The 2011 Risk List: The year’s 5 best risk-takers

As 2011 disappears in the rear-view mirror, here’s my list of noteworthy risk-takers over the past year.  These are the people and institutions that took risks intelligently and won.  The list of risk-bumblers – those who mishandled critical situations – is certainly longer (UBS, Olympus, Yahoo, MF Global, I could go on) but their woes already have been well cataloged, and who wants to start the New Year revisiting disasters?

So here are the top risk-takers:

1.  Jefferies.  Before this year, mid-size investment bank Jefferies happily stayed below the radar, built its business and made a tidy profit.  All that changed when MF Global collapsed and investors started looking more closely at mid-tier firms that are outside the comforting embrace of the Federal Reserve.  As investors questioned its viability and sent its stock reeling, Jefferies took a big risk, opening its books and projecting its voice more aggressively than it ever had before.  In several press releases and an emotional (perhaps too emotional) letter, the firm countered every rumor, supplied facts to thwart speculation and did not back down – or hide behind vague, carefully worded statements.  Eager to draw a line under the turmoil, Jefferies earlier this week released another letter listing the lessons it learned from the ordeal.  Some are head-smackingly obvious, like the importance of trust and the challenge of managing in a hyper-networked world.  Others are more insightful, such as the importance of maintaining a market in your debt securities – a barometer of a firm’s health that can be skewed during a crisis as other dealers withdraw.

2.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.   The Governor’s remarkably disciplined approach brought many accomplishments in his first year.  Passing a same-sex marriage bill in a Republican-controlled legislature, raising taxes on the richest New Yorkers and closing a multi-billion-dollar budget gap took skill and courage.  Cuomo’s risk-taking paid off with the public, in an approval rating near 70 percent, according to a report in the New York Times.

3.  Christopher Hitchens.  His death from cancer on December 15 was a low point in 2011, and I’m already missing his sharp-edged (and whiskey-toned) voice.  (What would he have said about the Iowa caucuses? the new film on Margaret Thatcher?)  Hitchens took plenty of risks throughout his career, but he makes my list for his brave essays on his cancer treatment, included here on the Vanity Fair website.  This chronicle, of what he called his “year of living dyingly” is HItchens at his best – insightful, unsentimental, like wading into a cold mountain stream: it takes your breath away and you still go on.

4.  Sergio Marchionne.   Chrysler was near death in 2009 when the Obama administration brokered a shotgun wedding for the automaker with Fiat, led by its hard-charging CEO, Sergio Marchionne.  With government cash, a quick trip through bankruptcy and new ownership, Chrysler was stabilized.  Two years later, Chrylser has turned a profit, the government loans have been repaid and Fiat recently upped its stake in the automaker to 58.5%, with plans to acquire the remainder by next year.   This turnaround was Marchionne’s biggest yet, and the company looks poised to keep growing.

5.  Michael Cohl, Jeremiah J. Harris, Bono and The Edge for “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.”  At the start of 2011, the Broadway musical based on the famous superhero was mired in controversy, with injured performers and critics who savaged the show as a “seriously depressing disaster.”  Most observers expected the producers (Cohl and Harris), who invested a record-breaking $75 million, to close it and forever be known as a cautionary tale about the hazards of bringing an ambitious, rock-music-inspired show to Broadway.  But the producers and U2’s Bono and The Edge, who wrote the music, decided to fix the show rather than abandon it, making the difficult choice to fire director Julie Taymor and bring in fresh hands to make extensive revisions.   Audiences responded, and by November, the show was turning a profit, leading the producers to predict it would recover its production costs on Broadway, before mounting a lucrative road tour.  The good news continues: Spider-Man set a Broadway record by grossing $2.9 million over the 9-day holiday period in December.

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