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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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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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