On Saturday, May 20, graduating students at Saint Martin’s University had the opportunity to gain inspiration from commencement speaker Brad Furber, an entrepreneur and innovator who grew up in the South Puget Sound. Furber has been living and working in Australia, but returned to his home turf at the invitation of Saint Martin’s to address their 2017 graduating class.
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.
Furber was born in Olympia and grew up fishing and water skiing at his family’s home on Cooper Point while spending the school year in Tacoma. “I used to get up about 6:00 am each day and I had a little, tiny twelve-foot aluminum boat and go fishing. I’d fish for sea-run cutthroat and jack salmon and would usually end up with at least a dog fish,” he recalls. His family still returns to the Cooper Point home each summer, as his parents moved there permanently when they retired.
Furber’s entrepreneurial spirit started young when he began selling daffodils at a roadside stand in seventh grade. “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 getting a Bachelor of Arts from University of Washington, Furber went on to earn a Master of Public Policy and Juris Doctor from Duke University School of Law. According to Furber, one of his first and best jobs was back home in Olympia working for Tim Malone, Assistant Attorney General in the late 1980s. “Tim was just a brilliant lawyer and he was particularly good at appellate and Supreme Court litigation,” says Furber. “He was a lot of fun and became my mentor and my friend.” Furber and Malone remained friends even after they no longer worked together.
Next was a five-year stint with the law firm Bogle and Gates, then the second-largest firm in Washington. From there, he and one of the firm’s partners developed an innovative business model to better serve start-up clients and small businesses. “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,” Furber shares. Many of his clients came from the “dot com” boom and enjoyed five years of success before the collapse in the early 2000s. With clients dwindling, they merged with a larger firm to stay afloat.
“Then I got antsy again,” smiles Furber. “One of my clients had a failed merger, but we ended up getting a good settlement for them, which got me pretty popular with this entrepreneur and he made me an offer to join his company as President. So that’s when I quit law and started in business.”
After about five years as President and CEO of Xeriton Corporation, Furber moved on when the founder decided to sell. His wife Sabine, a physician by training, was working from home as a medical scientific liaison and had the opportunity to transfer overseas. “She’s originally from Europe and suggested we move there when our kids were in middle school. She got a job with Novo Nordisk, headquartered in Copenhagen. I wasn’t a huge fan at first,” he admits. “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.”
While in Denmark, Furber developed and trademarked the concept Term Sheet Battle. A Term Sheet is one of the foundations of a business agreement, so a Term Sheet Battle provides an opportunity to “demystify the term sheet for budding entrepreneurs in order to get their businesses off the ground.”
Furber’s experience as an innovator eventually led to an invitation from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia to design and launch their new Michael Crouch Innovation Centre in 2014. “It’s been a fantastic ride. I’ve learned a ton and our innovation center has just taken off,” says Furber. “It was the right time and right place and we are now widely respected as the leading innovation center in Australia.” In addition, Sydney reminded Furber of the Pacific Northwest and his roots, “only with better weather,” he smiles.
All Furber’s experiences in law, business and as an entrepreneur positioned him to share a strong, relevant message with 2017 graduates during his Saint Martin’s commencement speech. Success, he explains, is about positioning yourself to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. “It’s better to be lucky than smart sometimes,” he says. “It helps when you’re an outsider and a rookie. You 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.”
Furber is now ready to make his own luck in yet another new place, following his advice to the Saint Martin’s grads. With both of children now in college, it’s time for a move.
“It’s a good opportunity for the University [of New South Wales] to do a phase two growth plan, so it’s a good time for me to bow out and for them to recruit somebody new. Sabine and I have always been collaborators in where we want to go,” he explains. “We go places where we can both be successful. Now, we’re moving to Switzerland. And, just like the Saint Martin’s graduates that are making a big step, we are too.”
As for his next career position Furber says, “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, Switzerland is ranked as the most innovative nation in the world. If you want to fish where the fish are, it’s Switzerland.”
As for what’s next after Switzerland, Furber and Sabine already have a plan. He said, “We decided we are going to buy my parents’ house. The end game is to retire in Olympia.”
Saint Martin’s University thanks Brad Furber for “coming home” to share his insights with the 2017 graduating class. Browse the photos below for an inside look at the graduation festivities.