Every Don Has His Day – The Amazing Comeback of Donald Trump
Coming into the late 1980s, Donald Trump was at the top of his game. Increasingly a celebrity, married to a beautiful woman and successful in construction and gaming, Trump represented all that was glamorous and powerful about entrepreneurship. He had ridden the wave of a 16-year boom in Manhattan real estate development. By the early 1990s, however, Trump walked along the street one day with then-wife Marla and told her that the beggar they had just passed was worth more than he was. This was true, since Trump's company then owed $3.5 billion to the banks and he had personally guaranteed $975 million of the debt.
Many high-flyers of the time gave in and called in the administrators and receivers. Trump didn't. Instead, he staged the most remarkable of business comebacks, a comeback that remains in the Guinness Book of World Records as history's highest personal financial turnaround.
Trump admits that much of the responsibility for his demise lay with himself. He had begun to believe his own BS. Business Week had stated that he had the midas touch, turning everything he contacted into gold. He took his focus off his real estate empire and believed that it had established an unstoppable momentum of its own. Rather than doing deal and managing details, he was constantly jetting around the world attending fashion shows and enjoying fraternising with supermodels.
Donald Trump's momentum didn't just slow. It turned on him with a vengeance as the Manhattan real estate market and the New Jersey gaming markets evaporated with the financial recession of the early 1990s. By 1991, the newspapers were predicting his imminent demise. His critics eagerly awaited his crash.
Yet, while his life was badly damaged and his ever-present confidence shaken like never before, Trump survived. Using the mantra of survive 'til '95, he used his ability to work hard, to focus, and to keep moving to save his business. More than that, he relied on his innate chutzpah to ride out the storm. It was far from easy.
Put yourself in Donald Trump's shoes. It's a miserable, sleeting evening in 1991 and Trump had been invited to a dinner for 2,000 bankers at the Waldorf-Astoria. Working to exhaustion to try to find a way out of his financial mess, he decides not to attend. After all, he's got so many bankers on his back demanding the return of their money that he might be expected to murder one or two in the Waldorf's bathroom rather than face the hostility and sheer hatred that many had generated for him. He returned home only wanting to lie in a bath and watch a game of football. Who among us wouldn't have taken that very option? Instead, feeling a little better, Trump donned his tuxedo and faced the depressing weather outside his apartment. With no taxis around, he walked the ten blocks to the Waldorf-Astoria, arriving cold and wet.
Taking his seat, he finds to his left a banker who is amiable and happy to chat. On his right is another banker who refuses to even say hello. Despite repeated attempts, the guy's expression is hostile and his body language is worse. He turns out to be a banker who is trying to bankrupt Donald Trump just as he has been bankrupting many others who owed him money. Trump owed him almost $150 million.
What did The Donald do? Ignore him since he was such an SOB? Nope. Ask for another seat? Nope? Head home to watch the football? Nope. Just give his attention to the nice guy to his left? Nope. Brilliantly, Trump continued to try to engage him in conversation, searching for the opening that would at least soften the banker's hostility. After an hour, he had found the topic. The guy loved to talk about beautiful women, a topic close to Trump's heart (and several parts of his body) and, after a while, began also to speak of the pressure that he was under to claw back as much money as he could from the businesspeople to whom his bank had lent. Since much of the money he had acquired was eaten away by legal fees, his returns were poor. Trump knew that he could get him a better deal if he'd only negotiate.
Trump's perseverance triumphed. The banker agreed to give him 5 minutes at his office to hear his story. Having heard it, the bank agreed to do a deal. It was one deal among many that Trump achieved on his long and torturous path to financial survival. While his empire teetered, it never toppled. It was a remarkable victory for self-belief, for refocusing, and for the strength of his character. It taught him that while life would always be full of challenges and adversity, nothing could destroy his power to take a measure of control and retain personal ownership of his own response to disasters. As he later wrote, to take ownership of a situation is to assume the power of the phoenix:
I can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle difficult situations. I have seen many seemingly tough guys fold under pressure. I have noticed that it is a matter of how you define your setback or challenge: if you admit defeat, then you will be defeated. If you accept that the situation is bad, but you are determined to see it through, then you have a much better chance. It is your choice. It is frightening when bad things happen. I know that from personal experience. I did not let them destroy my confidence.[i]
Could you have done what Donald Trump did? I'm not sure that many people could, but there is still a lesson in his story for all of us. It is that while we might feel as though we are standing in the middle of a very long, dark tunnel, there is light at the other end. Like my bushwalking disaster, we might walk in the wrong direction for a while, feeling our way along in the forlorn hope that the light will shine on us before realising that we have to go back to where we started in order to begin at last to move in the right direction. If we take our setbacks and our poor decisions and our moves in the wrong direction and reflect on what they mean for where we stand and our potential next steps, however, they can deliver powerful lessons that can better inform our future journeys. In other words, we can learn from them.
This is not to say that, once learned, our decisions will take us directly to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Instead, however, we will learn to make more mature decisions and decisions that are based on better information, advice, and intuition. In addition, like Donald Trump, we should commend ourselves for having survived whatever has brought us to today. There may remain debts to pay and commitments to honour. There may be damaged relationships to repair and lost friendships to mourn. Nonetheless, like the wounded warrior who recovers and returns to the battle, we will be better soldiers for having paused, healed, and taken ownership of our lives and our dreams.
[i] Donald Trump & Bill Zanker, (2007) Think Big and Kick Ass, Harper Collins, New York, p.213. See also Donald J Trump with Meredith McIver, (2008) Never Give Up, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken.