More TCU entrepreneurs:
Katy Briscoe '82, John "Bo" Norris
'80, Johnny '73 and Diane Rowand Simons '66, Celia Smith McGrath '83 and
Kevin Prigel '01
With conviction and class,
Jim Ryffel '81 (MBA '84; RM '98) leads a growing community of entrepreneurs.
By David Van Meter
God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw that
the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness." --
Genesis 1: 3-4
Ryffel is in the dark.
He flicks the light switch.
"Must be burned out," the
40-year-old Fort Worth businessman said, trying the switch several more
He settles for the next
available light, revealing his attic collection. Stuffed game from past
hunts. Framed landscape photographs. Bits of life packed away in boxes.
He apologizes for the mess,
in stark contrast to the rest of the Ryffels' immaculate three-story home.
It took an entire Sunday
afternoon to reach this room, to hear of that moment in a Montana river
three decades ago. It first and forever shaped what Jim Ryffel would do
It was long before he bought
his first piece of real estate. Before he put Jesus first in his life.
Before he met
his wife, Linda Barnds Ryffel '84 (BBA '85). Before their four children
-- Travis, Hunter, Madison and Elektra. Before Ryffel made his first million.
Before the $6 million gift to fund TCU's upstart entrepreneurship center.
Before dot-com companies and convergent media. Before the search for significance.
But sometimes, the beginning
of a story belongs at the end.
After you know the measure
of a man.
real test of a man is not when he plays the role that he wants for himself,
but when he plays the role destiny has for him. -- Vaclav
was born in Bozeman, Mont., in 1959, the second of two children. (His
sister Laura is a Fort Worth dentist today.) His father was a chemical
took the family across the country. Michigan. Louisiana. And then to Anderson,
It was there
Ryffel cornered the yo-yo market in 1968.
The boy with
curious brown eyes, seeing the toy's craze coming on, purchased two yoyos
and sold them for a profit at school. The next day, he bought a few more.
rode his bike from store to store until he had the entire town's supply.
At that moment, James and Faith Ryffel knew their 8-year-old son was different.
been able to recognize opportunities," James said. Finishing the thought,
Faith added, "More than just wanting to make some money, I think he just
recognized things that people would like to have."
another day driving past one of Anderson's many textile mills and seeing
a bundle of left-arm fabric leftovers near a dumpster. In an age of psychedelic
polyester, Faith couldn't imagine a better place for the material. Her
son shouted to his mother to stop the car and retrieved the fabric.
to sew on her sewing machine and made bean bags from the fabric, stuffing
them with kernels of corn. He sold them all.
moved to Lake Jackson, south of Houston, in 1972. There, Ryffel ordered
growth charts he saw in a catalog and sold them door-to-door to families
that had children. Flower and vegetable seeds followed.
With his father's
help, he built a darkroom in their home and began a successful photography
business, shooting weddings, passport photos, high school football games.
To cut costs, the 14-year-old boy bought 250-foot rolls of film and thousands
of sheets of photographic paper.
Two years later,
as the BeeGees and disco took the nation by storm, Ryffel worked as a
deejay at a Lake Jackson radio station.
another jockey borrowed the station's remote and held a dance. Ryffel
had a better idea, adding a drummer and a light system, another father-and-son
He rented a
nearby fairgrounds and bought an ad publicizing the dance. Several thousand
paying teenagers showed up. Disco Unlimited was born.
the hall for every Friday and Saturday for the remainder of the year.
He added bubble machines and confetti cans and computerized controllers
to his mobile disco production.
were hired to handle the music and security guards to work the door. Ryffel
and his father built a mobile unit that provided entertainment at dances
in Houston, Corpus Christi and Baytown, as many as six shows a weekend.
Ryffel had earned a small fortune.
He was only
From the top
floor of the bronze-mirrored Bank United building on the south edge of
campus, you can see all the way from the newly opened Lowden Track to
the M.J. Neeley School of Business.
Woodcrest Enterprises 18 years ago; he has held this vantage point for
the last 8. He doesn't plan to ever move.
with what to call [the company] when I first started it," Ryffel said.
"I was driving through a part of Austin and I saw the name Woodcrest.
