BTU #249 - Army Veteran to Founder of Bronson Lee Partners (Chris Brusznicki)

I used test prep as a way to put food on the table as we got the business going. When you start a new company, you should think about whether there is a skill you can use to earn money on the side while you’re getting that business going. It can be challenging though because in my case, what I was doing to earn money on the side wasn’t directly related to my company.
— Chris Brusznicki

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Why Listen:
My guest today invested in properties as an undergraduate college student. Nearly ten years later, he started two different companies that built on that experience. In this interview we talk about how Chris used trusted advisors as a sounding board, and how that led him to abandon his plans of pursuing a PHD to instead pursue a completely different career path. We talk about what it’s like to pursue an MBA and Masters of Engineering Management simultaneously at a top tier grad school. We talk about what caused him to leave a very comfortable career at Goldman Sachs and, instead, jump into the wild and unpredictable world of entrepreneurship. We also have a fantastic discussion about how to evaluate whether to start a company directly from Active Duty vs gaining more experience first.

About Chris:
Chris Brusznicki is Managing Director at Bronson Lee Partners, which factors delinquent tax receivables for municipalities. The company uses proprietary software to underwrite, lend, and service thousands of receivables and their underlying assets annually. Chris started Bronson Lee nearly 10 years ago. He started out at the University of Notre Dame, served in the US Army as a Captain with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, prior to earning his MBA & Masters of Engineering Management at Northwestern University. Since Kellogg he has worked at Goldman Sachs, Manhattan Prep, as well as the Founder & Chairman of Vacation Rental Partners.

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Selected Resources: 

Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining us today from Old Town, Chicago is Chris Brusznicki. Chris Brusznicki is Managing Director at Bronson Lee Partners, which factors delinquent tax receivables for municipalities. The company uses proprietary software to underwrite, lend, and service thousands of receivables and their underlying assets annually. Chris started Bronson Lee nearly 10 years ago.

He started out at the University of Notre Dame, served in the US Army as a Captain with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, prior to earning his MBA & Masters of Engineering Management at Northwestern University. After Kellogg, he worked at Goldman Sachs, Manhattan Prep, and is the Founder & Chairman of Vacation Rental Partners.


How would you explain what you do for a living?

The short answer is that I work in real estate. If you think about a Monopoly board, we invest in the Baltic Ave type properties - areas that are a bit more run down. We find the busted up homes and neighborhoods and then help those areas get back on their feet.


What was the transition out of the Army like for you?

I had a degree in Mathematics. I was thinking about getting a Ph. D. in Mathematics and becoming a teacher. During my time in college and in the military, I had had a lot of side businesses like making websites for people and working construction jobs. I was passionate about the idea of continuing in real estate in some way.

I talked to some folks who were very experienced in real estate and they advised me to think about the idea of getting an MBA. So I ended up going to the Kellogg School of Management. It gave me the opportunity to explore some different entrepreneurship ideas I had had.

I highly recommend to anyone that is separating talking to people that are working in the industry you want to get into. Also talk to recently separated veterans. Both sets of people will give you valuable advice about things to think about for your future.


At the time you were going to school for your MBA, you were also working on a Master’s degree in Engineering Management. How was that?

I had just finished reading the book The World Is Flat. It talks about how globalized our world is and how important engineering is to the American economy. So given my background, I really still wanted to pursue engineering and mathematics in some way. So I ended pursuing a joint degree program. It wasn’t quite as challenging a transition as the business school side because my background as an undergraduate was in that field whereas I had no background in business and management. There was so much new terminology on the MBA side.


Can you talk about starting Bronson Lee Partners?

While I was in business school, my partner and I had started investing in real estate. One of them was called Game Day Housing in which we were buy properties in South Bend, Indiana near Notre Dame Stadium and fixing them up. We made a website out of it and that company still exists as a vacation rental company. The company went through a lot of twists and turns throughout its life. That company started just by buying a small house near the stadium. We fixed it up to give fans an alumni to the run down hotels that were in the area.

