The Leadership Challenge: Jonathan Bullen
By Christine Arrington
The Jon M. Huntsman School trains leaders to be ethical, effective, and entrepreneurial. People in top leadership positions face many challenges, a number of which can be considered under the rubric of “balance.” How much to invest, for example, balanced against how much to harvest. Aggressively seeking short-term growth, balanced against the long-term needs of customers and employees. We spoke to six outstanding leaders, who all have degrees from Utah State—five in business and one in engineering—to find out how they have balanced their leadership challenges and pressures, while creating value.
1978 B.S. Degree in Business from Utah State, 1978 graduate of the NAB Management Seminar at Harvard, successful real estate investor, President and CEO of Eagle Gate College Group. Click here for an extended biography.
The Scope of His Position
Jonathan is one of the largest stockholders in the giant Wasatch Real Estate. He is a General Partner in Woodbury Strategic Partners, a private equity fund that has five assets and plans to grow to 20 to 30 assets, ultimately with some $400-$600 million of real estate, including retail, office, multi-family, and even student housing.
In 1993 he became the majority owner, President and CEO of Eagle Gate College Group, a for-profit education business that today has 250 employees and 1,800 students in five locations. Over the next three-to-five years, he plans to double its size.
In 1938, Jonathan’s father and grandfather, Reed Bullen and Herschel Bullen, Jr., joined together with Jim Laub’s grandfather to start the seventh radio station in Utah, KVNU. Eventually Reed Bullen bought out the other partners. Years later, Jonathan started working as a janitor at the radio station, for $1.65 an hour. He hauled hay in the summer and then worked as a disc jockey, sales manager, and general manager
of the station. He says that these early experiences instilled a strong work ethic in him.
When he graduated from college, he worked at the radio station on 14th North in Logan, for $1,000 per month. The radio station became a real community center, and because of it, “We kind of knew everybody,” he said. As a result, “a real sense of community got embedded in all of us.”
Critical Strategic Decisions
On a parallel track, in 1965 when Jonathan was 12 years old he said, “My father had the foresight to acquire the cable franchise for Cache Valley, together with his two brothers and sister. They owned half, and Bonneville owned the other half. The first customer was hooked up in 1971.”
Jonathan worked hard selling the franchise to each municipality in Cache Valley, starting with Hyrum. He found the work stimulating. Eventually the LDS Church decided to sell its Bonneville holdings in cable, and Jonathan wanted to borrow $5 million to buy Bonneville’s half. At the time, no Utah banks would even bid on the loan without the usual assets, “land and cattle,” to secure it.
Finally he approached the Philadelphia National Bank. “They had been educated about the cash flow and profitability of cable TV by Ralph and Bryan Roberts, who owned and ran Comcast,” he said. The Philadelphia bank was more than willing to make the loan. Jonathan bought Bonneville’s half and was able to buy his relatives’ shares about four years later.
Then the big cable players such as TCI, Cox, and Comcast began buying up the smaller companies. “TCI would say to the cable operators, ‘We can own you now or we can own you later,’” Jonathan said. While he hadn’t intended to sell, “I could see that we were a middle-sized fish in a business that was becoming populated with whales.” Ultimately he sold to cable operator Chris Cohan, who owned Sonic Cable of California. The transaction was completed in 1990, and today, 21 years later, the cable business in Cache Valley is owned by Comcast.
Ethical Issues and Strengths
After Jonathan and his family moved to Salt Lake in 1992, they became majority owners of Eagle Gate College. He said, “We could see that the school was really making a difference in people’s lives. The typical student is age 25, female, member of a minority group, with children, a blue-collar job, and wants a part of the American dream.”
He is proud of the innovative public-private relationship Eagle Gate has with USU. “Utah State teaches the general education courses for us, in math and physiology and so on,” he said, via satellite, in Provo, Salt Lake, and Layton.
Running Eagle Gate “is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said. “At graduation we have our students speak, and
it’s so inspiring. They become more self-reliant, and they have dignity and confidence.”