LEWISBURG, Pa. — Doug Lebda, Class of '92, was sitting in a business school class 13 years ago when he realized he was onto something.
He had set up a website for an emerging company, then called Credit Source USA, and posted a banner advertisement on Yahoo, asking consumers to provide personal information, including their names, addresses, birth dates and social security numbers, so they could be referred to a mortgage lender.
"Two-hundred people filled out this form," Lebda recalled Tuesday night, during a Bucknell Forum talk in Trout Auditorium at Bucknell University. "Then, I had to write back, 'At this time, we do not have any banks that fit your needs, but please check back regularly.'"
The idea, which seized on the consumer need for help navigating the often confusing and frustrating mortgage process, grew into what is now LendingTree.com, a loan referral service that draws about 10,000 people a day, said Lebda during his talk, "Lead or Fail: The New Challenges of a New Economy," part of the ongoing Bucknell Forum series, "Global Leadership: Questions for the 21st Century."
Crisis presents opportunity Today, consumers are even less trusting of businesses, and government is more involved in business than ever, Lebda said. The global economic crisis presents a number of challenges to prospective business owners, but those who trust their instincts, identify consumer needs and, above all, remain transparent, have the chance to succeed.
"All leadership is attributable to one person: you," Lebda said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the time and lead the way."
Now chairman and CEO of Tree.com and a former chief operating officer of InterActiveCorp (IAC), Lebda, who graduated from Bucknell with a degree in business administration, has been recognized for his successful business pursuits with a number of awards, including the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, the Council for Entrepreneurial Development's Trailblazer, and the Inman Innovator of the Year.
Frustration leads to idea While working at Price Waterhouse in Pittsburgh, Lebda came up with the idea for LendingTree, his first company, after becoming frustrated with the process of searching for a lender with the best loan terms. Later, at the graduate business school at the University of Virginia, he developed the business plan that ultimately became LendingTree.
After receiving second place for the idea in a business competition, Lebda continued to build on the LendingTree concept and decided to leave business school and pursue the idea full-time with his wife, Tara Garrity Lebda, Bucknell Class of '94.
National launch LendingTree was launched nationally in 1998 with a series of catchy television commercials, including one in which a homeowner boasts of his oversized house in the suburbs and golf club membership before proclaiming, "I'm in debt up to my eyeballs. ... Somebody help me."
Lebda oversaw the company as it went public in 2000, took on five acquisitions, expanded into consumer real estate and grew to producing more than $300 million in revenue.
In 2003, LendingTree was acquired by IAC, a $6.3 billion interactive conglomerate that encompasses Ask.com, Ticketmaster, HSN, Match.com, Citysearch, Evite and about 60 other brands. Lebda was named IAC's President and COO in 2005, overseeing all of the company's businesses and 20,000 employees.
In 2008, Lebda became chairman and CEO of Tree.com, the parent company of LendingTree, RealEstate.com and several other Internet-based companies. He lives in Charlotte, N.C., with his family.
Changing with the times Lebda's company has had to adjust to the changing economic climate, he said. As the financial crisis unfolded, for example, LendingTree took another approach with its TV commercials, casting the consumer as the hero or "super you" as Batman actor Adam West narrates.
Bill Gruver, a member of the Bucknell Forum task force and Distinguished Clinical Professor of Management and Executive-in-Residence who introduced Lebda, joked that Lebda showed early signs of entrepreneurship while he was growing up in Lewisburg. While working as a caddy at the Bucknell Golf Course, Lebda and a few friends retrieved golf balls from the water hazards and sold them the next day at a discounted price.
Early business lessons While at Bucknell, Lebda learned lessons of how to succeed and fail at business when he made an attempt at the snack food business. "Bucky Bites" chocolate chip cookies went stale before they were sold.
Lebda was a member of Bucknell's Delta Upsilon fraternity and the crew team. He has served on a number of Bucknell-related boards, including the Alumni Association Board of Directors.
Bucknell Forum The Bucknell Forum continues in the spring with a talk by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Feb. 2 titled "Globalization and the New Economy: A New Vision for American Leadership and Strength."
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