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7 Wildly Successful People Who Survived Bankruptcy

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While being unable to pay one's creditors is never a good situation for a company or an individual, it may not be the financial kiss of death that you might think. A number of successful people have found themselves overextended and ended up filing for bankruptcy, only to successfully stick it out and find firmer financial footing again. Here are a few famous people who were once strapped for cash.

1. ABRAHAM LINCOLN

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His face may now appear on the penny, but at one time, Lincoln didn't have a single cent to spare. Lincoln tried many occupations as a young man, including buying a general store in New Salem, Illinois, in 1832. While he may have been terrific at splitting rails, winning debates, and wearing stovepipe hats, Honest Abe wasn't much of a shopkeeper. Lincoln and his partner started buying out other stores' inventories on credit, but their own sales were dismal. As the store's debts mounted, Lincoln sold his share, but when his partner died, the future President became liable for $1000 in back payments. Lincoln didn't have modern bankruptcy laws to protect him, so when his creditors took him to court, he lost his two remaining assets: a horse and some surveying gear. That wasn't enough to foot his bill, though, and Lincoln continued paying off his debts until well into the 1840s.

Lincoln's not alone in the annals of bankrupt commanders-in-chief, though. Ulysses S. Grant went bankrupt after leaving office when a partner in an investment-banking venture swindled him. Thomas Jefferson filed for bankruptcy several times, including after leaving office, possibly because he threw around a lot of cash on food and wine. William McKinley went bankrupt while serving as Ohio's governor in 1893; he was $130,000 in the red before eventually straightening out with the help of friends. He won the White House just three years later.

2. HENRY FORD

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Despite his reputation as one of the most important innovators and entrepreneurs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Henry Ford was no stranger to debt. In 1899 the young mechanic and engineer started the Detroit Automobile Company with the backing of three prominent politicians. Ford hadn't quite mastered the production techniques that would eventually make him rich, though. Over the next two years, Ford proved to be too much of a perfectionist, and his plant only produced 20 cars as he painstakingly tinkered with designs. The enterprise went bankrupt in 1901 and reorganized into the Henry Ford Company later that year. Ford eventually left that group and finally got things right in 1903, when he founded the Ford Motor Company. Things didn't go so badly for the Henry Ford Company after he left, either. It changed its name to one you might find a bit more recognizable: the Cadillac Automobile Company.

Ford wasn't the only auto magnate who knew how bankruptcy felt. General Motors founder William Crapo Durant took a massive hit during the Great Depression that saw his fortune fall from $120 million to bankruptcy. He spent his last few years running a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan.

3. WALT DISNEY

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His name may be a stalwart brand today, but early in his career, Disney was just a struggling filmmaker with too many bills. In 1922, he started his first film company with a partner in Kansas City. The two men bought a used camera and made short advertising films and cartoons under the studio name Laugh-O-Gram. Disney even signed a deal with a New York company to distribute the films he was producing. That arrangement didn't work out so well, though, as the distributor cheated Disney's studio. Without the distributor's cash, Disney couldn't cover his overhead, and his studio went bankrupt in 1923. He then left Kansas City for Hollywood, and after a series of increasingly successful creations, Disney debuted a new character named Mickey Mouse in 1928.

4. MILTON HERSHEY


Milton Hershey always knew he could make candy, but running a successful business seemed just out of his reach. Although he never had a formal education, Hershey spent four years apprenticing in a candy shop before striking out on his own in Philadelphia in 1876. Six years later, his shop went under, as did a subsequent attempt to peddle sweets in New York City. Hershey then returned home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he pioneered the use of fresh milk in caramel production and founded the successful Lancaster Caramel Company. In 1900, he sold the caramel company for $1 million so he could focus on perfecting a milk chocolate formula. Once he finally nailed the recipe, he was too rich (and too flush with delicious chocolate) for anyone to remember the flops of his early candy ventures.

5. BURT REYNOLDS

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Burt Reynolds was one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1970s. Unfortunately, he spent money like his career would never hit a downswing. He owned mansions on both coasts, a helicopter, and a lavish Florida ranch. Gradually, his financial situation got grimmer as he made poor career choices and weathered a pricey divorce from Loni Anderson. By 1996, the Bandit owed $10 million to his creditors, and the royalties from Cop and a Half just weren't flowing in quickly enough. Reynolds declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, from which he emerged in 1998.

Not only did he not have to sell his trademark mustache at auction to pay his bills, Reynolds even got to keep his Florida estate, Valhalla. This homestead exemption raised the ire of some observers who didn't think hanging on to a $2.5 million mansion while writing off $8 million in debt was quite in the spirit of bankruptcy laws' provisions about keeping one's home. In fact, when the Senate passed measures tightening these loopholes in 2001, Reynolds' keeping his ranch was one of the examples they used to decry bankruptcy proceedings as going too easy on the wealthy. "There is no greater bankruptcy abuse than this," said Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl.

