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Second Acts in Finance: The 5 Most Astonishing Comeback Stories

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Tales of the previously powerful being brought down to earth with a thud only to rise again, are irresistible. Here, a "fierce five" of corporate American comebacks.

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Martha Stewart

Second acts? The former Martha Helen Kostyra has reinvented herself more often than Madonna. Prior to becoming the world's best known domestic diva, she shilled soap for Unilever (NYSE:UN) in the 1950s, dabbled in modeling during the Swinging Sixties, and, for seven years ending in 1972, worked as an account executive at Wall Street firm Monness, Horstman, Williams, and Sidel, exiting the industry at age 32. The bicentennial year saw Stewart start a catering business in her basement before eventually releasing her first book, Entertaining, in December 1982. Her timing was as impeccable as her taste, for that very month US unemployment topped out at 10.8%, the highest rate since the Great Depression. The Dallas and Dynasty opulence of the Age of Reagan was about to begin in earnest, and Stewart's elegance exerted enormous aspirational appeal to a nation newly embarking upon the longest peacetime economic expansion in its history. Martha Stewart Living, a quarterly magazine, arrived on the scene in 1990 under the aegis of Time Inc, and her burgeoning business empire ultimately became Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (NYSE:MSO) in September 1997. Its very name testified to the ubiquity of Brand Martha, whose properties in time came to encompass television, print, and all manner of ancillary merchandise. By both good luck and design, the company went public at the end of 1999, just as the stock market's millennial madness reached apogee.

The fall, when it arrived, was as spectacular as her ascent had been, and came accompanied by an outbreak of schadenfreude from the many critics gleeful at seeing this perfectionist Stepford Housewife get an overdue comeuppance. Ironically, Stewart's Icarus moment involved an imprecise reading of the same securities laws she should have been intimately acquainted with in light of her prior incarnation as a stockbroker. The SEC determined she indulged in insider trading with a suspiciously well-timed sale of biotech outfit ImClone Systems during December 2001. Two years later the authorities indicted Stewart on nine counts, ranging from obstruction of justice to outright fraud. Found guilty in March 2004 of charges including conspiracy and providing false statements to federal investigators, she was sentenced in July 2004 to five months in jail. Overnight, one of the wealthiest and most well-known women in America answered to the name of prisoner number 55170-054. The salad days thus appeared all over for a celebrity who, in a surreal interview on national television while the investigation was ongoing, actually wielded a knife while saying "I just want to focus on my salad."

And yet. Only 12 months after her 2005 release, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia -- which experts said was utterly incapable of surviving the incarceration of its animating force -- returned to profitability. Advertisers flooded back, books and business ventures followed, and new TV shows aimed at image rehabilitation were rolled out, including a special version of The Apprentice. Even competitor Oprah Winfrey, whose O Magazine lost neither love nor shelf space to Martha's own glossy on the newsstands, hailed her "incredible comeback" in 2010. 2011 saw Stewart's return to the board of directors, and last year she again ascended to its chairmanship. But surely the most satisfying, and certainly surprising, second act for this septuagenarian "Suzy Homemaker" is her most recent role as the unlikeliest of Web-savvy inspirations to a new generation of 20-something hipsters from Williamsburg. Indeed in a CNBC interview on Monday, Ms. Stewart proudly pointed out of her publications "We're the most 'pinned' magazines on Pinterest right now," adding she attracts "almost 3 million followers on Twitter."

"Martha's Mess" read the front cover of Newsweek at the height of her scandal. Ms. Stewart ultimately enjoyed the last laugh however, certainly on that publication, which has just embarked upon its own desperate second act as an online-only magazine. For Martha's legion of fans, her revival is indeed "a good thing."
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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