Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is The BusinessMakers Show. I’m very pleased to have as my guest today repeat guest Bill Sherrill; Bill, welcome to The BusinessMakers.
Bill: Thank you.
Russ: Welcome back, it’s your third time.
Bill: It’s been a number of years.
Russ: 2005, 2010 and the reason you got on my radar this time is because of this book It Makes Me Wonder, kind of a life story of a very successful, incredible person; that would be you.
Bill: Thank you.
Russ: now I thought I knew a whole lot about you, having interviewed you twice before, but I realize man I just had a miniscule viewpoint. The surprises to me were first that you were headed towards being not even a high school dropout – you hadn’t even made it to high school.
Bill: Yes, you cannot accuse me of being a high school dropout; never put a foot in it.
Russ: Right, so it was the 8th grade and you were really struggling and not interested and I don’t know if it’s right to say this but you were saved by the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.
Bill: That is truly correct. I was just pointed in the wrong direction. I was heading for a life that was going to be more destructive than constructive and it was a saving for me.
Russ: You got in and joined the Marines because your older brother went in first.
Bill: Yes and I went in to be a regular. I signed for 4 years, I didn’t sign for the war and so I was going to make the Marine Corp my career.
Russ: Yet you were only 15.
Bill: Yes. Well now see I was 17 in everybody else’s mind because as Texans we can exaggerate you know.
Bill: And 15 was different in those days than 15 now.
Russ: That’s true. I do remember that from the prior interview; that you really wanted to go in and you exaggerated your age and you got in in a very difficult time. But you seemed to love it and immediately get assigned to the group that headed to Iwo Jima.
Bill: Well you see what happened was the reason I didn’t like school was I was shabby with hand me down clothes and the kids would make fun of me. I would laugh and go along with it but I was really humiliated. And so when I got in the Marine Corp you go through this boot camp and in which they beat you down to nothing; it didn’t bother me, I was already nothing. I didn’t think anything was wrong at all with all they called me and all that. And then they bring you out of it and they make you into a Marine and they give you all the pride of the Marine Corp; it was a wonderful feeling for me. It was such a change that I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Russ: And my goodness, you were right in the middle of battle being assigned several different sort of artillery leadership positions fairly quickly.
Bill: Well you see that was the lucky part. I went over the first time and went into the defensive on Palomino Island and spent 16 months there training with prewar Marines; they really knew what they were doing. So I got that time to go up and then they sent me back to the states for 6 months and then promptly back over a second time. So I was a little experienced by the time I went over the second time because I joined a combat outfit there; joined the Third Division 9th Marines and missed the Bougainville action but got to talk to the men that were in it all the way, learned about Japanese tactics and that sort of thing. But then we went on to the Guam Campaign which was a pretty tough one but nothing like Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was in a different league.
Russ: Well from what I always hear about the whole Pacific battles that took place, I mean they were some of the toughest that American soldiers have ever been involved in. It was close range combat and so forth and you experienced that.
Bill: My platoon on Guam got reduced from 43 men to 12 in one battle so it was tough.
Russ: It was interesting when I – I mean that’s kind of the first chapter or two in this book and a part that I didn’t know about – I did know that you were wounded and that sort of changed the direction of your life too, but you had a couple of battlefield descriptions that were probably pretty accurate – what you never mentioned, and I’m curious to ask you about this, is this PTSD thing; this Post traumatic Stress Disorder. And clearly you were in battlefield operations where many men would feel that way; did you experience that at all?
Bill: No, you know at that time I learned compartmentalizing. In your mind you take things and put them in a compartment and when you don’t want to view them anymore you’re through with that compartment and put it behind you. And I learned to do that and all these years I can still do it. It saves you from that very thing. If you keep thinking about those things they’re too terrible, you see why they go crazy.
Russ: Yeah, wow. So it was being wounded in the arm but it turned out to be a pretty serious wound after all because you had nerve damage that put you – it took you out of the battlefield. But you were always thinking you were going to go back in.
Bill: Sure, I spent 14 months at Oakland Naval Hospital and for 13 of those months I thought this is a great wound. This is going to be a career advancement, get a Purple Heart and everything I need. But then when they told me they were going to discharge me medically I thought the end of the world came. I was actually suicidal because I was going back to being nothing, but nothing with a bad arm. I couldn’t even dig a ditch so I really could see the end of it for me. And then things just changed remarkably.
Russ: Well and if I got it right one thing that changed is that you got put in with these people that were doing some intellectual intelligence testing and you ranked very high. To the point where they person doing the testing recommended you should go back and go to college right?
Bill: Exactly and that’s the part that makes me wonder because I had not…
Russ: It Makes Me Wonder, the title of the book.
Bill: I had not prepared myself and the results of those tests – well my first thought was the young woman jiggled the results in my behalf and when I tried to jump on her about that she was so into it that I realized she didn’t have any part of it. And I still don’t understand how those results came out.
Russ: But it ultimately led you to enter the University of Houston and even that step to get in was filled with intrigue and suspense because I think you said that to allow you to come in you had to have a certain – you had to have a GED or have a High School diploma.
