Success magazine's 9th Annual Great Comebacks.

Author:Anderson, Duncan Maxwell
Position:Business comebacks - Cover Story
SUMMARY

Nine accounts of entrepreneurs who were able to stage business comebacks despite severe misfortunes were presented. The misfortunes they suffered were varied. Some of the entrepreneurs suffered accidents that nearly resulted in death or in becoming handicapped. One had his company's money stolen by a con man while another lost heavily by speculating on salt fish supplies. Whatever their... (see full summary)

 
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Meet men and women who illustrate the triumph of the human spirit. The entrepreneurs described below met with disaster and humiliation. Yet each showed the true measure of greatness by profiting from suffering and rising again to even greater heights.

He Couldn't Be Crushed

Running a red light, the school bus plowed broadside into Tony Little's car like an exploding torpedo. It dragged him and his car 100 yards before grinding to a halt. At 26, Little's spine was mangled and his life as a body-builder was over. But his troubles were just beginning.

Little grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla. He took up weight lifting after a knee injury eliminated him from high school football and track. A Mr. America sponsor noticed him and encouraged him to enter a local bodybuilding contest. Little won it and began a meteoric rise in the field, making $2,000 a weekend for exhibitions.

Little went on to win Mr. Florida, the Junior Mr. America, Mr. Southern U.S., and Mr. Central U.S. He was favored to take the National Bodybuilding Championship. Then the school bus hit his car. He managed to climb out of the wreck to check whether any children were hurt -- but then collapsed in the street.

Lying in a hospital bed, Little learned that two disks in his back were smashed. He couldn't even hold a coffee cup. But he was 50 days away from the National Championship, and he felt he had to compete. His sponsor would demand that he show up. Doped up with painkillers, he worked out with light weights and placed fifth in the competition. He only succeeded in doing more damage to his back and knees.

For the next two years, Little spent his time either in the hospital or in his tiny condo, living off advances from his attorney, who expected to win a big settlement from the city.

"The minute I was down, people I thought were my friends just disappeared," Little recalls. Sitting all day in front of the television, he got fat, depressed, and drunk.

He finally tried to pull himself out of his funk by creating his own exercise show on the local cable channel.

But disaster still dogged his every step. One day, after he'd begun to work out again, he felt his head pounding -- and woke up in the hospital with deadly meningitis from a bad spinal tap.

A few weeks later, he sat down after a tense business argument -- and found himself in a puddle of industrial acid. He had to be taken, bleeding, to a burn center and hospitalized again.

A few weeks after his return home, looking for some recreation, he bought himself a horse -- only to be kicked squarely between the legs and sent to the hospital for another few weeks.

Finally, one day, when his mother came to pick him up at the hospital, Little asked her to take him to a car dealer. A car dealer?

"She thought I'd gone nuts," he recalls. "She knew I couldn't afford a car. But I told her I had to have an obligation to work for. If I just went back to my condo, I could've rotted there for a year."

He came home with a shiny new Camaro and a full head of steam. It was his turning point. Before long, Little's fitness show took off. He got himself certified as a trainer. With a loan from his attorney, he produced an exercise video, Bodycise/Bodyshaping.

He let nothing stop him. Pushed to the edge of financial disaster by some expensive ads that didn't produce immediate results, he went to the Clearwater, Fla., headquarters of the Home Shopping Network (HSN). Little talked HSN president Bud Paxton into taking 500 tapes. After being shown on the air, they sold out in four minutes. Stepping in front of the camera himself, he sold 3,500 more in 15 minutes.

During the past few years, Little's high-energy TV persona has outperformed his celebrity competitors. In 1993, his company sold $100 million worth of videos and exercise equipment. He publishes his own magazine and wrote a book called Technique. He has produced a fitness video for children. And he has bigger plans.

"I want to produce a stable of fitness stars," he says. "I will align them with the proper products and infomercials. And I will create a lot of Tony Littles."

Cheated, But Not Defeated

The partner's voice on the telephone didn't even sound sorry. He'd stolen every dime 18-year-old Gary Eder had raised to start their company and said simply, "It's over." Now Eder had to go home to tell his parents that he'd lost their $25.000 life savings to a con man.

At the age of 16, Eder and his friend set up a store in Kitchener, Ontario, to sell water distillers. It was the first of its kind in Canada and quickly attracted a faithful following. But because Eder was still in high school and his friend's forte was selling rather than finance, they decided to hire a business manager.

The newcomer, a middle-aged businessman, traveled across Canada to find distributors for Pure Water Kitchener -- but always seemed to return empty-handed. One day he called from an investor meeting in California to report that the deal was off. Then he announced that the company was bankrupt.

When Eder and his friend started cleaning up the mess, the horrifying truth emerged. It turned out that the businessman had been taking out loans in the company's name and funneling the money into shadowy personal activities and bogus charities. The company's coffers were empty. "The police told me he had a record as long as my arm," Eder says. "About four pages, to be exact."

Eder's parents had guaranteed his $25,000 start-up loan with their life savings. Somehow, he had to find a way to pay them back. He studied accounting and applied for a job as an assistant bookkeeper. But it would take ages to settle the debt on a bookkeeper's salary, and he didn't want to wait.

Then it suddenly became clear to Eder: He would start another water company from his parents' basement.

This time, Eder teamed up with Jack Moore, a man who had 10 years' experience in the water business. They sold purified water and water treatment equipment until they each could muster $5,000 to open a retail store.

Crystal Clear Water Centres prospered, and Eder eventually bought out his partner. With revenues of more than $1 million, the company is about to open up a 10,000-square-foot head office in Waterloo, Ontario, including a second retail store, a showroom, and a warehouse.

Eder will open another four retail stores over the next two years, and then he plans to grow his dream into an international franchise.

No Surrender

"Let them take the house," David McKinnon told his wife. "Let them take everything. I don't really care anymore." McKinnon, once a high-flying entrepreneur, had traded away his company for what was now worthless stock. He was stuck with no job, no income -- and no will to fight.

Until then, David McKinnon of Ann Arbor, Mich., hadn't known much about failure. In 1984, he bought the rights to develop Molly Maid, a Canadian cleaning service, in the U.S. In four years, he went from 1 franchise to 120. He was a hands-on manager who knew all his franchisees by name.

Then consumer products giant S.C. Johnson & Son offered millions of dollars for his company. Johnson would use its massive resources to build and cross-promote the franchise. McKinnon would stay on as president for five years. It was every business owner's buyout dream come true.

"It was a $4 billion company," says McKinnon. "I assumed they knew what they were doing."

But the corporate behemoth was unfamiliar with service business and with franchising. "They talked about regions, instead of people," says McKinnon. "Things that should have taken two minutes took weeks." Policies were self-destructive: Franchisees could buy supplies more cheaply at Wal-Mart than through the company. Disillusioned, McKinnon resigned.

It was then that McKinnon entered a nightmare he could never have imagined. His salary as president had never materialized; now, as Johnson ran Molly Maid into the ground, the stock of his company -- into which he had poured all his assets -- became worthless. He was suddenly penniless. Creditors dogged him every day, and the bank was foreclosing on his mortgage. The fruit of all his dreams and hard work had been sucked into a black hole.

The final blow came one day with a phone call: "Molly Maid is about to go bankrupt."

McKinnon saw one slim chance at a comeback -- and took it.

"I decided I'd get my company back." At the next board meeting, McKinnon rounded up the support to get elected president.

The company was in shambles...

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