MR. NONSTOP: Chicago’s hardest-working serial entrepreneur—the man who remade Kendall College and gave Rahm Emanuel a place to call home—is busy creating a digital-arts alternative to the four-year college degree
"I see parents so stressed because their kid isn’t getting into [the University of] Illinois or an Ivy League school. so they send them to these no-name schools in the middle of nowhere because they think their kids have to get a four-year education," Tullman says. "The kids don’t want to go. It’s a huge waste of time and money. I’m getting Howard Tullman’s 15-minute blitzkrieg tour of Tribeca Flashpoint, the media-arts academy on Clark Street in the Loop. It’s a gusty blur of names and high-tech gizmos and eye-popping factoids: a sound studio where students wrote tracks for Rock Band, the 55-seat screening room where Governor Quinn gathered his finance team to watch campaign commercials, the game lab with the Eraser road map that Tullman based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and another lab where students worked on Club SuperStar, the Facebook game that zoomed past 125,000 users in the first two months. Those Steelcase chairs in the lobby? Developed in animation class. That kid hunched over a console? Finishing a Microsoft promo disk to be presented to Congress.
“We’re an innovation lab as much as a school,” says Tullman, Flashpoint’s 65-year-old president and CEO, as we head for the Matrix überclassroom and its oversize plasma TV, which has been described as an “iPad Touch on steroids.” Wielding the remote like a magus, he flips from live feeds on the Daley Plaza Jumbotron to augmented-reality explosions to the viral video Flashpoint students did for McDonald’s.
“If you picked the wrong college, it’s never too late to start again,” reads one of dozens of ads that Tullman wrote and that emblazon the school’s lobby, an apt summons since students—or their parents—are heeding the call in droves.
When Flashpoint opened four years ago, there were 100 students. Today, enrollment has jumped to 500, each forking over an annual $25,000 to get an associate’s degree and the inside track on jobs that range from game designers and animators to sound engineers and filmmakers. There are talks of starting branches in Ireland, Paris, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and, of course, New York—because last April, Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Enterprises signed on as a full-share partner. That infusion of cash, plus Tribeca’s prestige, will likely be a big boost as Flashpoint gets set to jump a key hurdle for accreditation this spring.
“We need to revisit the idea of high-end, high-tech vocational education,” says Tullman, now settled behind his desk, while his eyes flit to the burst of computer blips that signal nonstop e-mail. “It’s going to be where the jobs are at. DeVry [the national for-profit college with several locations in Chicagoland] is no more about repairing refrigerators than Kendall is about learning to become a short-order cook.”
Kendall College, the four-year school in Evanston best known for its culinary program, was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2003 when Tullman was recruited to save it, sell it, or shut it down. In the space of 90 days, he raised $60 million; in just 90 more, he rebuilt the entire campus at a shuttered Sara Lee building on Goose Island. He revamped the curriculum; he installed top-of-the-line equipment, courtesy of corporate sponsors like Kraft, Sub-Zero, and CookTek; he added TV studios and started a restaurant that is now Zagat rated. Two years later, Tullman took it out of the oven and sold it.
Tullman is the champ of serial entrepreneurs. He started his first public company in a tiny office at the corner of LaSalle and Ontario Streets. The idea—prosaic now, but this was back in 1980, before desktop PCs were commonplace—was to create a computerized database for auto insurers to value wrecked or stolen cars based on dealer inventory. Today, CCC Information Services processes two-thirds of all U.S. auto insurance claims. It occupies three acres, more than half the ninth floor of the Merchandise Mart. Tullman sold the company decades ago for about $100 million.
He has also started a premier online music megasite (Tunes.com, which fetched $170 million) and launched the Rolling Stone Network, containing 30 years of performance and music archives. He was tapped to helm Worldwide Xceed Group, a digital strategy provider, which he revamped and sold. He founded Imagination Pilots, the source of half a dozen top CD-ROM games and adventures (all conceived, designed, and principally written by Tullman). He pioneered a business to track customer satisfaction and rescued Experiencia, the flagship Chicago training lab for middle-school students, with a $5 million infusion of private capital. By Tullman’s own count, he has started 12 companies—most later sold for a serious profit.