Bill: The certificate of equivalency for the GED.
Russ: It didn’t say you had to have one.
Bill: It mentioned that they expected me to have it.
Russ: They expected you to.
Bill: But they didn’t say I had to and that difference was getting an education or not.
Russ: And that got you in.
Bill: It got me in. Mr. Wilkins was handling the signups for veterans a while back. We stood in long lines and he wasn’t even looking and I stood up there the first time and he said let me have your papers and he reached up so I handed them to him. And he said let me have your certificate and I said I don’t have it, that’s the first time he looked up at me. And I explained what the situation was and I said just give me one semester. Give me a shot, I won’t cause any problems. He looks up at me and he says well what the hell, they don’t say you have to have it and signed me up.
Russ: That’s so cool. So you entered the University of Houston and made several lifelong friends in there; Jack Valenti, now the Valenti School of Communications, Welcome Wilson who we’ve had on the show, and you were all buddies right?
Bill: Yep, and Johnny Gown.
Russ: Johnny Gown, yeah he showed up too.
Bill: We were. We all got together for the Jamaica Corporation and we worked it all together at first and then we thought that wasn’t going to work out so Welcome and I took it on and took the 75% interest in it while the rest of the guys stayed with us with their minor roles but stayed with their regular life.
Russ: And the Jamaica Corporation did significant residential development on Galveston Island and then Tiki Island too and that sort of was where you kind of got your experience in entrepreneurship.
Bill: Exactly, it was my first time out so it was a very good experience with a very good group. You know how we stayed together without causing problems is amazing. If you think of those 5 guys they’re all pretty interesting in their own light.
Russ: Absolutely they are.
Bill: And how Welcome Wilson could lead us without any sort of eruption I’ll never know.
Russ: That’s great. So if you’re watching this interview and you want to know the details you’ve got to read the book because it’s some cool stories about how you changed what you were doing and pivoted. And you even have a little story in here about an unsuccessful venture with the bamboo fencing which that does you well to experience what it feels like when it doesn’t work out.
Bill: Exactly and being realistic in business that when it’s not going to work it’s time to pick your losses up and not whip a dead horse.
Russ: Right, there you go. So from there it still makes me wonder and you wonder, you’re doing okay, you take a family trip to Aspen and you’re getting ready to come back and you’re getting on the airplane – tell that story.
Bill: Well we had to change planes in Denver in those days to get back from Aspen and I was on the changed plane ready to fly to Houston and they held the plane and called me off of it, the President want to talk to me.
Russ: The President of the United States.
Bill: And this has got everybody’s attention. And of course it isn’t the President on the line, it was one of his assistants, and he said – it wasn’t Valenti by the way, it was one of the others – and he said come directly to Washington, the President wants to talk to you. He didn’t tell me why, no he didn’t. And I said I can’t come directly, I’ve got my ski clothes with me. And he said well call ahead to Houston, have them change – have them pack a bag for you and change planes and come on up here quick as you can. So I got up there at 9:00 – it was noon Friday and I got up there at 9:00 and the President wasn’t waiting up for me some reason.
Russ: He wasn’t? This was LBJ we’re talking about, right?
Bill: LBJ, exactly. So they put me in the hotel across the street – and I still don’t know what it is – and my wife is calling, the reporters are beating on her and I don’t know.
Russ: And you – at this point you’d never met LBJ, is that right?
Bill: I had met him but just in the usual campaign stuff where you shake hands.
Russ: But he kind of knew who you were through Jack Valenti. And Jack Valenti was in what role?
Bill: Executive Assistant to the President.
Russ: Oh wow, okay. So continue on; you’re there in Washington not knowing why he wants to meet you.
Bill: Of course you can imagine the level of my curiosity, and they told me to be ready first thing in the morning Saturday morning. And, you know, first thing in the morning at 7:00 I’m sitting at attention, fully dressed and nothing. At about 9:00 they call me, are you ready yet? Well yes, I’m ready. Well stay ready. Sat there more, until about 11:15 and then they called; quick, come over to the White House. We go over and they put me in the Fish Room, which is where all the activity is, and I’m sitting there still wondering what is this thing all about? And a guy comes by and hands me a sheet of paper, and this sheet of paper is the announcement of my nomination for the Director of FDIC.
Bill: And I looked at that and my mouth falls open and my face – I can’t do this; I’m in development, I’ve borrowed from every bank in Houston, some in Dallas and so I can’t be a bank regulator. So I made up this speech about how flattered and honored I was but I just couldn’t do it. And I had my speech all ready, at noon promptly they said quick, enter the Oval Office. And they opened the door to the Oval Office and there’s the President behind his desk and there was about 40 reporters it turns out on the tour between – and he’s making the announcement.
Russ: Announcing that you’re going to be the Director of the FDIC.
Bill: Yeah, so then the next thing – and I don’t get to say a word in that, they won’t let me – and they take us in this little office next to the old office, and there was the first time I got a chance to talk to the President but he talks first. And he starts explaining how wonderful it is that this country has men like me that will sacrifice for their nation and my speech is going down my throat.