When I was at Goldman, that business was still pretty small. We were in the process of taking a website and opening it up to the world. At that time Airbnb didn’t exist. At the same time, we were buying homes and adding them to our inventory. That hunt for distressed properties is how Bronson Lee got started.

I was at Goldman from 2007-2010. I got a call out of the blue at business school from a head hunter. I was really excited to work there but the financial crisis was happening at this same time as we were going through multiple rounds of layoffs. My job was getting progressively worse during this time because we were having to take over the work of the people getting laid off.

Goldman is a very mission oriented culture so a lot of people are drawn to that. Michael Lewis just wrote a book The Fifth Risk. In that book he talks about how only 15% of the general population is mission driven but in NASA, 85% of the employees are mission driven. In the military, I think it’s very similar. And at Goldman, there were a lot of mission driven people too. But as we were going through these layoffs, my role kept getting morphed into something I wasn’t as excited about. But my companies were also doing pretty good at this time. I thought that it was the right time to start doing it full-time.

I approached by boss and to their credit, they were hesitant. I had a new baby at home and they thought I was crazy to do something like that. They gave me time to think about it and eventually I decided to go for it.

I think it’s important to consider what makes you happy. I took a job at Goldman because it was entrepreneurial and in a sense, I would get to create a company within the firm. But the firm decide they wanted Associate positions to shift their role a bit and what it became wasn’t what I wanted to do.

What I did was work during the day and then build my business in the evenings. The partner at our office was supportive of that. But what really pushed me over the edge was when I brought in a potential client that was worth of $250 million. He was going to pick us or another firm. I worked really hard to bring that prospect in but it was perceived by other people as just being lucky that I stumbled on that investor. I was frustrated that my work in bringing in the prospect wasn’t appreciated so that kind of pushed me toward definitely leaving.


How helpful do you think it was to have an MBA and your experience at Goldman Sachs when starting your own company?

Could I have done this without business school and my experience at Goldman? No, I don’t think so. My company is very financially focused. So having an understanding of different financial structures is absolutely vital. Having experience at Goldman adds credibility when working with clients because it’s such a well thought of brand.

If you’re going to do something where you have to raise a lot of money from partners, it really helps to understand corporate finance and to have experience with a Goldman type brand.

It’s not a deal breaker not having experience in a particular field that interests you. If you’re doing something on active duty but have an interest in a particular area when you get out, it’s possible to get experience very quickly. But I would recommend trying to get experience with a particular company in an area you’re interested in first before starting your own business.

Early on, we were building a lot of technology. I thought I had enough skills at that time but I really wish I had the coding skills then that I do now. When we were getting our business going, I was doing test prep on the side. It put food on the table but it wasn’t related to what our business was doing. So I recommend trying to find something on the side that will give you hard skills that you can then apply to your business.


Can you talk about the first year of starting your own business?

My wife and I took all of our cash and put it into Bronson Lee Partners. So we had very little cash available. When I was serving, I saved everything I could and invested it. So that’s how we had the money to get the business going initially. At that time we only had our first daughter who was one. At that age, kids aren’t that expensive. We were able to get by on almost nothing.

In that first year, I calculated how much I could earn through my test prep work and how much the business would cost us. At that time, Game Day Housing was the biggest cash generator for us. It was growing but not as much as we thought it would. This was in 2010 and people really weren’t spending money on things like that. They were much more focused on essentials like food and gas.

In certain markets, we were growing at a large rate. In College Station, TX we went from a handful of rental homes to over 100 homes. But in other areas, there was almost no growth.

At Manhattan Prep, I started teaching 12 hours a week to make ends meet. But for a few months I was only teaching 3 hours a week. I wrote questions and textbooks - whatever I could do to get more hours.

So that first year it was just hard because we were faced with the idea that we didn’t have enough cash to keep the company going.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

Who you are now and who you want to be is separated only by time and effort. You have to find internally what that drive is that is going to keep you going. Military members are good at staying focused and not giving up. So keep that going during and after your transition. Keep doing what you’ve been doing your entire time in the military as far as drive and determination.