What does success mean to you? If you posed that question to billionaire cattleman Bob Funk — who grew up on a small, impoverished family farm and went on to earn fame and fortune — you might be surprised by his response.
“Money is not my motivator and never will be,” Funk says. “Entrepreneurship is all about building businesses that give you the opportunity to help others to succeed in their lives.”
Funk’s life and the empire he built from the ground up are phenomenal. To understand just how phenomenal, you need to know where he began.
From the time he was old enough to work, Funk milked cows on his family’s farm in Washington state. In 1951, at the tender age of 11, he attended a Billy Graham crusade in Seattle. Moved by the preacher’s simple message of salvation, Funk made a commitment to accept Christ as a personal saviour. This act defined his lifelong faith and deeds. Throughout high school, he worked on his cousin’s farm, often from 6 a.m. until 11 o’clock at night, saving to go to university. He loved working with animals, and the farm work ethic instilled drive and a determination to succeed.
With a burning desire to become a preacher, a farmer and a businessman, Funk earned a BA in both theology and business administration from Seattle Pacific University. He followed this with graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
Despite his deep religious beliefs, Funk decided he wouldn’t make a good preacher. Rather than helping people as a minister, he decided to assist people in need by securing employment for them, and went to work for ACME Personnel, a Washington-based personnel placement company. In 1970 he jumped at an offer to manage the ACME agency in Oklahoma. “This was an opportunity to strike out on my own, to be the entrepreneur I always wanted to be,” he says. With a substantial bank loan, he bought out the company 13 years later and co-founded Express Employment Professionals.
His decision to franchise made more money in the first six months than in any one of his previous 17 years with ACME. Under his leadership, the company is now a multi-billion-dollar operation with more than 770 franchises in the U.S., Canada and South Africa that havehelped more than 6.5 million people find meaningful employment. “It gives me enormous pleasure to provide new opportunities in their lives,” he says.
By the late 1980s, the success of “Express Pros” allowed Funk to fulfill his dream of returning to his agricultural roots — this time as a rancher. Purchasing an 1,100-acre ranch in Yukon, Oklahoma, 28 kilometres from Oklahoma City, he stocked it with 50 registered Limousin cattle, then with growing numbers of Angus cattle, and named his enterprise Express Ranches.
In 1996, Jarold Callahan, an assistant professor in the animal science faculty at Oklahoma State University, joined Express Ranches as chief operations manager. His specialty was purebred beef production. Funk and Callahan’s goal was for the Express Ranches brand to become Number One. Callahan says, “Ultrasound data and genetics testing help us in determining the best candidates to yield easier birthing of calves, higher anticipated weight gain and superior quality of meat. By availing ourselves of all new technology, we can now do in three years what used to take 20 years.”
Today Callahan is the company president responsible for exporting Express genetics around the world. And the company with its enviable reputation is now the largest seedstock organization in the U.S.
Funk’s smile broadens as he tells me, “There’s no place like first place.”
Clydesdales and Percherons
In 1996, Funk visited the Canadian Western Agribition in Regina. There he not only fell in love with the rare black-and-white Clydesdales, but knew intuitively that these big, beautiful animals with their gentle, playful personalities and their bushy feathered legs would be a special attraction in Oklahoma, a state already rich in equestrian history.
Recognizing an opportunity, he lost no time in establishing a Clydesdale program at Express Ranches, providing his new progeny with a 1939 barn that he had refurbished by an Amish barn builder from Indiana. The gleaming pine walls, walnut trim and brass coach lights prove, once again, that Bob Funk never does anything halfway.
The Clydes welcome thousands of fans each year to Express Ranches on Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. The team also travels across North America as ambassadors for Express Employment Professionals, helping to raise millions of dollars for one of Funk’s favourite charities — Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals — and starring in parades such as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The team also had the honour of chauffeuring William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their 2011 visit to the Calgary Stampede.
Under the guidance of Josh Minshull — the program’s general manager and a young man known internationally as one of the best drivers in the industry — the team continues to win numerous awards, including first place in the Clydesdale division of the six-horse heavy-hitch competition at Canada’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair for two years in a row.
At the Royal last November, Express Ranches’ recently acquired team of Percherons proudly trotted off with the grand championship, providing Funk and his partner, Janine Regier, the opportunity to climb aboard the sky-high wagon for a victory lap around the coliseum. “It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my lifetime,” said the ecstatic winner.
Funk will tell you he is a cowboy at heart. For some years he owned a small ranch near Cimarron in the northeast corner of New Mexico where he liked to hunt. He always thought neighbouring UUBar was a great ranch. When it came up for sale in 2006, he bought it — all 160,000 acres of high-altitude rangeland.
The appeal was more wildlife and the opportunity to run a herd of cattle. Today Express UUBar is a hunting lodge and a working cattle ranch that has allowed the Express Ranches team to further develop its genetics program while working towards another goal — better cattle. To date, UUBar has increased the calf size by 50 pounds per year.
Funk’s faith in people is unwavering. “I believe that if you find and hire the best people, you will be successful,” he says. “Whatever the business, I believe the strength of the company is dependent on the quality of the individuals you hire.”
Recognizing the tremendous hunting and fishing opportunities UUBar and its property offered, Funk realized he’d better hire an elk expert. In 2010 Funk met John Caid, chairman of the board of the Elk Foundation. Caid, a biologist, was the director of the White Mountain Apache Tribe Game and Fish Department, a job he had held since graduating from university some 30 years earlier.
Funk was immediately drawn to this man who had introduced a whole new philosophy of wildlife management to the two million-acre reserve and who modestly said, “anyone with a passion for wild places can make a difference.” Caid, who authored The Golden Age of Elk Hunting, was largely credited with elevating the trophy potential of the reservation’s elk herd. It took Funk a year and a half to convince Caid to leave his Arizona job and home.