But wait—there’s more.
Photograph: Taylor Castle
A sound control room at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy, located at 28 North Clark Street
He’s a marathoner (he’s run 12) and former breeder of thoroughbred horses. He was one of the youngest lawyers admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, and he spent New Year’s Eve 2000 in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom, thanks to good chum Bill Clinton. Photos of Clinton decorate his office walls, crammed among other politicos and show-biz stars and business whizzes. He owns 1,300 pieces of art. The collection is detailed on his website, which runs to hundreds of pages and includes an archive of words of wisdom (well over 2,500 phrases, alphabetized), years of his blog posts, and a gallery of photos, ranging from his niece’s bat mitzvah to his wife, Judith, alongside Shamu at SeaWorld. He owns what looks like the world’s largest collection of Pez dispensers and may be the record holder for fewest hours slept in a 40-year period (an average of four hours per night).
“He’s seriously overwhelming,” says Simeon Peebler, the former head of Flashpoint’s game design department and now principal software engineer at WMS, a game development company. “He’s a steamroller, and you have to be up to the challenge. He drives people with incredible passion. I’ve never encountered that anywhere else.”
Not everyone who has staffed at Flashpoint or survived the face-lift at Kendall is a fan of Tullman’s bruising enthusiasm or his personal habit of 85-hour workweeks. Several people I contacted chose not to comment or requested anonymity. He can flash a disarming smile, but “he’s all business,” says a woman who has worked with him to plan events. “Once you’re off point, forget it.” His management style tends toward blunt and profane; he’s a micromanager. “Straighten those ads on the pillar,” he calls to the guard at the reception rotunda as we hurry through the lobby. Or, more brusquely, to a game-lab student: “Don’t sit on the table. You’ll fall on your ass, and I’ll be aggravated and so will your parents.” More charitably, and more typically, he nods at a scruffy young man shuffling for the elevator and says, in hushed confidence, “He’s the world’s expert on Hulk Hogan.”
Most everyone agrees that Tullman has real affection for his students. He’s their protector, their creative savior. He takes great satisfaction in shaping their formative years—his scorn reserved for a list of liberal arts colleges, so-called safety schools, tacked to his office wall.
“Every one [of those colleges] charges $50,000 a year. I see parents so stressed because their kid isn’t getting into [the University of] Illinois or an Ivy League school, so they send them to these no-name schools in the middle of nowhere because they think their kids have to get a four-year education. The kids don’t want to go. They’ll never repay the tuition. It’s a huge waste of time and money. It’s very depressing.”
Flashpoint is a two-year college. In the digital media field, going for four years makes no sense, argues Tullman, “because by the third year everything they learned will be obsolete.” But, he hastens to add, Flashpoint is not an orphanage for attention-deficit sufferers or PlayStation addicts “looking to find themselves. We don’t accept people with full-time jobs or adult education [students] who take one class a year for 20 years.” The school that Tullman founded and runs provides an intense, immersive education. Math is required and so is English, but most courses, such as the one I visit on signal processing, are taught by full-time faculty and typically meet for 10 to 15 weeks of rigorous classwork.
The dozen students gathered on a winter morning are handing in the semester’s final presentation—a folder with a hard-copy synopsis and an audio disk. The assignment: create a song from the pop of a Snapple cap opening and an entire battlefield of noise from a single cannon shot. The class discussion, all about flangers and fasers and flutter, is a hard-core lesson in audio skills. When one student shuffles in late with a mumbled excuse about train delays, Miguel Kertsman, the otherwise genial teacher, shoots off a quick reprimand: “Train problems? We all have them. In a few months you’ll be out in the world—where it’s very competitive. You want to be a talented genius the world never hears about? This business is all about working as a team. What happens when a player drops the ball? You think the client will keep you?”
