Learning life lessons from missteps, and failure

November 23, 2009
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In 1987, Bill Oechsler found himself without a job and wondering what to do next.

"My wife said to me, 'Why don't you go back and finish up school,'" said Oechsler, who now owns Xler Marketing and Brand Consultancy. "I said, 'I'm 29 years old; I haven't been to school in seven or eight years. I'm probably older than the instructors, and I'm not all that smart.' I had all the excuses."

His wife, Stacy, had been accepted at the University of Texas and pushed Oechsler past his hesitation. His grade point from obtaining his associate degree years earlier was too low to get into the University of Texas, so he spent a semester taking classes at a nearby community college before enrolling as a non-traditional student at UT in 1987.

"I realized that she's always there, just encouraging," said Oechsler. Clueless on the college process, his wife directed him.

"She was actually like, 'You stand in this line. I'm going over to that line, and you need to fill this out and go over here.' I had no script for how to go to college."

Oechsler's career journey began in a Gemco retail store in the Washington, D.C., area while attending Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md.

"I was working in retail and our stores were closing. It was my first disruption as a professional, I guess. They closed our East Coast stores right around Christmas time, and I was one of the few managers who were offered a position (at another location). This started the road of 'if you see an opportunity, take it,'" he said. "There's going to be inherent risk to it and there's going to be loss, but there are also new things out there, and if you don't go through the door, you'll never know."

His transfer put him in Houston at the age of 23. It was there, in 1983, that he met Stacy, who was also taking time off from school and working at a restaurant.

"I had met my wife and we had dated for about three months, and I got transferred. We ended up chatting one night, and the next thing we know, we're at 7-Eleven buying brides magazines," he said. "We had somehow gotten engaged through conversation."

Bill Oechsler

Company: Xler Marketing and Brand Consultancy

Position: President

Age: 51

Birthplace: Dover, Md.

Residence: East Grand Rapids

Family/Personal: Wife, Stacy; three natural-born children and two recently adopted daughters from Nicaragua.

Community/Business Involvement: Global Publishers Alliance, Life International, Orphan Justice Mission, Grotenhuis, Catholic Human Development Outreach, and Ferris State University's College of Business, Advertising.

Biggest Career Break: The constant encouragement of his wife to tackle challenging roles throughout his college years and professional career.

Oechsler was transferred to Stockton, Calif., and the newlyweds moved there in 1984. Stockton was voted the worst place to live in America when the two moved there, but they didn't stay long. Stacy's father had died shortly after the move. He owned a computer business, and while the couple was back in Texas for the funeral, Oechsler was offered a position with the company heading up the medical systems sales sector. Since Gemco was in the middle of a decline, he decided to take the position. Not long after, Gemco went out of business.

After a few months of training in Boston, Oechsler rejoined Stacy in San Antonio and began his new career — and it didn't go very well.

"I was really a terrible, terrible outside salesperson," he said. "In Boston in the mid-'80s, people were making money hand over fist selling these things. … I went back to San Antonio where the thought of selling an IBM AT with proprietary software to a single doc for $100,000 with a 4800 baud modem to do electronic claims submissions was really an impossible thing."

It was at that time that Oechsler's life started to transition.

"My wife said, 'Before we got married, I asked that you would investigate my faith and what I believe.' I said, 'Really? I don't remember saying that.' It was like our first big fight." Oechsler told Stacy she had to investigate what he believed. When she asked what that was, Oechsler realized he wasn't quite sure.

Stacy had bought him a Bible and the two had started going to church when Oechsler had a "conversion experience."

"One night, I really couldn't sleep, and I went out and I had all these books in my living room. I had my Bible right there and I opened it up, and I literally finger dropped to John 3:16. I didn't know chapter and verse. I said, 'It's either all true or it's all not,' and I decided it was all true. It was a pivotal turning point."

The following Sunday, Oechsler stood up at church and gave his story. Not long after, he got a call from the pastor asking him to go on a mission trip to Ecuador.

"I said, 'Hey, I'm that guy that just stood up,' but I went down, and it rocked my world," he said. When he came back from Ecuador, Oechsler quit his job.