It was Caid’s wife, Teri, with her successful career in management with a large hotel chain, who eventually sold her husband on the move. Her insight was based on her strong faith, she says, “my belief that God would direct our paths.”
What Funk didn’t realize was that Teri Caid would also become an invaluable asset to UUBar, where she now wears two hats. As the ranch operations manager, she is responsible for the guest lodge. As general manager of the company-owned St. James Hotel in Cimarron, she oversees all aspects of the hotel and restaurant. It was a natural transition for this former hotel executive, who also applied her considerable interior-design talent to furnishing and decorating the guest and common rooms at both properties.
John Caid, UUBar general manager, oversees both the Angus cattle and the elk-hunting programs. His wildlife habitat-improvement experience resulted in significant advances to the free-range trophy-quality elk hunting program. Bulls in the 330- to 350-inch class are not uncommon. A few have even taped out above 370 inches. UUBar is developing into one of the largest best elk-hunting ranches in the world.
My husband and I visit in March, between November elk-hunting and spring turkey-hunting seasons when mule deer and antelope play in fields surrounding the lodge. Plump wild turkeys do too. Elk, bears and mountain lions are nowhere to be seen while 2,000 head of Angus cattle hang out on vast grasslands farther afield.
This Rocky Mountain paradise rises from 6,000 feet to more than 11,000 feet above sea level in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. It is our first visit to high-altitude rangeland. The immense sky is cloudless; the horizon stretches forever. Everyone is friendly; everything is easy-going. We feel at home straight away.
On an early morning hike, we meet head cowboy, Tommy Powell, who looks as if he has just arrived from Central Casting for a photo op. His 10-gallon hat, hip-hugging jeans, jangling spurs and perfectly knotted neckerchief show us that appearances matter. Far from being there to pose for an ad, Powell is the head cowboy. Along with one of his five horses, he is readying to begin the day’s work. He tells us he has been at UUBar for 13 years. “I used to pick up and move on every two years,” he says, “but this is a place you don’t ever want to leave.” We understand.
We discover the nearby village of Cimarron (population 900), located along the old Santa Fe Trail. Said to have been “a center for business and debauchery in the turbulent days of westward expansion,” it still evokes the rough-and-tumble Wild West, with ranching tourism and the Philmont Scout Ranch being the mainstays of the village economy.
Built in 1872, the St. James Hotel is one of the visible reminders of what once was. Many famous people — including Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp, and outlaws Jesse James and Billy the Kid — bedded down here over the years (rumour has it that their spirits still haunt the halls), and the saloon was the scene of many shootouts (the tin ceiling is pierced with 26 bullet holes).
Funk rescued the hotel from demolition in 2008, seeing an opportunity to provide jobs for local residents. Of the 45 people he hired, 37 had either been unemployed or on workers’ compensation. He also anticipated enticing tourists to Cimarron and providing for potential overflows of UUBar guests.
Funk’s love for the cowboy life and UUBar is obvious, so it came as a surprise to learn that he had sold the ranch the week we visited.
“I have turned down offers a number of times,” he says. “And I certainly suffered sales remorse, but this offer was a win/win and too good to refuse. In addition to an excellent price, I will lease it back for the remainder of my life and continue to put the Express Ranches stamp on all we do.”
UUBar was not Funk’s first large local purchase. The legendary 140,000-acre Philmont Scout Ranch is adjacent to UUBar. It is the Boy Scouts of America National High Adventure Base, with 23,000 annual participants. The property comprises a series of bequests to the Boy Scouts, beginning in 1938, from Oklahoma oil baron, Waite Phillips.
As a kid growing up, Funk was too busy working to be a scout, but when he learned that the adjacent Atmore Ranch was to be sold and cut up into 20-acre building lots that would ruin hiking through the wilderness for generations of scouts, he bought it.
When a devastating fire destroyed 25,000 acres of the Philmont property last year, Funk lost no time in making UUBar trails available to the Scouts, enabling their hikes to continue uninterrupted this summer. “Bob is a very good neighbour,” says Steve Nelson, director of camping services for the Boy Scouts. “When he saw we needed help, that’s exactly what he provided.”
In 2014, when the fixed-base operator of Raton Municipal Airport didn’t renew his management agreement with the city, Funk came to the rescue. When contemplating an entrepreneurial decision such as buying an airport, Funk says, his first criterion is to differentiate between calculated risk and total risk. Founding Express Aviation Services to partner with the city, Funk took a calculated risk (and not for the first time), then successfully staffed it with qualified people and expanded and improved operations.
“In a rural area like ours, a small general aviation airport that services medical and government needs is extremely important,” said Raton city manager Scott Berry. “Bob Funk is a great partner.” Many of the airport’s customers fly in to spend time at vacation homes or visit the Scout Ranch, or, as Funk and Janine do once or twice a month, head to UUBar.
In all his endeavours, Funk has applied the lessons he learned growing up on the land, and that has led to successes he readily admits he could never have imagined. At age 79, when most people have retired, he still averages an 11-hour work day and has no intention of slowing down.
Retirement? “Never,” he says, with a chuckle. “Candidly, I will probably die in my chair at the office. Because I love what I do and I don’t consider it work.”
Josh Minshall echoes what every employee we met at UUBar says about their boss. “It is an absolute pleasure to work for Bob. He cares so much about his people and he does so much for us that we can’t do enough for him.”
Bob Funk is a man who lives his belief — “Stay humble and care for people,” he says. “The most successful you will be is the last person you have helped in your life.”