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5 disciplines from a turnaround pro

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Wilbur Ross is a little-known billionaire who made his fortune turning around manufacturing firms. Among his saves: Bethlehem Steel.

In Ross’ opinion, the United States can’t maintain its standard of living as long as it drifts toward a service economy of “flipping hamburgers, swapping pieces of paper on the stock market and suing each other.”

One skill Ross does find useful he learned in college: writing. He took an English course with the idea of becoming a writer. Every day, he had to submit 1,000 words of his own fiction or poetry. A couple of weeks in, he ran out of material, which he figures saved him from a life of poverty.

The exercise, however, taught him five analytical disciplines he later applied in business:

  1. Organize your thought process.
  2. Collect your thoughts in a concise format.
  3. Sort out your questions, too.
  4. Reflect on your observations.
  5. Figure out how to improve the situation once you understand what you’ve got and what’s missing.

Ross recently bought an Indian airline, SpiceJet, when oil was about $140 a barrel, because he saw a need to cross large distances in India and figured the oil bubble would burst.

One of the problems with businesses in long-term decline, Ross says, is that they develop a loser mentality. When he asks them what’s wrong, they blame outside forces. Instead of dealing with things they can fix, they sit around sulking about things outside their control.

“We’ve got an enormous amount of good ideas from the blue-collar workers,” he says. “That fellow who has been standing behind a machine for 10 years knows it better than the people who built it.”

Lesson: People call investors like Ross “vultures,” but he considers himself a phoenix who clarifies situations and revives dying companies.

— Adapted from “Wilbur Ross: Finding His Calling,” The Long View, Steve Inskeep, National Public Radio.

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