On Saturday, May 20, graduating students at Saint Martin’s University were treated to an inspiring commencement speech from Brad Furber, an entrepreneur and innovator who grew up in the South Puget Sound. Brad has been living and working in Australia, but he returned to his home turf at the invitation of the university. I was lucky enough to catch a few moments with him while he was visiting his parents in Olympia, prior to graduation.
With a wide range of experience in law and business around the globe and heart-felt ties to the Olympia community, Furber spoke directly to the students, sharing his insights and experiences in both life and business. For the graduates, looking towards a “blank slate” for their careers, Furber’s words both inspired and guided their outlook for tomorrow.
Brad was born and raised in the South Sound, growing up fishing and water skiing at his family’s summer home on Cooper Point in Olympia, while spending the school year in Tacoma. They had an unusual arrangement with the renters of the Olympia home, who swapped with them each summer so his family could enjoy time on the beach.
“I used to get up about 6:00 a.m. each day and I had a little ‘tinny’ – a 12-foot aluminum boat – and go fishing,” Brad shared. “I’d fish for sea-run cutthroat and jack salmon, would usually end up with at least a dog fish.” He still returns to the Olympia home with his wife and children each summer, since his parents moved there permanently after retirement.
Brad has been working since junior high. His first job was selling daffodils at a roadside stand when he was in seventh grade. He said, “I was always pretty entrepreneurial as a kid. I learned a lot about sales and marketing and hard work. That sort of just carried me through life. I started paying Social Security tax when I was 12 years old.”
After earning a Bachelor of Arts from University of Washington, Brad went on to get his Master of Public Policy and Juris Doctor from Duke University. He shared that one of his best jobs was working back in Olympia for Tim Malone, who was Assistant Attorney General in the late 1980s. “Tim was just a brilliant lawyer and he was particularly good at appellate and Supreme Court litigation,” he shared. “He was a lot of fun and he became my mentor…He really became my friend.” Brad and Tim remained friends even after they no longer worked together, eventually taking a trip to Nepal.
Brad worked with the law firm Bogle and Gates for five years, during the time when it was the second largest firm in Washington. From there, he and one of the firm’s partners left to develop an innovative new business model, designed to better serve start-up clients and small businesses. Brad shared, “This was about the same time that Jerry Maguire came out – the memo really resonated with me – if I were to work for fewer clients, but go all in, I could give them better service.” The dot com boom brought him many of his clients and he and his partner had five years of success before the industry collapse in the early 2000s. With clients dwindling, they merged with a larger firm in order to ensure stability for their staff.
“Then I got antsy again,” said Brad. “One of my clients had a failed merger, but we ended up getting a good settlement from them, which got me pretty popular with the entrepreneur and he made me an offer to join his company as president. So that’s when I quit law and started doing business.”
That business was the Xeriton Corporation, where Brad ultimately spent about five years as president and CEO. When the founder decided it was time to sell, Brad decided it was time to move on. His wife Sabine, who is a physician by training, was working as a medical scientific liaison and had the opportunity to transfer overseas. Brad said, “She’s originally from Europe and suggested we move there when our kids were in middle school – middle school just kinda sucks, it doesn’t matter where you’re at…if there was ever a time to go overseas, this was the time. She got a job with Norvo Nordisk, which is headquartered in Copenhagen…I wasn’t a huge fan at first, I don’t speak Danish and there are no mountains in Denmark. But as time went by, I started getting involved in the Danish entrepreneurial network as a thought leader.”
One of the entrepreneurial endeavors he invested in while in Denmark was developing and trademarking the concept Term Sheet Battle. A Term Sheet is one of the foundations of a business agreement and a Term Sheet Battle provides the opportunity to “demystify the term sheet for budding entrepreneurs in order to get their businesses off the ground.”
Brad’s experience as an innovator eventually led to a job offer from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. They invited him to design and launch their new Michael Crouch Innovation Centre in 2014. Sabine was able to transfer once again, so off they went. Brad said, “It’s been a fantastic ride. I’ve learned a ton and our innovation center has just taken off. It was the right time and right place and we are now widely respected as the leading innovation center in Australia.” Another reason he’s enjoyed the experience – “Sydney is like the Pacific Northwest, but with better weather.”
As we talked, Brad shared some of the wisdom he hoped to offer during his commencement speech at Saint Martin’s. His main hope was to get the message across that success is really about positioning oneself to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. He shared, “It’s better to be lucky than smart sometimes. It helps when you’re an outsider and a rookie. You just start asking questions and if you ask enough questions, you can see where the opportunities emerge. You essentially position yourselves for the opportunity to get lucky. You make your own luck.”
Brad is ready to make his own luck once again. With both children now in college, he and Sabine feel it’s time. “It’s a good opportunity for the university to do a phase 2 growth plan, so it’s a good time for me to bow out and for them to recruit somebody new,” he shared. “Sabine and I have always been collaborators in where we want to go big picture-wise. We go places where we can both be successful. Now we’re moving to Switzerland, just like the graduates that are making a big step. But it’s not random – we’ve been planning for this for seven years.”
As for what’s next on the career horizon, Brad shared, “I’m a fisherman, so I’m fishing. Right now I’ve got a few nibbles, but I think I’ll wait until I’ve got my boots on the ground before I decide – when you move to a foreign country, it’s important that you make good decisions…Switzerland is ranked as the most innovative nation in the world. If you want to fish where the fish are, it’s Switzerland. I’m going to have to figure out who to align myself with, but I’m not in a hurry. I want to make sure they’re people I want to work with.”
After Switzerland though, Brad and Sabine already know where they’ll land. He said, “We decided we are going to buy my parents’ house. The final end game is to retire in Olympia.”