Undercover Billionaire exclusive interview: Glenn Stearns’ bet on Erie, PA becomes reality TV series

A father at 14, a millionaire before age 30, Stearns is a cancer survivor who wants to make a difference. Pic credit: Discovery
A father at 14, a millionaire before age 30, Stearns is a cancer survivor who wants to make a difference. Pic credit: Discovery

Can lightning strike in the same place twice? That’s a generalized overview of the premise for the new series Undercover Billionaire for Discovery.

Can self-made man, Glenn Stearns, pose as an average man making a documentary, armed with just $100, an old truck, and a camera crew trying to get a leg up in a city where no one knows him?

Great question. Plus, Stearns can’t use his contacts and assets to try and recreate a fortune in just 90 days.

The premise is a bit Naked and Afraid-ish with balls-out elements of survival plus some bits from other non-fiction shows of rags-to-riches undercover entrepreneurs.

Also, he needed to find someone in need to either help establish a company or turn one in a precarious situation around.

The episode teaches the salvos of working hard, that no job is beneath you and finding the buyers first before you scavenge. But, can real-life billionaire Glenn really and truly make a million bucks in 90 days? You will have to watch to see.

“Self-made billionaire Glenn Stearns attempts to make a million-dollar company in just 90 days” is the tagline, but the underscore of this TV series was born on a bet made by Glenn, a cancer survivor who realized how short life was, with his friends.

It wound up in the ears of producers who knew Glenn, and they bit at the premise. Discovery made the deal, and here we are, seeing if Mr. Stearns, a very active philanthropist with a few vexing financial issues percolating, can make a second fortune from scratch, the way he did the first time.

It’s bold and risky in these volatile financial times where homelessness is at an all-time high and middle-class people are living in their vehicles.

Life was hard for Glenn. He was dealt alcoholic parents, diagnosed dyslexic, and failed 4th grade. In the 8th grade at age 14, he fathered a child.

His grades were anemic at best, and yet he managed to get to college and earn a degree in economics from Towson University. And like in the series on Discovery, no job was beneath him and no task ignored as he slowly steadily built an empire.

In his 20s, Glenn formed his own mortgage company, Stearns Lending LLC.  By 2010, Stearns Lending LLC reached nearly $1 billion a month in funding while experiencing record growth.  It has since faltered financially.

But unquestionably Glenn knows how to generate income. The point of this show is to share his ethos on the road to riches. But what he cannot impart is his natural charisma and the understated way in which he makes accords, breaks down barriers, and gets people to go along with him. He’s a natural-born salesman.

At the recent Television Critics’ Association press tour, I spoke to Glenn and his Erie, Pennsylvania partner in the show, R.J. Messenger of Iron Empire Clothing. Messenger is now an entrepreneurial advocate for Erie, a tough big little town that has seen better days but is full of enterprising people ready to kick-start the old girl into a new-chic reborn American city.

That in itself makes this series a worthy venture. Americans need to invest in American things, people, and ideas to create the noise here instead of worrying about “out there.” Glenn gets that.

Monsters & Critics: First of all, I saw the first episode, and it’s a fascinating premise, in that people need mentors, and just from reviewing all the materials on yourself, it looks like you were born to be a mentor. Is that a true or false statement?

Glenn Stearns: I would say, when I was first growing up, I needed a lot of mentors, and I ended up being very fortunate to get some that helped bring me to a place where I was able to achieve more than anything I’d ever dreamed of.

And at that point, I realized there was so much in being able to give back and help others, and so that’s when I realized the power of planting seeds and telling people you believe in them and trying to inspire others to create their own dreams.

It was really important, so then I’d really gotten a charge out of trying to help see other people reach for their own brass ring.

R.J. Messenger teamed up with Stearns on Undercover Billionaire. Pic credit: Discovery
R.J. Messenger teamed up with Stearns on Undercover Billionaire. Pic credit: Discovery

M&C: I’m going to pivot to you, RJ. You sold the shirt off your back. You connected with Glenn.  Tell me about your business first.

RJ Messenger:  I run Iron Empire Clothing. It started as just a clothing brand. My ex-wife and I, we started right out of our house. We both had good, secure, full-time jobs, and wanted to start a hobby, and within a year, we were in our first retail location. I worked full-time for the city for seven years, so I retired early, I say, and took it on full-time.