Photography: Courtesy of Howard Tullman
The clan, including Tullman and his brother Glen (far left)
If it sounds as though Kertsman is reciting the Flashpoint manifesto, that is likely no accident. Tullman is big on collaboration. He is focused on training students to operate in the real world, where teamwork counts, using their work at Flashpoint as “a calling card.” To boost motivation, he has designed his school to be a visual stimulant—which is why every square inch of every corridor is filled with art, and not just any art. The bold, often provocative paintings, drawings, and sculptures—upward of 250 pieces—are culled from Tullman’s private collection and range from tarty teenagers and Manga-like comics to psychedelic graphics. The rest of his collection is at his house in the DePaul neighborhood or stored in a West Loop loft (whose tenant happens to be Rahm Emanuel, a pal from the Clinton White House, who needed a Chicago home when his tenant wouldn’t move out). Tullman has never sold a single piece; he only buys, guided by instinct and a few criteria: For example, the paintings must be figurative, realistic, and done by a living artist.
“Tullman is an extremely focused and energetic collector,” says James Yood, a longtime critic and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “In the two areas that interest him most, Chicago artists and artists with a high degree of optical realism, he’s a bit of an omnivore. He’s an aesthetic headhunter. There are so many realistic pictures with the eyes staring right at the viewer it becomes disarming and obsessive.”
Obsession is in the DNA. Tullman is the oldest of six children. His father, an apparel salesman, moved the family from St. Louis to Highland Park and then, following a promotion, to New Jersey. It was there that Tullman’s mother, a stay-at-home mom, repeatedly ran for city council. A Democrat in a highly Republican district, she never won but never gave up, instilling in her brood the will to persevere and succeed. When one child failed to get an A in school, his photo was turned backward on the family piano.
“Our parents were humble but driven and competitive,” says Glen Tullman, 51, the youngest of the siblings and CEO of the Chicago-based medical software giant Allscripts. “The week that I was featured in Time magazine, [my mother] told me, ‘That’s the good news. The bad news is you’re not on the cover.’”
He was about to take a job in Boston but instead joined Howard—a graduate of Northwestern and its law school (and chairman of the editorial board of its law review)—at CCC. “Your brother’s this fun, crazy, visionary guy,” a friend told Glen. “You can always go to Boston.” Glen has invested in most of Howard’s businesses, and the two brothers remain close. They still occasionally run together (Howard’s fastest marathon was 15 years ago—a 3:42 time in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.) and often exchange e-mails at 3 a.m. “It’s a genetic flaw,” says Glen. “Neither of us sleeps much.”
“The thing about Howard,” he adds, “is he has no fear of failure. He always believed you could do anything. If someone said you couldn’t, he’d walk out of the meeting.”
Tullman does not suffer fools, or skeptics, gladly. He is not big on patience. When the Flashpoint space was still girders and bare ducts, he ferried prospective students up a freight elevator, promising that classes would start in two months (they did). “He was a tremendous salesman, extremely persuasive,” says Larry Costin, a founding partner of CCC, “and he always worked. He had an incredible work ethic. I’m a very anal guy, but Howard made me look like a slug.”
Costin claims Howard has mellowed, but Glen is not so sure. He prefers to say his brother has “channeled his competitive juices. He’s as driven as he always was.” Indeed, talking to him is like auditing a high-octane graduate course in which the professor jumps from digital technology to branding to business to the morning news—seemingly without pause for air. “He has more mental RAM than any person I know,” says Elliott Delman, a composer who has worked with Tullman. He’s immersed in details—and then there’s the big picture. Both Howard and Glen are committed to doing “something that really matters,” says Glen, and both name the same top three priorities: health care, education, and energy.
