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Byrnes tells how MC impacted his successful career

Barry McNamara
12/06/2011
David Byrnes ’72
 David Byrnes ’72 is part of a long line of Monmouth College success stories. Now, the chairman of the college’s board of trustees is doing what he can to make sure that pipeline continues.

“A lot of our alumni have been successful, not just financially, but in many other important ways that have impacted people’s lives for the better,” said Byrnes, a biology major at Monmouth who founded FACTS Management, Inc. The company became the nation’s largest provider of tuition payment plans for both the private K-12 and post-secondary markets.

Byrnes attributes a lot of his success to what he learned at Monmouth, particularly the ability to draw upon knowledge across disciplines.

“I am sure during my time as a student, the college leaders did not sit down and say ‘Hey, we’re going to produce talented graduates who cross disciplines, solve complex issues and become leaders in their fields.’ The emphasis then was centered primarily on a student’s major. Interdisciplinary thinking and application was almost a byproduct of the Monmouth liberal arts education.”

That was how it was in 1972, but now Byrnes believes that Monmouth’s brand of liberal arts education with an intentional focus on cross-discipline learning is exactly what the world is demanding.

“We are becoming more intentional in our focus on interdisciplinary learning and application of knowledge,” he said. “It is a skill that is in high demand in today’s complex world and Monmouth is uniquely positioned to meet that demand.”

Byrnes believes in it so much that he and his wife, Libby, made the lead gift on the college’s Center for Science and Business, which will be completed in 2013. They recently increased their gift as part of another trustee’s challenge gift for the building.

“We have always done this to a certain extent but now we’re going to do it even better because we are more intentional and purposeful in our planning, courses and related educational opportunities for students,” said Byrnes. “This is what’s happening at Monmouth right now. We need to make more people more aware of what we are doing and that in many ways it is something very unique that only a Monmouth College education offers.”

He continued, “I’m sure it may be happening at a few other colleges, to some extent. But at Monmouth, we can point to a remarkable number of success stories for such a small college. A brief review of our Hall of Achievement honorees bears that out along with a long list of successful alumni.”

What makes Monmouth’s story even more compelling is that incoming students’ academic profiles would lead people to forecast less success than what those graduates ultimately achieve.

“We are intentionally packaging the academic experience with social and service aspects,” said Byrnes. “It all comes together at Monmouth, and it’s that packaging of tools that is unique. People want that – people need that. When they look at colleges today, parents are demanding outcomes. They’re willing to pay, but they are being careful about where their dollar goes. They don’t want an uncertain, wispy outcome. They need something tangible – they need evidence of the value.”

Call Byrnes Exhibit A. Here is his story:

“I came to Monmouth thinking I wanted to go med school,” he said. “A quarter in organic chemistry persuaded me otherwise.”

So Byrnes turned to biology. He especially enjoyed working with Milt Bowman and credits Bowman for helping him stay in school when difficult circumstances back home in his native Massachusetts threatened to cut his education short.

“Dr Bowman and several other professors including Sam Thompson allowed me to finish the semester from home so that I could stay up with my class,” Byrnes recalled. “It was an incredible effort on their part to take care of me, something I will never forget.”

The early part of Byrnes’ career was spent working for an environmental consulting firm doing environmental impact statements for nuclear and coal-fired power plants. It gave him a sneak preview of the need to integrate science and business knowledge.

“I had the opportunity to present large-scale proposals for multi-discipline projects to large utilities and quickly learned that cost-benefit was a critical part of the success of our proposals,” he said. “Scientific experiments and data are important for understanding and progress, but you really have to balance that out with certain business principles. You’ll have better, well-rounded scientists when they understand the business aspects of what they’re doing. There were many times in my career that I wished I had taken a few business or economics courses at Monmouth.”

Byrnes said his first big career break came at a large public utility in North Dakota in 1978.

“They had the construction of a major power plant nearly suspended due to environmental issues related to the whooping crane,” said Byrnes. “Everyone in the environmental division was fired over it, and I was hired as part of a new group. Getting this issue resolved was my primary job at the outset. I really developed a number of skills during that time that were well beyond science. My education at Monmouth, especially the communication skills I learned, helped me navigate successfully through this experience.”

However, the bottom fell out of the energy business in 1981 and Byrnes left North Dakota to return to Lincoln, Neb., in 1982. A one-year consulting contract with the utility softened the blow, allowing him to try other entrepreneurial efforts which included starting a compost company. The good news was his business idea was solid (but unfortunately ahead of its time). The bad news was that the company was underfunded and eventually failed.