And here I am a couple of years later; we’re doing custom screen printing. We do motivational, inspirational clothing, things with messages, and sayings that people can connect to. We’re heavily involved in the local community with donating, volunteering, doing things with other businesses, organizations, projects, stuff like that.

M&C: Do you feel like that bit of volunteerism and putting yourself out there for others actually is a pathway for financial enrichment? In other words, building a path of goodwill. 

Messenger: It comes around to you somehow, some way. I’ve always said that. Donate $10 now; it’s going to come back $100 later. Somehow, someway, you might not even realize it, but I’ve always been a true believer of that.

M&C: What are your hopes for your city?

Messenger: I think that this is going to be something big for Erie. I think that it’s about time something, someone, has put a positive spin, a positive spotlight on Erie. There’s been a lot of negative stuff, the manufacturing leaving, the negative news stories, stuff like that.

I really hope that this will put Erie on the map, for being a hardworking city that’s being … I don’t want to say recreated, but both from the ground up by entrepreneurs and local business owners, and people like Don and myself, and now people like Glenn, and who knows. Glenn might be the first person … who knows who might see the show and be like, “Wow, Erie’s a great city, I want to go do something there now.”

Who knows what this is going to do. And I see it being big, and I hope it is. I’m just excited to see how it all plays out.

M&C: So how did you get wind about the show, and how did producers contact you and introduce this premise of the show, and Glenn, and what they wanted to do? How did that happen?

Messenger: So for me, they just contacted me awhile back, and I had no idea about a show. There’s a documentary, this guy Glenn Bryant wanted to start a business and wanted to come to Erie, Pennsylvania, gave me a little bit of background about him. We had no idea [who he really was].

M&C: So it was a documentary, the name was obfuscated. It wasn’t his actual name, just part of it.

Messenger: Yes. I didn’t know I would have any involvement with anything. They said, “Hey, how about you … maybe he can get a job for you for a little bit, help me make some money. I’m gonna use them around the store and see where it goes.”

Stearns: But with that, what happened was they … I mean, it is television.

Messenger: Yeah.

Stearns: So you have to boil it down. They gave me an opportunity to meet a hundred people.  I just didn’t go to every bar and meet them, or every restaurant. So I got the pick who my team was going to be, you know what I mean? And there was a lot of people that I went through, to find the people that I felt had the ability to really be wonderful teammates.

Obviously, you [speaking to RJ]  and Don, and others just shined, and I thought they would make wonderful people to help try to take a stab at opening a business in 90 days, and having it worth a million dollars, so.

And so, really, I met RJ and Don by showing up at their stores, and again, it was a matter of kind of assessing them and saying, do I think as a teammate they bring a lot of qualities, which they do, obviously that would allow us to be able to be successful.

Messenger: Yes.

M&C: So the business, is it still in existence? Or was it a construct.

Stearns: Well, no, the goal was to create a business that’s going to be able to last in Erie and to be able to grow. That was the goal, was to be able to do that. And whether we made it or not, I don’t know if I’m at liberty to say, but the goal was to not have a business that just was there, and then I leave town, and it’s gone, we just kind of used the people of Erie … hopefully, was to be able to create something that would really benefit the city and benefit the people of Erie.

M&C: So are all eight episodes are devoted to this business in Erie?

Stearns: They’re all devoted to the path and the journey of creating the business. In Erie.

M&C: You had no idea where you were going to be put on the ground by the production team?

Stearns: No.

M&C: Take me through that process, and how you worked your position with the production company…

Stearns: Yes, we were in Miami on our boat; it was about 90 degrees. It was beautiful, and they came and said, “Give me your wallet, give me your cell phone, say goodbye to the family,” and off we left. Got into a nice 1996 pick-up truck. And next thing you know, I’m in Erie, Pennsylvania. I’d never been there; the lake was frozen; it was not what I had just come from.

So yeah, so it was all a surprise, and that was kind of fun to go, “All right, I have no idea. I’ve never been here.” Yeah.

M&C: Did you conceptualize the series, or did a production company conceptualize the series and come to you saying, “You’re the perfect person for us?

