Many of today’s great U.S. companies were founded at the height of the Great Depression. Charles and Joseph Revlon introduced a new opaque nail polish. College classmates Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started an electronics firm that became technology giant HP. Texas Instruments, Tyson Foods, Ethan Allen and Polaroid all began in the 30s as did one of our customers, Altec Industries, a world wide leader in hydraulic lifts for the utility industry.

Following the Great Depression, the US experienced an economic boom unprecedented in its history, “largely [due] to the tremendous backlog of innovation developed in the late years of the Great Depression,” says Rick Szostak of the University of Alberta.  More recently FedEx and other great companies emerged from the economic crises in the 1970s.

What can we learn from these leaders? When the challenges presented by a recession are all around you, there are many opportunities and innovative ways to grow your company. To me, tough times have an amazing way of concentrating the mind on the way forward. At the same time, your competitors become less in number, giving pioneers an even stronger advantage.

The key is to remain strong and not grow recession-weary. When the downturn inevitably ends, innovations will place you ahead of your competition. You will have it figured out and as my friend Marc Eason, of EGS Commercial Real Estate told me last evening “all will be right with the world again.”

We are constantly looking for ways to reinvent ourselves and be prepared for whatever changes might lie ahead. Our company currently is in the process of expanding the way we interact with our customers and prospective customers. We are using Web 2.0 as part of a social media strategy. We have about 2,500 Twitter followers and the number is growing organically. Instead of meeting for lunch or taking clients to dinner, we are using the innovations of new technology to gain brand awareness and stay connected. Building relationships.

It’s easy to succeed when times are good and the tide is rising. The real winners are the ones who are prepared to change with the times. They are the ones who when life gives them lemons, they don’t just make lemonade. They make a whole lemon pie.


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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.
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