Everyone loves a comeback or redemption story.
Surviving as a business is a lot like crossing the ocean in a freighter — survival is not guaranteed. There are enormous swells, dangerous storms, and days of smooth sailing — and, of course, the unavoidable rogue wave that hits without warning. Keeping the freighter on course and on schedule is of paramount importance, as is selecting a route that poses the least amount of risk. Also, having a bigger ship can increase your chances of staying afloat.
But from time to time, even the biggest, most promising, and best-equipped ships run into trouble. And it’s the same in the world of business. Trouble can show up in the form of a recession, PR disaster, or even that fabled rogue wave — a fundamental problem that nobody even saw coming. But just like a crippled ship adrift at sea, businesses can sometimes find a way to fix the leak and get back into the game.
There are many examples of businesses that have been able to do just that: claw their way back from the brink of death to become successful, profitable enterprises once again. While these stories typically take place over the course of many years, they are, in some respects, just as riveting. We’ve compiled a list of five of the most intriguing corporate comeback stories from the recent past, each rather amazing in its own right.
In the mid-1990s, Apple was on the ropes. It was like Rocky 4, in many ways, except Apple was Sylvester Stallone, and Drago took the form of the computing colossus that is Microsoft. Back in 1997, Apple needed a life preserver, and Bill Gates was there to lend a helping hand.
How Apple got there is rather complicated, as were the terms of the $150 million loan that Microsoft gave it, but in the end, both companies won. Apple is now the world’s most valuable company — actually the most valuable company in history — at $700 billion. Considering that it was once on the brink of bankruptcy, that’s as good a turnaround as any.
FedEx has its genesis as nothing more than a term paper, written by Frederick W. Smith as an undergrad at Yale. From that simple paper, Smith was able to take his concepts to the business world and build an international logistics and shipping company. However, as time went on, FedEx started to have trouble. Things eventually got so bad that Smith, in an act of desperation, took the company’s final $5,000 to Las Vegas. He turned that final five grand into $27,000 — enough to pay a vital $24,000 fuel bill and save the company.
Any company that puts its future on a few cards, rolls of the dice, or spin of the roulette table to turn into a multibillion-dollar industry leader undoubtedly holds one of the greatest corporate comeback stories ever.
Once a pillar of American industry, Chrysler had fallen on hard times in the late 2000s — much like its counterparts Ford and GM. Essentially, American auto companies had bet that consumers would continue to go after their vehicles, rather than cheaper, more efficient models from abroad, and lost. That put Chrysler on the brink of death in 2008, when it was taken over by European-based Fiat, with help from the U.S. government. Since then, Chrysler has clawed its way back into the conversation. Many of the company’s brands, including Jeep and Dodge, have sparked fervor among auto buffs, and things are generally looking up.
Hard to believe that the company was, at one time, nearly without a pulse.
From the automotive sector to computing, the story of IBM’s brush with bankruptcy is truly one of the great business comebacks of all time. As Forbes reports, IBM’s true issue was that it was quickly becoming irrelevant and experiencing chronic low growth. The company also made some bets that it would be able to dominate in both consumer and business hardware and software, which it ultimately lost.
That left the company floundering until some big changes to the business culture and a refocus on IBM’s true strengths eventually turned things around. The new IBM was leaner, meaner, and more focused and efficient than before — primed to make a big impact in the market. Lou Gerstner, who took control of the company in 1993, deserves the lion’s share of credit. Without him, it’s not clear IBM would have made it to its 100th birthday, which it celebrated in 2011.
Priceline is a rare breed. Along with eBay, it is one of only a few dot-com era Web companies that were able to effectively stage comebacks. Though the company made some waves with its bold strategy of “name your price” for airfare and hotel rooms, in the early 2000s, the revolution seemingly fizzled. Through a series of competitor acquisitions and trimming Priceline’s product offerings, CEO Jeffrey Boyd was able to return the company to profitability.
Today, Priceline is a titan of the travel industry and continues to gobble up competitors like OpenTable and Kayak. Its stock is also worth well over $1,000 per share, after being nearly de-listed more than a decade ago.
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