Russ: So you had no chance.
Bill: No chance.
Russ: Wow. Well now you must have felt flattered that not only did he want you but he was going to announce it in such a way that you didn’t have any choice.
Bill: I felt stunned. I just – this was a league I had not operated in at all and it just was going its way and I was just sort of along for the ride at that stage.
Russ: Okay, but you did such a great job. I think you brought in IT, an IBM 360 to start doing the work and after 14 months all of a sudden another opportunity arises when the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Bill Martin wants to meet with you and wants to put you on the Federal Reserve Board and does.
Bill: Well see at the time he didn’t want me. The reason he called me and invited me to dinner to talk and it was really to get rid of me I found out later.
Russ: Because he had two other people that were candidates for the position.
Bill: Exactly right, yeah. In fact what he told me just straight on as soon as we were just one on one together he says you know I have a vacancy coming up on the Federal Reserve Board and I have two candidates for it and the President every time I bring their name up he brings your name up. Either one of these two men is better qualified than you. I’m like right on and all of a sudden in that moment I realized I’m not going to get chewed out, he just wants me out of his way. And I was delighted to get out of his way so I said well Mr. Chairman if they’re qualified at all they’re better qualified than I and he laughed and we laughed and a lot of pressure went out of the room.
Russ: But the more you talked he changed his mind.
Bill: What happened is he asked what did I think about gold as the reserve for the currency and I was free you understand so I said well Mr. Chairman, candidly it’s not very smart. I can’t find any correlation for the need for expanded currency around the world and the rate of mining gold. He laughed and he says Bill you know more about gold than most people here in Washington.
Russ: Which was exactly how he felt as well.
Bill: Exactly. Well I didn’t know that at the time, I just – I was being me.
Russ: And so as a result of that he decided he liked you better than the other candidates and put you on the Federal Reserve Board.
Bill: By the end of the evening he walked me out to my car and as I’m getting in the car he says Bill, I like the cut of your jib, I’m going to recommend you to the President.
Russ: That’s so cool. Now Bill Martin turned out to be a man that you respect perhaps, that you wanted to be like perhaps more than any of these other people; what about him was it?
Bill: Well he just was the ultimate gentleman first of all. He was always considerate and he was very intelligent; he had the total situation in mind. He was one of the big thinkers but he had time in his world to reach down and deal with particular situations as they occur. Example, we were discussing a very difficult situation with the board and Governor Brimmer says you know Chairman it’s going to be hard to do the right thing in this case and he said no, no Mr. Brimrmer it’s going to be hard to know the right thing; that’s kind of my yeah.
Russ: That’s cool, that’s cool. All right, so we have to move along forward here, I understand from there when that stint ended you took a job at a big corporation, kind of didn’t feel like that was right. Came back to your home base here in Houston, you did the thing that I knew about most and that is starting the entrepreneurship organization and initiative at the University of Houston, and what was so touching to me in the book you said that’s the thing that you ultimately enjoyed the most. Is that right?
Bill: Absolutely. You know what happened, I was going to be home for 2 years to rest between rounds – I’m a serial entrepreneur – and I got into teaching and I realized as I taught that this was really the think I enjoyed most in life. I felt most worthwhile as a result of the teaching and you know I came to find out that happiness, real happiness in life, is based on your own judgment of worthwhile-ness. Once you judge yourself worthwhile it’s hard to be unhappy.
Russ: Wow, that’s so cool. Well you did an unbelievable job. I remember in the book you start talking about the difficulties of working into the administration of a university, the debates on whether entrepreneurship was really even something that could be taught or should be taught and you seem to prevail to the point where that’s how you got on my radar in the beginning when I kept reading about the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston, now called the Wolff Center, and my second interview with you out there was based on the fact that that program you were rated number two in the nation by Entrepreneur Magazine and The Princeton Review and then within a year or two rated number one in the country for undergraduate entrepreneurship programs, that must have made you feel pretty good.
Bill: It really did, I mean the number one reading bothered me a little bit because the school that had been number one forever it was sort of like beating God.
Russ: And was that Babson?
Russ: Yeah, I’ve been to Babson, it is impressive up there too.
Bill: It is. Well I worried about beating them.
Russ: Well it’s quite an honor and well deserved. I still remember the recognition a bit, when it was taking place, about winning it and some of your students were in the audience and they yelled out this business formula to you; what did they say?
Bill: They said R – C = P, and that’s why we play the game. Revenue – Cost = Profit, and that’s why we play the game.
Russ: That was so cool. Well the Wolff Center is doing great now so you planted a seed that has grown into a forest now, there’s startups all over the country now that came through that program, so you must be proud. And I really appreciate you Bill sharing your story with us again.
Bill: You bet.
Russ: You bet and the book is really cool, for our viewers it’s available on Amazon and everywhere books are sold. And it’s a great history of Houston, business and even World War II, but mostly of Bill Sherrill. Thanks a lot.
Bill: Thank you.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Bill Sherrill. This is The BusinessMakers Show.
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