Tullman gets worked up on the subject of education. For-profit schools are a particular target, more so now than ever, as the Obama administration seeks to curtail deceptive marketing practices among so-called career colleges. As Tullman and Washington see it, too many schools accept kids with Title IV government loans that the students will never pay back.
“They’re scumbags,” says Tullman of the schools. “They target the single African American mother with two kids. They know [the kids] won’t show up for class, and they’ll get to keep their tuition. They mislead students about how much debt they’re assuming and their ability to get jobs to service that debt. That’s what Congress is focusing on and what all the noise is about. We [at Flashpoint] don’t take a dime.”
The for-profit schools, for the record, argue that they provide a vital service to underserved aspiring students.
If Flashpoint does get accredited this spring, the school’s practice of staying away from federal aid will change, though Tullman insists he will only take truly committed students who have a fair shot at repaying their loans by landing jobs. Prospective students are already winnowed down in interviews—and about another 30 percent fail to make the cut based on a lack of “aptitude, passion, or commitment.” Evidence suggests that most accepted students finish the two-year curriculum and go to work. Jane Rosenthal, the cochair of the board of directors of New York’s Tribeca Film Institute, and one of the people who initiated the deal with Flashpoint, is clearly pleased with the crop of students and their prospects. “The first graduating class is doing very well in the job market. We’re educating students for jobs that our economy needs for tomorrow.”
For a random spot check, I stop two young men heading to class one morning. Both already have postgraduation jobs lined up—one in the wine business in Napa Valley, the other at a recording studio in Memphis. Though both cite family connections, each praises Flashpoint’s efforts. “The people in career services upstairs are working their butts off for us,” volunteers one.
Tullman’s own job at Flashpoint is a matter of some conjecture. As a serial entrepreneur, he’s always stuck to a fish-or-cut-bait philosophy. His acumen as a businessman is as much about companies he’s ditched as ones that have flourished. When Experiencia failed to deliver a return on investments, he took the loss and sold it. In a 2009 video interview with Crain’s Small Business Week, he said, “If we don’t know in six months whether the dog is going to eat the dog food, then we should have clear metrics that say we’re done with this opportunity. Ideas that loiter around are the living dead.”
“For Howard, the thrill is the chase,” says Costin. “He’s a true entrepreneur; he works like hell to set up a business or turn it around, then he moves on.”
I ask Rosenthal what will happen if Tullman does pack up and move on—and she seems taken aback.
“I never thought about that,” she replies, then quickly regroups. “Clearly, he’s the heart and soul, but what he’s put in place, the whole team, is very impressive. There’s an amazing group of teachers. It’s going great.”
Tullman, right now, shows few signs of flagging interest. The last afternoon we meet, he’s in an ebullient mood, hurrying across Daley Plaza to CBS, where students are taping a game show—Who Died and Made You Boss? The underused studio, rented full-time by Flashpoint, is a chaos of cameras, contestants, and a student audience in bleachers hooting at the host, the Saturday Night Live alum Gary Kroeger. Bruno Cohen, the president and general manager of WBBM, Chicago’s CBS affiliate, has just left after witnessing an earlier round. Tullman climbs into the seats, snapping pictures for the school’s website. A network exec, a real-life TV star, million-dollar cameras—what an education the students are getting!
The world is changing too fast to abandon these kids to a stodgy four-year education, says Tullman, and Flashpoint “couldn’t be more at the hub.” The scrutiny of search engines is leading to a “rebirth of curatorship.” E-mail is “close to passé. Nobody reads it. You have to text ‘I sent you a message.’” Key bigwigs from Groupon, Google, and Nokia have attended career workshops for students. Tullman himself invented another business in February—a video device, Face 2 Face—that will revolutionize communication and be incubated at Flashpoint.
There aren’t many men in their sixties who embrace the warp speed of change with such ease and evident delight. Maybe that’s why he can’t contain a smile when he says, “I think I’ll be here awhile.”
Photograph: Courtesy of Howard Tullman