SALES LEADERSHIP

American Innovators Who Bounced Back from Bankruptcy
Malcolm Fleschner

All highly successful people share one unique trait: the ability to remain resilient in the face of failure. Some of the most renowned American innovators quite literally went bankrupt before achieving greatness, including P.T. Barnum, Henry J. Heinz, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. Read these tales to find out how they bounced back from adversity.

P.T. Barnum
By 1855, P.T. Barnum had already established his reputation as the nation's foremost showman based on his "American Museum" in Manhattan (which displayed human curiosities, jugglers, magicians, exotic animals and daily hot-air balloon rides), as well as international tours with legendary dwarf Tom Thumb and Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind. Then, at age 46, Barnum grew obsessed with developing a new town from scratch in East Bridgeport, Connecticut, and overextended himself attempting to prop up and relocate the floundering Jerome Clock Company.

After four years of litigation, Barnum emerged from bankruptcy to regain ownership of his museum, and began to build his fortune again. He created the world's first aquarium and, along with partner James Bailey, founded the circus that still carries his name. By the time of his death in 1891, Barnum was arguably the most famous American in the world, having regained his reputation many times over as an icon of ingenuity, spectacle, and vision.

Henry J. Heinz
In 1871, 25-year-old Henry J. Heinz, the son of a German immigrant and a onetime door-to-door produce salesman, launched a horseradish company using a recipe he'd devised at age nine. Heinz's condiment proved popular - for a time. But in 1875 an oversupply of horseradish caused prices to flatline, and Heinz saw his business evaporate in the face of competition from less expensive brands.

Undeterred by bankruptcy and inspired by his personal motto, "Heart power is less than horse power," Heinz tried again the next year, launching the business that would become the H.J. Heinz Company. One of the company's first products: ketchup. Soon he added celery sauce, pickles, vinegar and jams to his product line. He personally came up with the idea of a "factory tour" for interested consumers, a publicity move copied hundreds of times over by other companies, and in 1896 devised the legendary "57 Varieties" marketing slogan (the company already had more than 60 product lines, but Heinz saw magic in the number 57).

Today, nearly 100 years after his death, Heinz's legacy lives on in refrigerators, pantries and kitchen tables around the world.

Henry Ford
A former engineer at Edison and an inveterate tinkerer, Ford in 1899 launched his first vehicle-manufacturing endeavor: the Detroit Automobile Company. Ford's perfectionism clashed his investors' desire for a rapid turnaround on their investment, however, and in less than two years the company was dissolved after building just 20 vehicles. Later Ford would blame his failure on a pursuit of profit rather than innovation.


In late 1903, Ford regrouped and, with a jump start from $28,000 worth of new investment capital, set up shop with the newly incorporated Ford Motor Company. There, thanks to the popularity of the inexpensive and easy-to-drive Model T, the introduction of assembly line production, enlightened labor relations and a commitment to innovation, Ford built his company into a manufacturing juggernaut and amassed a personal fortune worth the equivalent of $188 billion today.

Walt Disney
Disney got his start in Kansas City, selling his animated cartoons to local theaters as the president and founder of the distinctly small-time "Laugh-O-Gram Studio." Despite his cartoons' local popularity, however, Disney proved incapable of managing money effectively, and debts forced the company out of business. So in 1923 he and his brother pooled their remaining resources, moved west, and set up a cartooning studio in Hollywood. Disney's path to greatness was far from assured – in 1928 his distributor hired away all but one of Disney's animators – but by the early 1930s, Walt Disney and his cartoon creation, Mickey Mouse, were a nationwide sensation. Along the way his business acumen must have improved. By the time of his death in 1966, Disney had won more Academy Awards than anyone else (22 – a record that still stands) and built an entertainment empire that has only grown and flourished under the Disney name ever since.

Is going belly up a good thing? Of course not. But stories like these show that failure is a temporary condition – and can often prove to be a mere misstep that reveals the longer path to greatness.

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