The next morning, I woke up and thought, 'Gosh, that's an interesting
name.' It was that simple."
A small operation,
Woodcrest is only six people, including Ryffel, but it's a busy one. Directly
off the elevator is a framed land-grant deed signed by Thomas Jefferson
and James Madison.
real estate has been Ryffel's primary business over the years, with hundreds
of properties today across five states. He started Texas Pecan Farms in
1986, one of the largest pecan producers in the state, and also owns six
different cattle operations.
sometimes accompany him to his ranches, where cattle are rounded up via
helicopter. A drawing in his office, from his son Hunter, says it best:
I love my daddy because he takes care of our cows.
Nearby is another
taped-up sign: Give us the courage to risk something big for something
it seems Ryffel and company are moving more toward virtual real estate.
Ryffel was a founding investor in Internet service provider FlashNet,
with shares worth $43 million when the company went public in 1999.
is the lead investor and strategist for Emergisoft.com, a company providing
paperless administration for hospitals. (He became intrigued with the
idea after filling out the same forms twice at a Fort Worth emergency
is also the founder, chairman and lead investor, by far, of Hispanic Television
Network. Begun last September and worth pennies, the company had a $1.2
billion market value in May.
"I was at
a function one time and someone asked me what I did," Ryffel said. "I
stopped for a minute, because I had a difficult time explaining what I
do. And a friend of mine said, 'Just tell them what you do . . . you're
a deal junkie.' " Ryffel smiles.
to it, he believes.
before I went to college, I realized that God was real, that Jesus Christ
was who He said He was, and that I wanted to try and do something with
my life," Ryffel said. "My ability is what God gave me. I understand what
things are worth. I can look into the future and perceive trends and ideas
and just come up with ideas of what will work and what won't.
beyond any doubt that I'm doing exactly what God wants me to do."
offspring. In Ryffel's Fort Worth backyard are, from top to bottom,
Ryffel and daughters Elektra (2) and Madison (6), wife Linda Barnds
Ryffel and sons Travis (9), and Hunter (7).
Joe Lipscomb agrees that Ryffel has a gift. He's been watching Ryffel
since his days as a TCU student.
"Jim can smell
a deal better than anyone I've ever known," said Lipscomb, whom Ryffel
calls his primary mentor at TCU. "I have seen him bid on tractors, helicopters,
real estate, whatever. If it's a bargain, he'll buy it cheap and sell
so many of the people who make it really, really big, Jim wasn't the A-at-all-costs
student; he had a different quality. He could hold his own with the books,
but he mostly had an abundance of practical intelligence, and that is
what has paid off."
planned to attend the University of Texas, but chose TCU once he learned
of the business school's Educational Investment Fund (he served as manager
of venture capital and special situations).
At the time,
it was the only student-managed stock market fund in the nation. Ryffel
arrived at TCU, leaving his mobile discoteque business to be managed by
a friend. Embezzlement ruined the fledgling operation.
To earn extra
money at TCU, Ryffel bought tools and other items in bulk and sold them
from the trunk of his car on street corners.
junior year, Lipscomb helped Ryffel land an internship with realtor Henry
S. Miller in 1980. The very next year, Ryffel bought several duplexes
in the TCU area, the official start of Woodcrest.
In 1984, he
became the founding investor in a software company, Data Tailor Inc.,
one of the first Apple software developers. Ryffel met his wife Linda
that same year. She was working at a travel agency and earning her undergraduate
degree while Ryffel was working on his master's.
"On our first
date, he took me to the Kimbell Art Museum, to show me he had culture,"
Linda said. "Of course, we haven't been back since."
the two spent at the Mary Couts Burnett Library.
"I would start
studying, and he would, too, but only for a little while. I would say,
'Aren't you going to study?' and he would say, 'Uh, I think I'm done,'
and then we would go to Wendy's for hamburgers or whatever."
The two were
married in 1986. Ryffel's
Woodcrest operation was booming. Linda was working as an operations manager
for an insurance company. The two shared a nice home and a country club
membership. A summer home in Aspen.
