good counsel; find somebody to hold you accountable, to making decisions, and set dates around your timeline for decisions.
Adam: So let me just summarize. As I’ve been taking notes here, I heard that great advice for today’s Christian business leaders: be bold right? Be out there, be bold, live in faith, be in community, don’t allow yourself to get isolated, that’s where the devil likes to pick us off right? And along with that, make sure to get in godly counsel. And then I love this: don’t confuse activity with productivity. And just because the wheel is spinning doesn’t mean you’re going anywhere. You know, one thing I’ve noticed, maybe it’s just me waking up, as a now 51 year old guy, all of a sudden. But I’m finally starting to become more aware of the trade-off that hours do not equate to capacity, nor necessarily quality of output. That you might only spend an hour at your business in a day, unconscionable right? We don’t think that way as a work ethic, but that might be the most important hour of the month. And if that might be the biggest contribution you can make to your businesses in one hour, this podcast could be the single largest contribution to both of my firms the entire day. So we have to get over this mindset that hours equate to value add to a business. We’re not making tires and widgets anymore, and especially as a business owner, that’s not how we need to measure our value; it’s lives touched; it’s impact for our business, not hours on your calendar. Now sometimes it takes 18 a day for a sustained period of time to make that possible, but that’s not where you want to stay.
Ray: Yeah, that’s just great stuff, Adam. I’ve got just a couple more questions for Ron. I know our times going to be drawing short here, so Ron, let me ask you this. You’re one of the on this whole front around activity versus productivity, you are a busy guy. Your calendar is full, I know the hours in which you and I exchanged text messages from time to time, and so forth. So I fully understand the Sun is seldom up that’s right? So talk a little bit about how do you balance at all your faith, your business, Apprentice U, your family, church, all the things that you’ve got going. What maybe one or two tips that you could pass along about how do you get it all done, how do you keep those priorities straight?
Ron: This is a recurring question that I get asked. I was asked again last night this same question, and for me I found some joy in having overlapping circles. Now there’s a downside to that, right? You forget who you’re talking to, and why, but where your circles overlap, you get that Nirvana, that Venn diagram spot, right, where everything seems somewhat harmonious. I’ve had the great fortune of having both of my boys work for my firm, I helped my wife run her private school. She should do more to help me run Apprentice University, Cindy. So I really think it’s finding those overlapping circles, and in trying to combine them as often as you can. Our friendship, Ray, is a great example of that. We’ve got lots of things to work on together, so that you get maximum value out of that time of investment, you know.
Ray: Yeah, that’s excellent, that’s excellent. So the last thing that I wanted to ask and then Adam you could wrap us up with any, you know, questions or notes that you’ve taken as well, but how do you serve, how do you give back, how do you leverage the resources, the relationships, the assets that the Lord is entrusted to you; how do you try to give back and invest in your community and in others?
Ron: Selectively, I think is first and foremost. It’s very common to be asked to help, and serve, and take on commitments, and so forth, so I think first and foremost is being very selective. If you can’t be impactful with something you’re about to say yes to, then you should say no. I’m a firm believer in understanding your role. If it’s a Board of Directors role or something like that, that you understand and appreciate the obligation that you’re stepping into, and if you don’t get that, you shouldn’t be there. If it’s just a resume builder, then move on. So you have to be very careful and intentional about that which you say yes to, and then if you can’t, you have to say no to something. Who do you suggest would be a good person to fit that spot? Maybe it’s somebody on your staff that needs that leadership training, that needs that opportunity to be of service in a community, or to say, “Hey you know this wasn’t available for Ron at this time, but I’ll take it and be glad to do it.” So I always try to find people that are close to me to fill those roles, if I have to say no.
Ray: Well, that reminds me, a couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to interview coach Tony Dungy, from you know NFL coach Tony Dungy, who has subsequently been nominated and elected into the Hall of Fame. And we asked him the question how does he determine what he says yes to, and what he says no to, and as I was listening to your answer, I was reminded of what coach Dungy said. He said, you know when given and I’m sure he gets tons of opportunities, as you might well imagine, and he says, I sit down with every opportunity and I pray this prayer; and I say, God am I the only one that can fulfill this? Am I the only, and am I the best one to handle this? And he says that if he feels like he’s not the only or the best one for it, he says no to it. I thought that was a great kind of framework to make decisions on where they invest their time.
Ron: You know I think one of the components that fit into that is if you stop thinking about, is this good for my resume? I don’t really care about my resume. I mean I do, but I don’t. It’s just not relevant. If you stop caring about your resume, or personal capital, or I mean you care about it you don’t want to disappoint, you don’t want to misrepresent God by any means, but if you stop trying to build a resume, then those kind of things get easier to evaluate critically and with a clear lens, instead of this looks good for my next job.
Ray: Well, Adam do you have any closing thoughts or questions or comments for Ron? This has been a great conversation today.
Adam: Yeah, I really I’ve really enjoyed listening to you. I love the deep end of the pool with the bricks because that’s it’s a great visual. I can see myself trying to swim with my feet while I’m holding bricks, and somebody else is handing me another another brick expecting me not to go and you’ve already got seven.
Ray: Okay, last thing I want to ask Ron is Proverbs 4:23 says this: it says, above all else guard your heart for from it comes the wellspring of life. So give us an above all else piece of advice to today’s Christian in the marketplace. Above all else…
Ron: Wow, caught me off guard with that. Above all else, I think is be true to that which is God’s will. I think when you get up in the morning and some guy when you get up in the morning, and you’re shaving, looking in the mirror. If you can’t be true to that guy and you don’t disappoint that guy knowing that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then you drop the ball.
Ray: That’s pretty good for an on-the-spot answer.
Ron: That’s the best I got.
Adam: Ron Brumbarger, just a pleasure to have you in here from Bitwise and Apprentice University. Bottom Line Faith can be found online; you’ll be happy to know we’re part of the Internet. It’s BottomLineFaith.org with episodes and information about Ray Hilbert, Truth At Work and myself, Adam Ritz. So we thank you again for coming in, and we’ll have you back someday.
Ron: Thank you.
Ray: Thank you, Ron.