Stearns: Well no, I had always said, I bet I could do it all over again. I bet if you stripped me from everything, and you just gave me $100, I can rebuild it.

And that came, really, from having cancer. I ended up having cancer a couple of different times and realizing life’s short, and when it’s time to go for it, you should go for it, and don’t have regrets.

The older we get, the more conservative we get by that. Why don’t we just still go for it like when we were young? And so, I wanted to do that. I wanted to just test myself, do it. Show my family and friends that you shouldn’t have regrets. And so I went for it, and it’s scary.

Well, I get to go back to my regular life after 90 days. I might go back there with my reputation ruined, with the fact that now America gets to see that it was luck, all those kinds of things.

And after a while, I sat there in the middle of it going, “What in the world was I thinking?” And in a weird way, I kind of wanted to get there. That’s what happens, I think, when you start a business, when you go through life, we get to places where we just say, “How did I get here?” And when you get done, you’re proud of pulling yourself out of a hole. And so you said something earlier, and it reminded me of … I think in my life, I failed fourth grade. I had a child in eighth grade.

And all of that adversity always led to something a lot bigger and greater. And so, I have never looked at the struggle and the pain, and the unknown as fear-based, I looked at it with excitement, like I can’t wait to put myself in that situation again, see how I get myself out of it, versus, I don’t want to be in that situation, because then I might fail. So it’s just different.

I think for years, and years, and years of being conditioned into knowing I’m here now and I like it, versus I’m here now and I’m petrified. Even though it was something when you’re in the middle of it, it’s not fun.

M&C: Right. That fearlessness I felt when I was watching it. You had that. I mean you were sleeping in your truck, you were doing without all your creature comforts. This is a big question. As I was watching it and learning about you, I felt, well, first of all, I couldn’t figure out politically where you stood.

Stearns: Good, I like that. Because it’s an apolitical show, it’s not really about politics at all.

M&C: In a way, your show is truly making America great again, internally, by helping people who maybe don’t see the bigger picture like you do. And we have a huge homeless problem in this country.

Stearns: Right. I hope this show shines a light on that, and I would love for everybody in Congress, let’s talk both sides, get down to 100 bucks, and go see if they can do it again.

Because you know how hard it is when you don’t have any money? I didn’t know how hard it was, and to get from a hundred bucks to two hundred dollars is hard because you’re just living hand to mouth, day today. And that was the best thing I saw.

The lesson I learned was that it is hard to get ahead in this world, and this country. And so I would, again, I don’t think of the show is political at all, but I would love for every one of our leaders to be able to feel that feeling, and understand that we do need to help people that are less fortunate than us, and figure out a way to help give them a hand up.

M&C: What are your hopes for the show? 

Stearns: Well, I think, at least when I look at my life and its successes, it didn’t revolve around money. It revolves around struggle, pain, adversity, and then finding a way out of it.

And I think that when people are in the middle of that, a lot of times you think, “My life’s over. I’m ruined. I’m this and that”, and if you can just acknowledge where you are and realize it’s your turn to dig yourself out of that hole, then I think it’s something that, I hope, this would… I guess the words inspire, but other people … I definitely wanted to do it for my children, my family, and friends, to see that at any age, at any income level, anything, you can challenge yourself.

And that you should take chances and risks that are outside of your comfort zone. And you will then, to the end of that, you’ll be happier because that’s where it is for me.

I am very fulfilled person. I really am. I don’t mean that because of having money or anything. I was sleeping on the floors in college, and that was the happiest times I also had.  So I always seem to have been very blessed with realizing I live a pretty cool life.

And I get it, I mean it when I didn’t have any money and I was a waiter, and I had my own business, I was still a waiter, okay? So it wasn’t about anything other than challenging yourself and then realizing I’m a pretty good person, I feel that way. I’m not trying to brag. I mean, you’ve got to feel good about yourself, you know?

And that means giving back, that means making a difference, that means all the things we talked about.

Because when you do that, I think when you’re ready to go, and again, I had the cancer, I can smile when I take my last breath and say, “I did a pretty good job.”

Undercover Billionaire premieres Tuesday, August 6 at 10 PM ET/PT on Discovery.

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