Putting lightning back in the bottle

Pick up the paper, turn on the TV or scan the Internet and, on any given day, it is a pretty good bet that you will learn about some superstar who is making a comeback — sometimes for the second or third time. Those that comprise this unique breed of cats could be rock or movie stars, athletes or politicians and, yes, even corporate entrepreneurs or executive whiz kids who have all but faded into the sunset.

The bigger question is: They may have done it once, but can these mere mortals do it again? There are numerous theories about why former stars who have made their mark on the world would want to risk reputation, money and self-esteem to grab for that elusive brass ring one more time.

Second chances at fame and fortune can require defying Mother Nature and the aging process, which is dicey. Periodically, sports overachievers seize the headlines with their resurrections. In business, which does not necessarily require as many physical attributes, the odds of a successful curtain call and standing ovation at the end of the day are somewhat improved over those for a super jock. That is because mental dexterity is required in commerce, rather than sheer physical skills and endurance.

Company founders and CEOs, or a combination thereof, can more easily pull off a second hit by following a disciplined straightforward process. It is not unheard of for an executive to do it right once and then repeat the success somewhere else. Within a year or two of a comeback attempt, the world knows if the business maestro did it or was a flop. Talk about putting a spotlight on one’s achievements or failure, and it does not get any better or worse than this.

Some businesspeople do it for the money. Nevertheless, I would bet that most do it because they strongly believe they can and are classic, calculating, risk-taking, type-A overachievers who want to show the world they aren’t one-act wonders.

My experience is that the best executives always have something to prove to themselves or somebody close to them. This provides the encore performer a strong incentive to jump back into the fray.

While building anything, one always makes mistakes. However, the biggest mistake is to repeat the previous error of omission or commission in an existing or new undertaking. There are numerous serial entrepreneurs who keep creating a growing string of successes. You can find them on Wall Street, in technology, retailing, manufacturing and the nonprofit world. Best known perhaps is Steve Jobs of Apple fame, who was also incredibly successful with Pixar, the animation geniuses, and NeXt, the higher education workstation developers. Entrepreneurs not nearly as famous as Steve Jobs have brought us multitechnology corporations and companies such as the original MCI followed by AirFone.

Each seem to have a common gene in their DNA that provides the ultimate high when they create/build a better mousetrap that fuels jobs, opportunities and financial security for themselves as well as their employees, supporters, investors and suppliers. The other common ingredients of serial achievers are that they need the bright lights, a stage and a fair amount of control. Very few are gun-slinger, hip-shooter types who come up with an idea and just follow their gut feelings.

Instead, the successful second-act players have honed their instinct and skills and created a series of methodical steps that they follow, each of which keeps them off the rocks. They understand the basics of how to get from A to Z while minimizing pain and wasted motions and maximizing available capital. Past experience teaches them where to put the time and effort and to ensure that they obtain the expected return.

This reincarnation is not limited to just CEOs and entrepreneurs. It is also prevalent among super salespeople and specialists of all sizes, shapes and types.

There is a rhythm to success and a maze to navigate. However, if they have done it before, there is a better than even chance that they can put the lightning back in the bottle once more. The much-celebrated crooner, Frank Sinatra, summarized it well when he sang “the best is yet to come.”

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at [email protected].