James Bonner came to the College of Business Administration at UNL from a farm family life style in Battle Creek, NE, with some apprehensions about attending a major university whose enrollment far surpassed that of his home town. What he learned by getting a degree in business administration at UNL not only changed his attitude about attending a large university but also gave him the tools he needed to create and manage his own small business.
“What UNL really helped me with is communication,” said Bonner. “Growing up in a small town with about 1,200 people and growing up on the farm, you don’t really communicate with anybody that you don’t know. So when I came to UNL it was just a huge shock. My classes were like a third the size of my whole high school that I went to in Battle Creek. UNL really expanded my comfort zone in terms of learning to talk to people that I don’t know and becoming open and friendly with anybody.”
Bonner learned a lot in his CBA classes both communicating with professors and collaborating on projects with other students.
“Students and even some teachers from small towns expect that you’re just a number here at UNL and I don’t agree with that at all. You can only make yourself a number. The academics here are great especially in terms of the connections.”
Bonner learned the value of making connections in business after he and his brother started the B & B Roofing company. He had already worked as a roofer for another company where he learned the technical aspects of the business. In order to grow his roofing company Bonner still needed the connections he was learning to make in college. One of the key connections he made was with professor Richard Kimbrough. Kimbrough was just one example of the mentoring and support Bonner received from CBA faculty.
“As young as we are as a company it can be hard for people to take me seriously,” said Bonner. “Professor Kimbrough will put word out for you as long as you show up to class and he’ll recommend you and your business. That’s not exactly what you expect to get out of class. I’ve also had teachers go out of the way for me if I’ve had something that I missed or couldn’t get into a certain class. They’ll make sure I can get into that class that I need.”
Professor Kimbrough recognized that Bonner was a student that was diligent in his desire to improve his business skills.
“James is the sort of young man that Peter Thiel, the San Francisco billionaire talks about when he says that young people should be inventing and innovating and starting their own businesses at an early age,” said Kimbrough. “James runs his own business, nothing terribly sophisticated, but he attended class and every meeting with the firm purpose of really learning something that would benefit the operation of his business. Some students are in class to get a grade and a diploma, but James really wants to improve himself. There is no question at all in my mind but that he will run a very successful business.”
Bonner minored in management and history and also had an internship at Northwestern Mutual. Although Bonner was forced to end the internship early when his father needed his help back on the family farm, it still gave him another experience which helped him learn how to sell his business. Bonner intends to continue his roofing company for the time being but also has plans that are already requiring him to use the business education he received at CBA.
“A lot of people have said that with roofing as a small business you need to have an exit strategy,” said Bonner. “When you’re young you can bear it but roofing is hard work. So the planning is really important. I hope to have this business for about five years because the business that I really want to get into is livestock equipment manufacturing.”
Bonner found out when he started his roofing business that getting a start up loan from a bank can be difficult so he’s already planning ahead.
“I know that I’m going to have to make some revenue and have the upfront assets in order to get a loan to start something like a livestock equipment manufacturing company. If I can’t find a way to make the roofing business permanent and keep it throughout my entire life where I can expand it, then I’ll definitely try to get into the livestock equipment manufacturing company and expand that. That’s more of a permanent solution and training workers wouldn’t be as much as training roofers.”
Although Bonner remains comfortable dressed in the working clothes of life on the farm or up on a roof, he’s now getting equally comfortable wearing a suit and tie when the needs of running a small business call for it. He encourages other high school students from small towns to consider following in his footsteps.
“If you’re from a small town and you have an interest in expanding your horizons or starting a new business then UNL will really help you learn how to get to know other people and communicate. It opened me up to be friendly with people and introduce myself to anybody that I don’t know. That’s important because that could be the person that introduces you to who you really need to know.”