“All the experiences I had, even the failures in Lincoln, came together to prepare me,” he said.

Byrnes finally hit his big idea with automatic bank payments.

“The only companies using automatic payments in 1985 were insurance companies, and they were usually doing them badly and people really disliked them,” Byrnes explained.

During a meeting with a friend who was the chairman of the board of a Catholic high school in Nebraska that was struggling financially due to delinquent and unpaid tuition and fees, Byrnes hashed out on the back of a napkin his plan for how he could help the school.

“It turned out that I basically did our initial business plan for FACTS in those 15 minutes,” he said. “It amounted to changing the priority of how/when the school got paid by using automatic bank payments to get paid first instead of last. Deciding to do this took real courage by the early schools that used our service since so many people feared and disliked automatic payments. The key was linking the ability to budget tuition payments with the mandatory use of automatic payments. The real hero in our success was those early schools who took a chance on us.”

Still, it took time. Byrnes said it was five years before the company broke even. But the company continued to grow, moving from 300 to 400 schools and about 100,000 individual accounts with parents after 10 years to more than 4,000 schools and approximately a million accounts when Byrnes sold the company in 2005.

“We hired tremendous people,” said Byrnes. “We hired people who fit our culture and mission, which is tremendously important. We were a Christian company, and I knew the type of people we wanted to hire. We had a pretty simple motto that we used to empower all our people: ‘Do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do.’ When you apply this successfully at all levels of the company with both customers and co-workers, incredible things happen.”

Byrnes was able to address the fact that “I knew what I didn’t know” by making key hires in areas like technology and human resources.

“We started out as a tuition management company, but we became an information management company. The head of our IT was a guy I trusted. I didn’t know a lot about IT, but I knew what I wanted it to do for our company and our customers. Technology quickly can become a ‘black hole’ if you are not careful, but we kept clear objectives in mind, which requires analytical thinking and fiscal discipline. We applied a whole lot of common sense in our business, and it paid off for us as we became the largest provider of tuition payment plans and financial needs analysis in the K-12 and college markets. We were recognized several times for our innovation in technology and information management for our customers.”

Looking back, Byrnes said, “I attribute a lot of my success to the things I learned at Monmouth and the people I met there. One of the abilities I took away from Monmouth was the way I process information; the scientific method is perhaps the easiest way to define it. I’m able to apply that method of processing information to problems and issues and provide solutions. I usually can see several sides of an issue, evaluate them and arrive at an agreed upon solution.”

In other words, rather than just using his science background at Monmouth to bridge the gap when talking business, it brought a third element into the mix – a type of creative problem solving.

“The more often the process is repeated, the more confidence I had in my abilities and my judgment,” he said. “At FACTS, I tried to make our staff comfortable about proposing solutions. They’d go out on a limb with their ideas, which was great. Then I’d put it all in a blender and come up with a decision.”

Byrnes said the company also experienced success through its concept of “an autopsy without blame.”

“When something didn’t work, we didn’t point fingers. We sat down and figured out how to make it work better. Having autopsy without blame – which does not mean no accountability – was an important component of empowering people to do the right thing for our customers.”

One of Monmouth College’s success stories is certainly interested in helping the college to create more. But he’s also interested in helping others, period.

“I never imagined the type of financial success that has happened to me and my wife,” Byrnes said. “God has blessed us tremendously. He intended for us to share it with others, and we’ve been able to give a significant amount to charity. We’ve given some to Monmouth and to our church and to mission groups – things we believe in and support. There are many people doing incredible work in God’s name in very difficult places. In the past two years, I have met three incredible people who are changing people’s lives on a daily basis. Each of these ministries, which are all involved with orphans, do more with less than anything I have ever seen. I am blessed to be involved with them.”

That includes a group that works with orphans in Moldova. In May, Byrnes was part of a nine-member Monmouth College trip that traveled to the eastern European nation. To a person, the group called it a “life-changing” trip, with Byrnes saying, “It was incredible to watch the spiritual and emotional bonding take place between the orphans and the students in our group. Friendships were forged, and there were talks about future possibilities for each other both in Moldova and the U.S. It was global citizenship being created at the best level.”

Thirty-nine years after he walked across the stage to receive his Monmouth College diploma, David Byrnes is still working hard to make a difference. That difference doesn’t even have to involve business or science, when you get right down to it. More like, “Do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do.”

“If you are open to it, God will present many life changing opportunities for that to occur,” concluded Byrnes.