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COPING WITH FAILURE

Seeking Redemption After a $750 Million Mistake

Chances are good that you'll never screw up as badly as this, but we all fail sometimes. Here are the most important things to learn, so you can recover and rebuild next time you're down.
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A little over a decade ago, John Rusnak's world spiraled out of control. He will be the first to admit now that it was entirely his fault.

Rusnak more than a decade ago was a currency trader in Baltimore at what was then Allied Irish Bank's Allfirst Bank. He made some bad moves and lost $750 million of AIB's money. He should have owned up to it, resigned his job, and accepted the hit to his reputation. Instead, he tried to hide the losses, and raced to make up the difference. It didn't work, and the the FBI caught up with him. He went to federal prison for more than five years.

His name was all over the news back then, so I was intrigued to learn recently that Rusnak's story has a second act. When he got out of prison a few years ago, some former colleagues gave him a job, and he took full advantage of the fresh start. He's now the president of an investment group that owns a group of dry cleaners in Maryland and Virginia, and he makes it a practice to hire other ex-convicts and recovering drug addicts to work in his stores.

Let's hope you don't fail in your professional life to the degree that Rusnak did. But we all do screw up sometimes. Consider him a case study of someone who made horrible choices, got caught, and started life over as an entrepreneur--even as he potentially faces a lifetime of restitution payments.

Here are the top things Rusnak, now 49, told me he learned:

1. Humility

Rusnak's inability to own up to his failures led to far more failures. Thus, the first thing he had to learn in order to have any chance at rebuilding, was to be willing to accept and take responsibility for what he'd done wrong. He now looks for that same quality--humility--in the people he employs in his stores.

"There's strength in humility. It's not a weakness," Rusnak said. "Learning to apologize is a massive skill.  ... I wish I'd figured this out as a kid."

2. Service

It's important to make your life mission one that benefits others, first. Thus, while Rusnak was attracted to dry cleaning because he believes it's a great business model in an industry ripe for disruption, he's also embraced the opportunity to hire ex-cons and recovering drug addicts. About half of Rusnak's 60 employees fit that description, and he's also active with Uncuffed Ministries, a faith-based group that tries to help kids serving prison time, and provides them with worthy mentors.

"There's a saying, 'Great leaders don't make followers. They make more leaders.' I try to empower these guys," Rusnak said.

3. Transparency

The original losses didn't tear Rusnak's life apart; it was the cover-up. So, he said he's learned to reveal the challenges in his life and his business, quickly and honestly. Bad news rarely gets better with age.

"You learn to keep everything out in the open, not to be scared to tell people you don't know [things], or to say your business isn't doing as well as you hoped," he said. Moreover, keeping challenges to yourself deprives you of the chance to learn from the solutions that others you trust might offer.

4. Accountability

When Rusnak recruits ex-convicts and recovering drug addicts, he seeks them out in halfway houses and residential treatment centers. In those settings, he said, people who want to make better choices in their lives will have structure and peers who push them to take advantage of the opportunity.

"This is huge. There are huge obstacles, and [without accountability] most guys coming out don't do well," Rusnak said. "You need to have people around you, who you've given permission to correct you."

5. Encouragement

The flipside of accountability is that you need to be around people who are invested in your success. Whether you find this in your family, your friends, your colleagues--or whether you seek out other entrepreneurs to try to create a community--you need people who care, and who validate the good choices you make along the way.

In Rusnak's case, this includes his wife and children, who stuck by him during incarceration, and the friends who hired him after he got out of prison, and who encouraged him to come up with businesses to start or invest in.

6. Faith

Although being caught and going to prison was a painful experience, Rusnak said he's grateful for what happened to him, because it led him to develop faith.

"Ten or 15 years ago, I didn't give an 'F' about anybody," he told me, but now, "my faith is absolutely everything. ... You might have a secular audience, but still, to have a sense of something out there beyond you, something bigger than you, is crucial."

7. Restraint

At the core of his failures, Rusnak said, was unfettered desire for things he couldn't have. It's a recipe for potential disaster that he shares with some of the people he's hired. So, he tries to practice restraint, and encourages others to as well.

"It's not just about what I want. It's what my want leads to," Rusnak said. "For example, I may want to make a lot of money, but [not] if doing so leads to my going back to prison."

8. Intentionality

Rusnak said prison itself wasn't as horrible as people might think. He wasn't worried about survival, he said, but instead spent lots of time reflecting on what he'd done wrong and trying to put together a better plan for his life afterward. He said he decided he wanted  to learn to "be intentional," and make proactive choices, not reactive ones.

"As long as you pay respect and mind your own business, there's very little violence against the guys [more hardened convicts] consider to be civilians," he said. "The punishment in doing time was the deprivation of contact with your family. It's just extremely boring. ... So, that's what you do when you have five and a half years in prison. You make plans."

9. Patience

"Coolness under pressure" and "entrepreneur" are not two words that often go together. However, Rusnak told me he's learned that he has to accept the pace of a steady process, and the ups and downs of any venture. For example, he has four Zips-branded dry cleaning stores, and a deal to develop 16 more at a steady pace.

"It's a repeatable process," he told me, although he understands that you normally can't build a business or rebuild a reputation overnight. "For me, it's that we're on God's timetable, not mine."

Last updated: Feb 10, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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