Bankrupt? You’re in good company

By Branko Brkic 9 December 2009

Even though the world has changed, for some insolvency still amounts to shame and disgrace. It doesn’t have to be that way – just look at who you’re lumped with.

Bankruptcy is not the dirty word it used to be. Today, both entrepreneurs and laypeople understand that failure is a necessary pit-stop on the road to success – the lessons you learn when your business goes under help to ensure that, next time, you’ll avoid the same traps. But although the stigma of bankruptcy is nowhere near what it was in the past, the value of the condition for the individual appears to be timeless. Some surprising figures went insolvent early in their careers, and came back to change the course of history.

In 1832 a youthful Abraham Lincoln bought a general store in New Salem, Illonois, which he ran into the ground by taking on more debt than he could service. Ever heard of the Detroit Automobile Company? That was Henry Ford’s first venture, and it lasted only two years. The young Walt Disney had a film studio in Kansas City called Laugh-o-gram, which made adverts and cartoons; a New York distributor cheated him out of his cash. Milton Hershey, maker of the famous chocolate, went bankrupt twice, the first time in Philadelphia and the second time in New York. And H.J. Heinz had a line in horseradish that went bust in 1875; in 2008 the reorganised company turned over US$10-billion in revenue.

It can go the other way, of course. Burt Reynolds was notorious for spending money like he had limitless reserves, and in 1996 he declared Chapter 11 (he did get to keep his ranch, though). Showman PT Barnum also went bankrupt when he was already famous – he had a habit of borrowing cash from all-and-sundry, and then forgetting to pay the loans back. Still, Barnum made a comeback when he was in his sixties, with Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus.

By Staff writer

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