The Story Behind the Comebacks: What We Learned from Our Business Recovery Stories

Everyone likes a good comeback story. We root for the underdog and we cheer when David slays Goliath.

Today, as the economy teeters with uncertainty, comebacks are harder to come by. No problem finding failures. And there are plenty of survival stories, too. But Survival is not the title of this magazine.

So, I knew our task wouldn’t be easy when we set out to write stories about businesses that faced certain failure yet managed to rebound to profitability through resourcefulness and hard work.

To head up the effort, I tapped a longtime freelancer and friend, Sally Deneen, whom I’ve known since our newspaper days in South Florida going back to the 1980s. I asked her to recruit and coordinate the efforts of a team of reporters around the country to bring us comeback stories from their own communities. Sally would also fill in the gaps by gathering tips from experts and other business owners.

“I was surprised how hard it was to find comeback candidates,” Sally recalls. “Perhaps because they aren’t yet a success in this challenged economic climate, or didn’t have an instructive story to tell about how to climb back to neutral or profitability.”

Yet, after culling through dozens of pitches, we identified a handful that had potential. The gripping disaster comebacks were easier to pick out. But we also needed stories that were more relatable—that could happen to any business on any Main Street. And these required solid reporting and good storytelling to pull off.

Our reporters included Aaron Barnhart in Kansas, Rebekah Denn in Seattle, Craig Hanson in San Francisco, Lisa Monti in Biloxi and Jim Motavalli in the Northeast.

Speaking about what he found most compelling about his story, Jim says the fight waged by family-owned Cabot Hosiery Mills in Vermont against overseas competition proves innovation often is born of necessity. “It took a serious crisis for father and son to break out of old patterns and actually apply one of the game-changing ideas they’d previously dismissed as impractical. Nobody likes having creditors at the door, but in this case it was a catalyst for needed change.”

For Aaron, who is writing a book about the aftermath of a tornado that wiped out tiny Greensburg, Kan., the recovery is still amazing. “You can’t really understand how daunting the comeback effort was until you take that long drive from Kansas City and watch the land empty out as the rolling hills are replaced with arid plains,” he says. “Think about what life would be like if your town was gone and the nearest hardware store was a three-hour round trip. In fact, just picking up a few groceries might take all morning.

“That Wylan Fleener not only rebuilt his home in this environment but remade his family’s century-old business—not just its physical location but what it primarily did and who it served—and stayed optimistic throughout, even during the times where he thought he might be losing his mind, is powerful testimony of what a community can achieve when its very future is at risk.”

Peter AaronWriting about Seattle’s iconic Elliott Bay Book Co.’s struggles in a changing neighborhood perceived as unsafe, Rebekah says she was moved by the happy ending. “Usually, when you’re writing about a beloved independent bookstore these days, you’re writing about its demise. It felt great to talk instead about revitalization, new life, and booming business. I was also impressed that no employees lost their jobs in Elliott Bay’s move. And it made me laugh that the store began stocking Agatha Christie mysteries again after a long hiatus, because senior citizens once again felt safe shopping there. Who knew you could track your sales by such details?”

For Sally, the tips from executive coach Michelle Randall were most interesting. Among them:  Don’t go it alone, don’t wallow in self-pity and remember that every business is a comeback story to some extent. Quoting Randall, she says, “Every real business has been through plenty of crises. It’s what they do when that happens that defines them.”

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