And then the
real estate market crashed; Ryffel lost nearly everything, but he stayed
in business without declaring bankruptcy.
difficult being married to deal guy," Ryffel said. "All businesses have
challenges, and they all have cycles. Back in the mid '80s, real estate
was a difficult time. There were tremendous learning experiences, but
they weren't enjoyable at the time."
tree business Ryffel counts as another "learning experience." In 1994,
he had dozens of properties located at busy intersections, after all.
He trucked in thousands of trees and set up lots across two counties.
It failed miserably.
"It was a cash
business during the busiest retail time of the year," Ryffel said, smiling
and pausing to find the kindest words. "It is very difficult to find trustworthy
people who can work in a cash business during that time of year. I felt
compelled to be there during the best times, on Saturdays, which was in
conflict with what my family wanted to do."
number one: Don't start a multiple-location cash business unless you plan
to be intimately involved.
entered into the check-cashing business, for a short time. Business lesson
number two: Don't enter a low-margin business where one bad transaction
can wipe out a week's profits.
wrong with starting a business and then, if it doesn't seem to work, saying
it doesn't work," Ryffel said. "It's better to realize that early on than
when it's too late."
Ryffel is rolling
his financial dice once more with HTVN, with far more than dead trees
or hot checks on the line. In Ryffel's mind, HTVN is one of the marketplace's
first forays into "convergent media," where television and the Internet
Some say the
company could be worth $5 billion by year's end. Yet, Ryffel seems more
interested in simply making friends and key business alliances.
young impressionable businessmen look at the real high-profile entrepreneur
and get the idea that business is about winning and losing, and life and
death," Ryffel said. "Business is not about life and death or winning
and losing, it's about building a business through relationships while
you're doing the right thing."
thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do
╔ to find the idea for which I can live and die. -- Soeren Kierkagaard
IN 1996, Jim
Ryffel sat on a steamroller in a Dallas strip mall parking lot. His sons
Travis and Hunter sat in his lap.
was a 40-foot-long line of X-rated movies, worth more than $50,000. Then
Ryffel put the steamroller in drive. He figures that was the moment when
his life began moving from success to significance.
year, he had come across a book called Halftime. Written by former TCU
parent Bob Buford, the best-selling title chronicles Buford's incredible
success as a television executive as well as the death of his son, Ross
Buford '85, that crushed him.
The event spurred
the father to search for ways to move his life from mere financial gain
to more-lasting contributions: The first half of life has to do with
getting and gaining, learning and earning . . . getting an education,
entering the workforce, starting a family, buying a house, setting goals
and climbing toward them. The second half is more risky because it has
to do with living beyond the immediate. It is about releasing the seed
of creativity and energy that has been implanted within us, watering and
cultivating it so that we may be abundantly fruitful. It involves investing
our gifts in service to others -- and receiving the personal joy that
comes as a result of that spending. This is the kind of risk for which
entrepreneurs earn excellent returns much of the time.
had performed good deeds before that moment. He won't tell the stories,
but others will.
he made a sizeable gift to Harris Hospital to help buy a piece of medical
equipment for a sick friend.
occasion, after noticing a homeless woman parked night after night near
his business, Ryffel slipped a folded check through her window. It was
enough for the woman to travel back to her family and finish her education.
Years later, she searched every office of the six-floor building to thank
him, handing him a card and a tiny golden angel.
has him in their lives is lucky because their life is going to change,"
said Woodcrest Office Manager Donna Hill. "Just by him being there, something
is going to happen to improve your life. He'll only add to your life,
he won't take anything away."
morning on that steamroller was different. A few weeks earlier, Ryffel
had received more than 3,000 videos as part of a settlement with a video
store chain that had broken its lease.
most of the 3,000 videos he received were pornographic, he decided to
quietly destroy them. Enter Bo Glenn, a former real-estate colleague of
Ryffel's. After the market crash in the '80s, Glenn was "called" to Family
Life Ministries. Glenn
introduced Ryffel to its executive director, who challenged Ryffel to
dispose of the videos in a more meaningful way.
sound of videotapes was heard all over the world. From the Dallas Morning
News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the story traveled to local
television broadcasts and then nationwide to Good Morning America
and to Paul Harvey's radio commentary.
newspapers also published the story.
is on a journey," said Ryffel's wife, Linda, "and I think that was one
of the turning points in Jim's life. I think he realized then that one
person can make a difference."
