By Tim Farley, News Editor – From all appearances, business tycoon and Oklahoma rancher Bob Funk is on top of the world with mountains of cash and a global industry empire that should only get bigger.
Outsiders would believe the founder and chief executive officer of Express Employment Professionals sits atop a financial gold mine that won’t shut down anytime soon.
They’d be right.
Funk’s success is almost unmatched, but the chance to achieve a lofty status in the world of business almost didn’t happen.
Yet, after 35 years in the temporary staffing industry, Funk’s work isn’t complete. The company hired 550,000 people last year, but the CEO’s goal is to put a whopping one million Americans on a payroll.
Funk, armed with good health and an undeniable Oklahoma cowboy work ethic, isn’t slowing down. In addition to executive decisions that await him on a daily basis, Funk, 77, is interviewed regularly by national publications and news outlets that produce stories about jobs, hiring practices and unemployment rates. Funk is valued for his expertise in the temporary staffing industry and his keen insights into the global business market. In his executive role at Express, Funk provides the kind of insight only he can after 35 years of helping people find jobs.
But as he recently said in a one-on-one interview at the Express International headquarters in Oklahoma City, his success and that of his company was one decision away from never occurring.
“We started this company in a bust during the fall of 1982 and you know what happened then,” he said, referring to the Penn Square Bank collapse and the beginning of a major financial crisis that shook the foundation of large-scale financial institutions and oil companies.
“Unemployment was 14 percent and interest rates were 20 percent and I had $5,000 to my name,” Funk said.
Looking for help, Funk turned to Paul Springfield at Rolling Hills State Bank in Piedmont. Springfield approved a business loan for $150,000, which was a gutsy decision at that time.
From there, Funk and Express Personnel – as it was known then – took off and never looked back.
“If not for them (Rolling Hills State Bank), we wouldn’t be in existence,” the Express CEO said.
Thirty-five years later, Express is the nation’s No. 1 temporary staffing company for light industrial and office services and the 12th largest for professional services. Funk also boasts that 62 percent of the temporary workers placed by Express end up being hired to stay full-time.
“We have 860 open positions we’re trying to fill right now,” Funk said, making direct references to the shortage of workers in information technology, welding, human resources, customer service and computer numerically controlled (CNC) operators.
At that point, Funk became critical of public schools that fail to teach students much-needed “soft skills,” otherwise known as relationship development. A brochure Express distributes summarizes a recent survey of employers. In order, the survey found the top traits employers want in employees are good attitude, work ethic/integrity, communication, culture fit and critical thinking.
“We’re so computer oriented they (students) haven’t built relationships with people and they don’t know how to relate,” he said. “But those who have good people skills will get the better jobs.”
High schools and middle schools need to place more focus on preparing students for the workforce, Funk said.
“They need to do a better job giving these students direction for their lives,” he said.
“Teachers say you have to make it exciting and not just teach math or science.”
At the same time, Funk praised Oklahoma’s CareerTech system for doing an “incredible job” training students in various blue-collar and white-collar fields.
“The reason they’re doing such a good job is when industry calls they respond,” he said.
“Canadian Valley (Technology Center) met with three major companies this week. They (Canadian Valley) are flexible enough to put together programs for these companies in as little as four weeks. Halliburton is hiring now and the technology center is designing a new program for them.”
Still, the workforce must take advantage of the experience and collected wisdom of older Americans who can contribute to a company’s success, Funk said.
“Experience is more important than education. Good skill outweighs education level. We would take an over-skilled worker than an over-educated person. Older workers can out-produce the younger ones working only three to four days a week. I’m 77 so I’m not going to discriminate against someone 58 or older,” he said, with a smile.
Funk doesn’t back down from his old-fashioned values when talking about social welfare programs and the role they play in unemployment rates.
“The challenge we face is people have to have the ambition to work. Social benefits are too high,” he said. “Some states have cut off disability, which creates lower unemployment.”
Funk told the story of a California man who received $81,000 annually in welfare and other social benefits.
“That man said he couldn’t afford to come off welfare, which is part of the problem with putting people to work again,” he said. “The higher the social benefits, the harder it is to come off the rolls. The best social program out there is a job.”
Communities and states that emphasize jobs and job training for the unemployed also benefit from better public images and significant reductions in crime, Funk said.
The Express founder and CEO also has confidence in President Donald Trump and his vision for creating more jobs in the U.S.
“He is on track with keeping more jobs at home,” Funk said. “If you think we’re just an Oklahoma economy, we’re not. We’re a global economy. The reason companies go overseas is wages. In countries like China, Bangladesh and Mexico, workers make $3 a day. Here, workers are earning $57 an hour. You see the difference?”
However, Funk doesn’t hold high wages against the American working class. Instead, he believes companies should settle for less profit so Americans can continue to be employed. He promotes the notions that businesses which stay in the U.S. have little, if any, shipping costs and parts are easier to obtain.
Funk told the story about a project at his Yukon-based Express Ranches and the need for one small part.
“We’re told the part is coming from China and it will be three weeks,” he said. “If those parts were made here, it could be here overnight.”
Despite some of the problems that exist, Funk – who obtained his college degree in theology – remains the eternal optimist.
“We have a great future here in Oklahoma the next three to four years. And, if Trump will do what he says he can do we will have a great future (nationwide).”
Funk is an advocate for rescinding some restrictions from the Dodd-Frank Act, which is fully known as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Dodd-Frank is a federal law that places regulation of the financial industry in the hands of the government. Dodd-Frank was passed by Congress in 2010 and signed by President Obama in response to the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. Other federal regulations that should be rescinded currently require banks to maintain anywhere from 12 to 14 percent equity.
“You have all this cash sitting in banks that can’t be loaned out,” Funk said. “If banks were able to use that money, it would benefit small businesses and allow them to hire more people.”
The employers Express deals with are small and medium-size firms with fewer than 250 employees. Since starting Express in 1982, the company has helped 6.5 million people find work.
However, the relationship between employer and employee begins with the job seeker.
“There is a job for every person and a person for every job. The key is are you going to put forth the effort to find that job where you have the upward mobility,” Funk said. “A lot of people are not willing to go knock on enough doors. You have to knock on doors on a weekly basis to find that right opportunity. Some people don’t want to make that commitment.”
Funk also promotes the idea that people should work at a company where they’ll enjoy the work, even if the pay isn’t what they want at the time.
“It should be about the quality of the company you work for,” he said. “When I first started years ago, I was making $375 a month and others were making $1,000 a month, but I enjoyed what I did.”
Funk’s Oklahoma City office, filled with gorgeous photographs and years of mementos, is a reminder that he’s still on the job and working to help others – and enjoying it.