6. H.J. HEINZ


When Heinz was just 25 years old, he and two partners began a company that made horseradish. As the legend goes, the spicy root was the first of Heinz's famed 57 varieties, but it wasn't as lucrative as he'd hoped. A business panic in 1875 bankrupted his enterprise, but Heinz's passion for condiments remained strong. The very next year, Heinz got together with his brother and a cousin to start a new company in Pittsburgh. The reorganized group started making ketchup, and the business took off. Last year the H.J. Heinz Company had over $10 billion in revenue.

7. P.T. BARNUM

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Famous showman P.T. Barnum was always quick with a quip, but he wasn't so snappy about paying back his loans. Although he was successful showing off oddities in New York and around the globe, Barnum had a habit of borrowing cash from anyone who would open their wallet for him. He'd use these funds to buy real estate, particularly around Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he was trying to foster industrial development. Unfortunately for Barnum, he went too far with borrowed cash, and in 1855, things bottomed out. Barnum was bankrupt and owed his creditors nearly half a million dollars. Barnum didn't give up, though, and he slowly worked himself out of debt over the next five years. The showman gave lectures around England about showmanship and making money, and he regained control of his main attraction, The American Museum in New York City, in 1860. In 1871, just a few months shy of his 61st birthday, Barnum entered the circus business with Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus, which raked in over $400,000 in its first year.

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The Top Excuses Employees Give for Being Late to Work
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Expecting staff to just get out of bed and show up on time seems like a low bar for an employer to set, but some workers have trouble meeting this bare-minimum obligation. Their stated reasons can almost sound believable.

Job placement site CareerBuilder.com recently conducted a survey and asked 800 respondents in various age brackets how often they were late for work, as well as over 1000 human resource managers for data on missing workers. Overall, one in four employees admitted to being tardy at least once a month. Those aged 18 to 34 were the most frequently late, with 38 percent clocking in past their expected arrival. Only 14 percent of workers 45 and older were less-than-punctual.

As for excuses: 51 percent said traffic was the most common reason they straggled in. Around 31 percent said oversleeping was an issue, while bad weather (28 percent) and forgetting something and having to return home (13 percent) plagued others.

According to human resources managers, some workers claimed that they were late because their coffee was too hot; that they fell asleep in the parking lot; that it was too cold outside to travel; or that their false eyelashes were stuck together.

Not surprisingly, CareerBuilder also found that 88 percent of workers were in favor of a flexible work schedule.

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14 Secrets of Costco Employees
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Costco has become something of a unicorn in the brick-and-mortar industry. While employees at other chains express concerns over low wages and questionable management choices, the 200,000-plus ground troops at Costco’s massive shopping centers rave about generous pay ($13 to $22.50 hourly, depending on seniority), comprehensive benefits, and pension plans. After one year of employment, the turnover rate is only 6 percent, compared to an average of 16 percent across the retail industry. Not having to incur costs of training replacements is just one reason the company keeps prices low.

It’s no secret that Costco employees are a relatively happy bunch. But we wanted a little more information, so we’ve asked several current Costco workers about everything from pet peeves to nail polish bans to revoking memberships. (All requested we use only their first names to preserve anonymity.) Here’s what they had to tell us about life in the pallets.

1. WORKING THERE IS BETTER THAN GOING TO THE GYM.

Turns out that navigating a warehouse full of goods stacked to the ceiling is kind of like getting an all-day gym pass. “I walk about five to eight miles a day on average, and that's all within the confines of the store,” says Rachael, a Costco employee in Colorado. “When you see pallets stacked with 50-pound bags of flour or sugar or dog food or cat litter, a lot of that stuff had to be stacked by hand by employees before the store opens. Ditto for those giant stacks of shoes and bottles of salsa or five-gallon jugs of cooking oil. It's a lot of hard work.”

2. THEY CAN DO THEIR SHOPPING AFTER HOURS.

Costco shopping carts are arranged together
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While employees typically don’t get shopping discounts, they have something that’s arguably better: the opportunity to shop in a near-empty store. “You can shop after hours, and a lot of employees do that,” says Kathleen, a Costco employee in Washington state. “You just bring your cart to the front register.” The store will keep the member service counter open so workers can check out after other registers have closed.

3. THE GENEROUS RETURN POLICY CAN GET MESSY.

Costco infamously places very few restrictions on returns. Most anything purchased there can be brought back for a refund as part of the company’s overall emphasis on exceptional customer service. Naturally, some members are willing to abuse the privilege. “Members return couches that are over five years old, and interestingly enough, they still have the receipt,” Rachael says. “My guess is that they buy that couch with the intention of returning it someday, so they tape the receipt to the bottom of the couch so they don't lose it. Then, when they've worn it out and want something new, they bring it back and get a full refund.”

Rachael has also seen a member return a freezer that was allegedly no longer working. The store refunded both the cost of the appliance and the spoiled meat inside. “The meat smelled like death,” she says.

4. THEY CAN ALSO TELL WHEN YOU’RE A SERIAL RETURNER.

A shopper at Costco looks at the computer display
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Costco purchase records typically date back 10 years or so, but employees working the return counter don’t always need to reference your account to know that you're making a habit of getting refunds. “When someone comes in to return something without a receipt and they go, ‘Oh, you can look it up on my account,’ that’s a tell,” says Thomas, an employee in California. “It tells me you return so much stuff that you know what we can find on the computer.”