And the stories
continue. In 1996, Ryffel donated land to help an Arlington church build
a new building. That same year, he invested in rundown property in east
Fort Worth as part of a revitalization effort.
the Ryffels provided the seed money to begin a Christian youth camp in
the Hill Country called Camp Eagle. And, of course, this past spring brought
news of Ryffel's $6 million gift to establish the James A. Ryffel Entrepreneurship
Center as well as a student-run venture capital fund similar to the EIF.
Lipscomb, alluding to George W. Bush's political moniker, calls Ryffel
"a compassionate capitalist."
that she and Jim struggled with the TCU gift. They first planned to remain
anonymous, but they also believed the gift could make a statement. "The
gift was a little disconcerting for me because we are private people,"
said Linda, "but Jim has a great message to tell: Give back to your community,
your church, your school. One person can make a difference. One person
can leave a legacy."
The day after
the media reported the gift, Linda called her husband, who was on a business
trip in California.
"I called him
and told him, 'The newspaper has a big story about the gift. You're on
the front page with the Pope.' "
said their oldest son, 9-year-old Travis, came home from school that day
and said a friend and a teacher had asked him about the gift.
'Mom, I didn't know we were millionaires ╔ why didn't you tell me?'"
was lost with the advent of TCU's new entrepreneurship center, Ryffel
figures the long-term gain will be worth it.
that in business, we can do the right thing and be successful at the same
time," he said. "Maybe we can start a business reformation. There's so
much good we can do. We all have more than our daily bread."
one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors
to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected
in common hours . . . and he will live the license of a higher order of
beings. -- Henry David Thoreau
RYFFEL is sitting
on an all-terrain vehicle parked on a high spot in the middle of the Trinity
live in one of Fort Worth's most exclusive neighborhoods, Mira Vista,
about five miles southwest of TCU.
Most of the
high-dollar homes here sit alongside a golf course, but the Ryffels chose
the Trinity River instead. Their backyard slopes down to the water's edge,
but his homestead doesn't stop there.
river is a 75-acre ranchette, land that almost became a housing development
before Ryffel bought all 350 lots. Ryffel calls the purchase a "compromise"
between his wife's desire for the city and his for the country.
the ATV to cross the river, usually with his kids and their friends riding
in the ATV's bed. Aside from the two business degrees Ryffel earned at
TCU, he also earned a ranch management certificate in 1998.
that education here. A budding fruit orchard. A garden, okra being the
bumper crop this year. A donkey named Midnight, the kids' favorite. A
llama. And several quarter horses, including a stunning brown-and-white
paint called Geronimo.
There is a
public trail crossing his land as part of the city's park system, but
in exchange for Ryffel allowing the trail's easement, he was granted permission
to ride his horses throughout Fort Worth's park system.
This is Ryffel's
own private Eden. And here in the middle of the river, as the family Labrador
Ellie romps through the deeper spots, is where he communes not only with
God, but with great ideas.
"He'll go sit
outside and later he'll come back in with some great idea," Linda said.
"Like people who paint or play music, they can just sit down and create
and perform. Somehow, ideas speak to Jim."
'98, who was hired as an investment analyst by Ryffel four months ago,
so rushed nine to five," Huzenlaub said. "What Jim has shown me is that
if everyone would stop and take 20 minutes out of their day just to think,
there would be much fewer problems and many more solutions."
And as the
Trinity flows by, Ryffel hits one of those moments. With his distinct
Texas drawl, Ryffel speaks of things more suited to latte-drinking, new-economy
media, baby. Where e-commerce meets t-commerce, everything on the Internet
delivered through your television. Being able to watch Channel 5 in Spain.
This is the reason for Ryffel's trips to Mexico City on some weeks and
Palo Alto -- "ground zero for new technology" -- on others.
media, the growth curve is limited," Ryffel said. "You have to figure
out where it's going to go. With as much technology as there is now, the
advent of the Internet, the streaming of audio and video, it seemed just
natural to me that we will go to a global programming.
that cultural barriers will disappear; not that we lose our individual
cultures, but that there will be a melding of races and cultures, and
the media will be one of the causes of that."
market has grown six times faster than any other American market. It is
nearing the majority in Texas.
off statistics now second nature to him. "And it's so underserved from
every aspect of business; it's wide open.
commerce. It's big. It's unquantifiable. It's -- " Ryffel moves both of
his hands quickly past his head " -- shoooo!"
