Welcome to the anniversary of the sub-prime mortgage crisis that brought us the Great Recession a decade ago. Good times, eh?
As a fitting tribute to the pain we all endured, I’d like to bring a fresh – and encouraging – perspective to our thinking back to that time.
Thinking the Unthinkable
The Great Recession forced us to think about the unthinkable. Even successful companies had to face the possibility of failure. And several unbelievably successful companies turned out to be just that.
We were in a moment of really having to question, well, everything. And that’s not just past history. Any follower of the world economy knows that at any moment we are all just a hiccup away from the chain reaction of cascading events that turn our planetary system upside down.
As we approach the possible end of a recovery cycle stretching to historical lengths, we are reminded that The Great Recession was neither the last marketplace crisis… nor was it the first.
That last fact led me to wonder, how did other successful companies manage through prior major crises (like the Great Depression) while others did not?
Too Big to (have) Failed
Of all the companies on earth, one would think that the global Fortune 1000 — the behemoths that have been successful enough to rule the economy on the planet — would be among the best examples of companies that had steered their way through trying economic times without tripping.
But we unearthed stories that tell a very different tale about several of those leading companies. It is a surprising narrative of failure – and not just speed bumps, but cataclysmic wall crashes!
Each of them faced a string of massive existential challenges that threatened the very life of the company. And somehow, they escaped to become the world leaders we know them to be today.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
What we found – and what surprised us – was that these companies were not lucky enough to skirt the jaws of defeat, but that they had marched right through this hellish crucible and emerged from the forge stronger, sharper, and more passionate about their future than when they went in! In a phrase, they succeeded not despite the challenges they faced, but because of them.
There is a great diversity in the settings of these stories — from photocopiers to diamonds to ice cream – but there are two themes that connect them all.
- One is their realizing their existential need to understand and serve their customers better than ever before.
- The second theme is their complete unflinching dedication to do whatever it takes to make that vision a reality.
As marketers, this is a message that we have been preaching for years… which is both encouraging and discouraging.
But what really arrested me was the power – actually, the opportunity — of harnessing a life-threatening crisis as a change agent for adopting a customer/marketing focus that transforms the entire corporation. As the economist, Paul Romer observed, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”.
Stories that change History
As a result, we compiled stories of four major corporations that, at one time in their history, have faced life-threatening economic crises. And that is capped with a very different perspective on crisis — the human tale of the birth of a business that became a national tradition also as a response to a crisis.
These five stories are available upon request in an implications-rich e-book. Our hope is that we all can learn from these histories to make ourselves and our companies more successful in the marketplace, even if we are not facing an existential crisis:
- DeBeers caught a glimpse of what made their prospects tick in the middle of the Depression, redefined the meaning of their commodity to fit the times, and thus created a brand as strong as their product.
- Xerox was saved from billions in debt and a looming chapter 11 filing by not just talking to their customers, but truly listening and then growing to actually meet their needs.
- IBM pulled out of 70% stock price plunge by breaking outside its walls and hiring an outsider – a customer – who had such a fresh baked perspective that he was nicknamed the “Cookie Man” (there were more reasons).
- Continental Airlines steered themselves away from a third Chapter 11 filing and ten straight years of losses by finding out what the customer actually cared about and then committing themselves to delivering it!
- And on a much smaller scale, immigrant Arnold Fornachou turned an operational disaster into something so completely novel that you’ll just have to read what he invented.
The Inspiration of Perspiration
The purpose of these stories, of course, is not just to entertain, but to inspire. They demonstrate with verifiable historical certainty that even if your company is on the brink of extinction, it can still not only survive but thrive.
The keys are simple, but not easy. There are key facts and implications from each turnaround. Find the ones that are most appropriate to your situation. We would love to hear what you find most helpful.
But these true tales are meant to have a much broader application – to companies that are NOT about to go under but who can implement the change before their life depends on it!
Hopefully, that applies to you.
Ask for our 38-page e-book of five surprising success stories. There is no better way to celebrate this anniversary.