(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a three-part series spotlighting John Bruck who moved to Knoxville from Ohio in 2015 and has established himself as a major supporter of entrepreneurs and start-ups in the region.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
No doubt every one of our readers has uttered the phrase, “Hit the ground running.” I know it is one that I frequently say, and there is no one I have met in recent years who better personifies those words than John Bruck.
The Purdue University graduate and long-time Founder and Co-Owner of a Cincinnati-based environmental consulting firm moved to the region – Corryton, to be exact – in early 2015, roughly 18 months after selling the firm. It was a fortuitous move for the region and many of its aspiring entrepreneurs.
We met Bruck on an elevator in Nashville during the 2016 edition of Launch Tennessee’s “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” and immediately struck-up a friendship, one that has only grown as he has become more engaged in a variety of local activities.
Last September, Bruck was named the Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI). He’ll be running a new business accelerator that ACEI, which is part of the Haslam College of Business, will house at the UT Research Foundation’s (UTRF) Business Incubator.
That “part-time” gig – Bruck doesn’t understand the term just like I don’t understand the meaning of “retirement” – is just part of his many activities that include serving on the Innov865 Alliance Steering Committee, mentoring several local start-up founders, launching his own businesses with his sons who now live here, and being active in the Queen City Angels investment group in Cincinnati. Soon after arriving here, he knocked on the door of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center where he was leader mentor for several programs.
As we’ve come to know Bruck, it is clear that he enjoys “being in the game” but, more important, he’s one of those individuals who truly embraces the concept of “paying forward.” It emanates from the experiences he had and the lessons that he learned initially working for others and later building his own business with two other partners.
The Ohio native joined a small environmental consulting firm in his hometown of Cincinnati after graduating from Purdue in the late 1970s. Bruck helped the founders grow the business from 50 to 250 employees and, at 30, even joined the board of directors before the owners decided to retire. He helped them exit through an acquisition and agreed to stay with the new employer for about a year before revisiting a business plan that he had developed six years earlier.
“I pulled it out, acted on it, and started Bruck, Hartman and Esposito Inc. with two partners,” Bruck says. Their first day of business was opening day of the baseball season in Cincinnati, a very special occasion, particularly in those days, in the Queen City.
“We went to work for Rust Belt companies and were immediately successful,” Bruck notes. “We were profitable in the first year, but our growth taught me early lessons in cash flow management and how important our relationship was with the bank. We truly were a bootstrap company and were starved for cash much of our early life. And, although it was offered several times, we never took outside investment. I often wonder what the story would have been if we had grown with equity investors.”
He invested $27,000 to start the firm and owned 51 percent based on his proportional share of the founding capital. “We were frugal to say the least,” Bruck said of the three partners and how they approached their new venture.
They got a lucky break almost immediately when a major chemical company experienced a big chemical spill and did not know how to effectively manage it. That company became its first client and another household name – P&G – soon followed.
“We were very fortunate,” Bruck says of the early years, but then quickly emphasizes an important point he learned from golfing legend Gary Player: “Entrepreneurs need luck to succeed, but the harder you work, the luckier you are.”
The company grew to about 200 employees before the good luck turned a little south. One event that impacted the renamed BHE Environmental was September 11, 2001; the other was the collapse of Enron just a month later and the fallout for the oil and gas industry that was a large portion of BHE’s business.
Twelve years later in a strategic acquisition, Bruck sold the company to POWER Engineers, a global consulting engineering firm specializing in the delivery of integrated solutions for energy, food and beverage, facilities, communications, environmental, and federal markets.
NEXT: Bruck has made what a family friend described in negative terms his personal cause.