"(Stacy and I) took one of those stress tests where it asks, 'Have you lost a family member? Have you moved? Have you changed jobs?'" he said. "If you (scored) over 150, you were in danger; we were in the 300s." It was 1986, and in just a few short years, the couple had experienced several moves, the loss of Stacy's father, job shifts and money problems.

It was then that the two went back to college. During his last year at the University of Texas, Oechsler began doing research for the first AIDS study in Texas to establish a baseline for the knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of Texans with regard to AIDS. The professor who was the project's director backed out, and Oechsler was asked to step into that role.

"It hooked me on this thing of research," he said. "I had another professor who came alongside me and encouraged me to think about a graduate degree."

Oechsler graduated in 1989 and immediately began a master's program, while Stacy had a one-year internship left to finish her program in nutrition.

"So we lived in a house without heat, below the poverty line; we had some type of varmint in the attic and slugs on the back shower wall. We got robbed. We walked to school. We really didn't have much, but we were both in it together," he said. "We had a belief in each other and a belief in God that kept us together. My first week of graduate school, we found out we were going to have a baby. We had our first son at the end of my first year of graduate school."

Oechsler had set his sights on a Ph.D., but toward the end of his master's program, a friend asked him to interview with Leo Burnett, a Chicago-based advertising agency. The agency was recruiting on campus, looking for master's-level students with research and statistical backgrounds.

"I kind of pooh-poohed how much research was really true research in advertising. I didn't know, but I just had this assumption," he said. But after looking into the company and realizing what goes into the process of advertising, he became more interested.

"I thought, 'Well … maybe if I had that real world experience, it would help me …' Hunger is a good motivator."

Oechsler's half-hour interview turned into an hour-and-a-half and he was invited to Chicago for a further round of interviews. Leo Burnett made him an offer, and in 1991, the couple and their new baby moved to the Midwest.

He immediately went to work on a Sony project in the market research and planning group of the ad agency. During his time there, Oechsler was part of a team that won an Effie, a national award for marketing communications. He also worked on brands such as Marlboro and Disney, and on the launch of the Proctor & Gamble Crest Complete toothbrush.

About four years into the job, he was having lunch with a coworker who had just interviewed at a young brand consultancy firm in Grand Rapids called Hanon McKendry and had given the interviewer Oechsler's name.

"I said, 'Where is Grand Rapids?' and he holds up his hand, and I thought that he'd joined a cult or something," said Oechsler. "He goes, 'It's right over here.' He starts explaining (that his hand) is Michigan."

Initially, Oechsler wasn't that interested, but Hanon McKendry pursued him. The firm worked with nonprofits, which appealed to Oechsler, who had been helping nonprofits on the side. Stacy recognized the position as an opportunity for him to match his values and beliefs with his work. Oechsler went to Grand Rapids for an interview and was offered a job. In 1995, the family packed up and moved once again.

Five years later, Oechsler became president of Hanon McKendry. He had no intentions of leaving, but then he began to be courted by a friend at Christian publishing company Zondervan. In 2005, he left Hanon McKendry to become Zondervan's executive vice president of marketing. While there, his team launched "The Bible Experience," an audio reading of the Bible that focused on performances from well-known entertainers such as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tyler Perry. Upon launch, "The Bible Experience" sold 330,000 copies and won a bronze Effie in the same category as other newly launched products such as the Nintendo Wii.

"Here we were in the new products and services category with an audio book, which is not new, and a Bible, which is definitely not new," he said.

Oechsler was with Zondervan for 30 months before leaving in April 2008. Now, on top of running Xler, he teaches an online MBA course through West Virginia University and is president of Oklahoma-based nonprofit EthnoGraphic Media, a film and new media group that explores current issues. EGM's latest film is "Miss HIV," which approaches the topic of AIDS through three different lives.

Oechsler often speaks at colleges and does executive coaching, as well. He speaks on what his life experiences have taught him.

"Missteps, failures and defeats: Those really make you better, and you can't go through careers and life without having them. Sometimes you take a step sideways and sometimes you have to take a step back," he said.

"I've been doing some executive coaching with a few folks, and they ask, 'What now? What next?' The advice I always give to them is to take some chances, try some things. If they don't work out, it's OK. Let yourself fail and learn from it."

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