HTVN to be the Hispanic voice on the Internet, and it's showing signs
of becoming that; just this past March, it cut a deal with Yahoo! for
the Internet giant to digitize the company's signal.
"We have the
technology, we have the vision, but my deal worked because of relationships,"
Ryffel said. "The people in our deals look like a Who's Who across America.
We select investors because they can bring something to the deal. We have
very few investors for money, because money is not hard to find.
depends on relationships."
all thy getting, get understanding. Forbes Magazine
in the dark.
and the interview, are almost over, but there is something left to see.
Or something left to say.
He flicks the
"Must be burned
out," the entrepreneur said, trying the switch several more times. He
settles for the next available light, revealing his attic collection.
is my deal," said Ryffel with a grin, his boots still muddy from the river.
"If I golfed as well as I fish, I would be a scratch golfer."
first dropped his line into a Montana river when he was only 7. Go back
30 years, and you can see a father leading his son across the Gallatin
The icy current
pulled at the young boy's feet, threatening to pull him under.
Dad, I don't
think I can make it.
ever give up. Hold my hand.
his father's hand tighter
We can make
it if we do it together.
And the two
did make it across. Ryffel's eyes shimmer with meaning.
support has always been unconditional, infinite and consistent," Ryffel
said, "whether he approved of a particular venture or not. Even when I
went off to start my own real estate business, I wasn't sure whether I
had enough capital to start it. He said to me, 'Just wanted you to know,
I think you can do it, so go rent the nicest office you can find.' "
ago, and quite by accident, Ryffel crossed the same river with his oldest
"We were at
the exact same place in the river, and Travis looked at me and said, 'Dad,
I don't think I can make it!'
ever give up. Hold my hand. We can make it if we do it together.
And the two
did make it across.
"He got it,
just like I did," Ryffel said softly. "He got it, and he understands."
A. Ryffel Entrepreneurship Center
every day. It'll make your work that much better, and that much easier.
For that is
what business is really about.
Do the right
better in the long run.
early to give back. God will honor your efforts.
'81 (MBA '84, RM '98) outlined his four-point approach to business at
the March press conference announcing the $6 million gift to establish
TCU's entrepreneurship center and related venture capital fund.
"I think the
James Ryffel Entrepreneurship' Center could have real value if we do it
the right way," agreed Fort Worth entrepreneur David Minor '80, the center's
director. "In my little world, being an entrepreneur is not just about
making money, it's what you do with that money."
the Ryffel Center is still in its infancy, Minor and others have already
crafted a rough blueprint they hope will place the entrepreneurial think
and study tank among the top five in the country.
facility will be created, containing the Ryffel Center and the student-run
Venture Capital Program and the Educational Investment Fund. Approximately
40,000 square feet will house classroom and meeting space, including newly
wired lecture halls, office space and a multi-purpose meeting facility.
be exposed to entrepreneurship at both the undergraduate and MBA level.
Core offerings will guide students through the entire process of becoming
an entrepreneur from venture recognition, feasibility analysis, business
plan creation, to starting and managing the emerging enterprise.
courses will focus on venture financing, sales and marketing for the emerging
enterprise, entrepreneurial skills and behavior, and family business.
Curriculum will include experiential learning similar to TCU's nationally
recognized Educational Investment Fund.
include a monthly speaker series, mentoring and incubator programs and
an internal business plan competition. High school students of all socioeconomic
backgrounds, through various youth groups, will be introduced to entrepreneurship,
its benefits and rewards from personal, economic development and social
perspectives at the high school level.
An annual Young
Entrepreneur Conference and Awards Program for high school juniors and
seniors from across the state will also be started, with winners receiving
scholarships to TCU.
focus on the latest entrepreneurship trends and changes, with hopes to
become the source of entrepreneurship knowledge in the Southwest.
an endowed professorship will be located, as well as for top field experts.
the center may also develop strategic partnerships with SMU, Baylor, North
Texas, and Texas Wesleyan, and form a venture capital forum for entrepreneurs.