To his family and friends in Hamburg, Germany, he was just Stefan. But he decided that he wanted to see what awaited him in the world beyond his home, specifically in the United States, and got on a boat. He decided to go by Steve, which seemed more American — to help him fit in with his new environment and new life.
That new life led to CSUN and a successful career as a technology entrepreneur.
When Bothe enrolled at San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN) in 1970, he had only been in the U.S. once before, on vacation. He spoke little English and only had a handful of contacts. In addition to a full course load, he worked 20 hours a week to help pay for his education. But with clear conviction and purpose, Bothe knew he was going to make it.
He was right.
In 1992, Bothe ’71 (Business Administration) founded FlexiInternational Software, at age 44. Today, he’s the president and CEO of the financial management software firm created to assist accountants by simplifying complex processes in a seamless workflow.
The company’s name alludes to the software’s flexibility for the needs of the myriad industries it serves, including financial services, banks and credit unions, insurance, health care and more. Based in Naples, Fla., the company has 2,000 customers, serves more than 50,000 users and securely processes billions of transactions in real time.
After establishing Flexi, Bothe also helped create financial solutions software company FYIsoft with his wife, Jennifer Cheng, who is its president and CEO.
During the 50th anniversary gala for CSUN’s David Nazarian College of Business and Economics in 2016, Bothe was named one of the college’s “Fabulous 50” — 50 alumni who have brought distinction to the university by making significant contributions to the business world and society in general.
‘Failure breeds success.’
“There is no straight road to success,” Bothe said.
As a foreign student at CSUN, a major challenge for the young Bothe was getting his foot in the door and landing his first job in the United States.
“I didn’t have a green card or a work visa,” he said. “Even after coming out of university, when you think you know all this stuff, things don’t all work out the way you expect them to.”
Eventually, by working hard and navigating red tape, he landed a full-time job at Colgate-Palmolive, which allowed him to stay in the country.
Even as his career progressed and he achieved professional milestones, however, there were still some hurdles along the way.
“In my career, I’ve actually been let go twice from senior positions,” Bothe said. “Even though I had failed, it worked out great for me. The first time, I became a CEO at another company, and the second time it happened, I got to start up my own company.”
A Passion for the Business
Going into technology was not originally in Bothe’s plans.After CSUN, Bothe spent years building his expertise in marketing. He got his initial marketing training at Colgate-Palmolive as a product manager, then worked as an account manager for advertising company Ogilvy & Mather. He expanded his experience in corporate marketing, serving in leadership roles at Hertz and CIT Financial Services.
He was the senior vice president of marketing at CIT Financial Services when a door to the high-tech world opened up for him.Computer Associates, one of the largest software companies in the computer industry, needed someone who could help bring the modern world of marketing to how they would sell their software. They offered Bothe the position of vice president of marketing.
Since the software business was not on his radar, Bothe said he wasn’t sure whether or not he’d take the job. But one day in the early 1980s, he came across an issue of Businessweek. On the front page, there was a single word in massive typeface against a blank white background: “Software.” He read the cover story and was inspired.
Enamored with the idea of participating in an industry with endless horizons, Bothe jumped on board. His experience at Computer Associates allowed him the chance to immerse himself in the nascent software and high-tech industry, he said, and he discovered a new passion along the way.
“This industry is exciting because we’re always pushing the envelope and introducing new products,” Bothe said. “We’re not done yet with inventions, not done yet with new opportunities. I would love to be young today and [be able to] find new industries and … all kinds of opportunities that haven’t been thought of.”
Bothe continued to learn about software as he rose through the ranks at Computer Associates, and later GEAC Computer Corporation and DataEase. Then, equipped with enough knowledge of the industry, he heard the call to start his own company.
It wasn’t smooth sailing yet after Flexi was established, though, Bothe said. There were hiccups along the way: The company had to regroup during Y2K — when there was rampant fear of computer infrastructure collapse at the turn of the millennium — because consumers and banks were reluctant to commit to the company’s accounting software. Flexi stood on shaky ground during its infancy, Bothe said, when it depended on external funding for its survival.
“I remember one time, sitting with friends on a weekend, and I said, ‘On Monday, I’m either broke or my company’s successful!'” Bothe said. “We were waiting for funding from a venture capitalist, and on Monday, we’d find out if we got it. If we didn’t, we didn’t have money to make payroll and we would have had to shut down.”
Once a Matador…
It was a simple recommendation from one of his father’s contacts — a financial executive in California whose son attended CSUN — that ultimately drew Bothe to the university. He looked up the school and took a chance.
“[CSUN] always embraced me as a foreign student,” he said. “There were definitely bigger-name colleges … but none of them had that family feeling. I don’t think I could have chosen a better place to be.”
Today, well after earning his diploma and building a fruitful career, Bothe has not forgotten his start at CSUN and still finds ways to connect with current students.
Those students, he said, are “light years ahead of us in what they have learned and what they bring to the next step in their career.”
Bothe also established The Helmut Bothe Scholarship. Named for Bothe’s father, who helped support him as he completed his education in the U.S., thousands of miles from home, the scholarship aims to help international students in the Nazarian College who face similar circumstances.
Having served on the advisory board of the Nazarian College for a number of years, Bothe stays actively involved in mentoring business school students. He feels called to give back to his California alma mater, he said.
To students and other aspiring entrepreneurs, Bothe advised: Have a business plan for your career.
“We’ve all learned in business school how to do business plans for companies,” Bothe said, “to come up with strategies and tactics to build a business. Well, how about your own career? What is your plan? Where do you want to be five, 10 years from now?”