5. THERE’S A CONVENIENCE STORE-WITHIN-A-STORE.

While employees are generally allowed to eat their lunch or dinner meals in the food court, not all of them are crazy about pizza and hot dogs as part of their daily diet. Many opt for the employee break room, which—in some warehouse locations—looks more like a highway rest stop. Rows of vending machines offer fresh meals, snacks, and sodas, along with a complete kitchen for preparing food brought from home. “[It’s a] relatively new addition that is being implemented at more warehouses,” says Steve, an employee in California. “It's basically like a gas station's convenience store, with both frozen and fresh meals and snacks. The only difference is the prices are more reasonable.”

6. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THERE ISN’T AN EXPRESS CHECKOUT LANE.

A Costco shopper goes through the checkout lane
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Walk into a Costco and you’ll probably notice an employee with a click counter taking inventory of incoming members. According to Rachael, that head count gets relayed to the supervisor in charge of opening registers. “They know that for a certain amount of people entering the store, within a certain amount of time, there should be a certain amount of registers open to accommodate those shoppers who are ready to check out,” she says. If there aren’t enough cashiers on hand, the supervisor can pull from other departments: Most employees are “cross-trained” to help out when areas are understaffed.

7. THERE’S A METHOD TO THE RECEIPT CHECK.

Customers sometimes feel offended when they’re met at the exit by an employee scanning their receipt, but it’s all in an effort to mitigate loss prevention and keep prices low. “We’re looking for items on the bottom of the cart, big items like TVs, or alcohol,” Thomas says. Typically, the value of these items might make it worth the risk for a customer who's trying to shoplift—and they're worth the double-check.

8. THEY TAKE SAFE FOOD HANDLING TO A NEW LEVEL ...

A Costco employee works in food preparation
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At Costco, employees are expected to exercise extreme caution when preparing and serving hot dogs, pizza, chicken and other food to members. “If an employee forgets to remove their apron before exiting the department, they must remove that apron, toss it into the hamper, and put on a fresh apron because now it's contaminated,” Rachael says. “Or, let's say a member asks for a slice of cheese pizza. We place that piece onto a plate, with tongs, of course, then place the plate onto the counter. If the member says, ‘Oh darn, I've changed my mind, I'd rather have pepperoni pizza,’ then we have to toss the pizza that they didn't want into the trash. Once it hits the counter, it can't come back.” Some store protocols even prohibit employees from wearing nail polish in food prep areas—it could chip and get into the food.

9. ... BUT WORKING AT THE FOOD COURT CAN PREPARE THEM FOR ANYTHING.

Costco employees who find themselves behind the counter at the chain’s food court say it's one of the few less-than-pleasant experiences of working there. For some members, the dynamic of waiting on food and peering over a service counter can make them forget their manners. “Usually members are rude when they are waiting on their pizza during a busy time,” Steve says. “If an employee can excel in the food court, any other position in the warehouse is pretty easy by comparison.”

10. THEY GET FREE TURKEYS.

Costco’s generous wages and benefits keep employment applications stacked high. What people don’t realize, Kathleen says, is that the company’s attention to employee satisfaction can result in getting gifted a giant bird. “We get free turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she says. “I didn’t even know that before I started working there. It’s a nice perk.”

11. THEY CAN REVOKE YOUR MEMBERSHIP.

Shoppers go down an aisle at Costco
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But it’s got to be a pretty extreme situation. According to Thomas, memberships can be terminated if a member is caught stealing or having a physical altercation inside the store. For less severe infractions, employees can make notes under a “comments” section of your membership. They’ll do that for frequent returns, if you’re verbally aggressive, or if you like to rummage through pre-packaged produce looking for the best apples. (Don’t do that.)

12. MANAGERS GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY.

During peak business times on weekends and around holidays, the influx of customer traffic can get so formidable that managers jump in with employees to make sure everything gets taken care of. “Most people would be surprised if they realized that the person who just put all of their groceries into their cart at the registers or who helped load that huge mattress into their car was actually the store's general manager,” Rachael says.

13. EVERY DAILY STORE OPENING IS CONTROLLED CHAOS …

Shoppers appear in front of a Costco store
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Like most any retail store, Costco prides itself on presenting a clean, efficient, and organized layout that holds little trace of the labor that went into overnight stocking or display preparation. But if a customer ever happened to see the store in the last hour before opening each day, they’d witness a flurry of activity. “It's controlled chaos with loud music along with the blaring of the forklift sirens,” Steve says. “Employees are rushing to finish and clean up, drivers are rushing to put merchandising in the steel [shelving], and the floor scrubber slowly but surely makes its way around the warehouse. It truly is a remarkable choreography that happens seven days a week.”

14. … AND EVERY CLOSING IS A SLOW MARCH.

To avoid stragglers, Costco employees form a line and walk down aisles to encourage customers to move toward the front of the store so they can check out before closing. Once the doors are locked, overnight stocking begins in anticipation of another day at the world’s coziest warehouse. “Our store has over 250 employees altogether,” Rachael says. “If all of us do our little bit, then it's a well-oiled machine that runs without a hitch.”

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