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Staying Successful Means Taking Risks

Not one of the 100 companies on our Book of Giants list got there by resting on their laurels.

I’m a big James Bond fan. (Yes, I know, James Bond is neither a plumber nor a pipefitter. Just bear with me here for a few paragraphs.)

Much like government, each generation gets the James Bond it deserves, and for mine that James Bond was Roger Moore, usually on late-night network TV. He was suave, urbane, unflappable and somehow constantly bemused by everything, be it a stunning blond, a death ray, or a giant man with metal teeth.

It wasn’t until I was older I saw the Sean Connery Bond, and it wasn’t until much later it dawned on me what a huge risk the caretakers of the Bond film franchise were taking in casting Roger Moore. All the superficials may have been the same—the tuxedos, the cars, the girls—but the character is a 180-degree turn.

Connery is not suave. He’s charming, but more often than not menacing and sometimes downright brutal. He comes across not as a playboy, and certainly not as a dandy (which Moore could sometime be) but as a soldier fighting a highly specialized war. When Moore makes a joke it sounds witty; when Connery makes a joke it sounds savage.

So why? Why deliberately change a very successful formula that was making a lot of people lots of money? Why take such a huge risk?

Part of the reason was they had to. Connery was fed-up playing the character. The first shot at a replacement (George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) tried to follow the old formula—the look, the attitude—and ended up suffering by comparison. It seemed that Connery was just too closely associated with the character.

The solution? Radically change the character. Which brings us to the other part of the reason for taking such a huge risk: because they could. The James Bond films had already become one of the most successful film franchises the world had ever seen. They were the prototype for the “event film,” the big summer blockbusters that still dominate movie screens today.

The producers knew that they could afford to take the risk; that even with a new actor, even with big changes to the character, the next James Bond movie would still make them money. They were big enough, successful enough, that they could afford to fail, and if need be try and fail again and again until they found a new formula that would bring them new success.

Which brings us to our Giants. Not one of the 100 companies on our Book of Giants list got there by resting on their laurels. Time and again, each of them over the course of its company history has gambled on new technology (such as BIM), ventured into new types of work (such as facility management), invested money in new facilities (like prefab shops), on new types of employees (like software engineers).

And yes, part of it was because they could. Large, highly profitable companies have the freedom to take those kinds of risks. But just as much it was because they had to. To quote Len Monfredo, Executive VP for our Contractor of the Year E. M. Duggan (ranked at #35 on the Book of Giants), “If you’re not innovating, if you’re not changing, if you’re not keeping up with the times to the point where you’re actually setting the trends, you’re dying. You are a company that’s in demise.”

Innovation is always difficult, but no matter what the size of your business—and no matter what business you’re in—it’s necessary.

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