Fortune sides with he who dares

Prague Leaders Magazine, March 2008

Jerome Kerviel, the French trader accused of having orchestrated the biggest trading fraud in financial history, had big dreams when he rose from the ranks of the Société Générale’s back office to become an arbitrage trader. Although he didn’t come from an elite French school, he was determined to join the big leagues by proving his abilities as a trader.

As we all now know, Kerviel’s risky speculations didn’t lead to the success he was hoping for. Instead, like many gamblers, the young Frenchman was undone by his ambition; he chased his losses, continually increased the size of his bets to recover his losses and eventually spiraled out of control.

The history of humankind is full of stories of people who risked it all for a chance to reach the stars. Some of those brave people, who chose to aim high, follow their dreams and push the border of permissible risk, found great success. Others, of course, have found failure. Nevertheless, it can probably be said that the majority of the world’s greatest achievement would have never come to light had there not been someone bold and daring enough to bet it all.

Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks, took just such a risk 20 years ago, when he resolved to recreate the Milanese coffee bar experience in the United States by selling quality Arabica coffee at premium price.

Since that time, thousands of Starbucks cafes have been opened all over the world, including one recently in the heart of Prague’s historical center. Despite the controversy and legitimate concern this generated in the Czech Republic because of the dominance of the famous brand, it also reminded us that with 40 million customers a week in 13 000 stores around the world, Starbucks, the second largest retail chain after Mc Donalds (50 million customers per day in 30 000 restaurants worldwide), has become an American institution of international proportion.

But Schultz’s boldest idea, and one that was called outright crazy by many, came when he decided to open a new Starbuck’s cafe opposite an existing location. This decision was made at a time when the company was losing $1.2 million annually. Nevertheless, on March 2, 1994, the dual-Starbucks intersection opened for business. Though it had been expected that the two cafes would cannibalize each others’ sales, customers ultimately flocked to the new café in droves. Each café mostly attracted different crowds and soon these two stores became the best and second-best performing stores in the chain. The novelty of the idea was that each store was just 15 meters from the other. Schultz saw something no one else saw on that Vancouver street: each corner of the intersection had its own unique traffic flow. Today, near Times Square in New York City, one can find 12 different Starbucks stores within a three-block radius.

Certainly not all risks lead to the scale of the financial damage Société Générale has faced lately or the phenomenal success Starbucks has experienced over the past decade. Still, risk is a natural part of life and necessary for our growth. Fortune very rarely smiles on those of us unwilling to risk something. As Virgil wrote 2000 years ago “Fortune sides with he who dares”.

While most of us will never experience the epic highs or lows associated with the risks taken by Howard Schultz or Jerome Kerviel, we can still benefit by “laying it on the line”. Not only does risk push us to test of our abilities, but it also rewards us with the exhilaration when success is achieved.

Testing of our abilities

As Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “What does not destroy me, only makes me stronger”. Risk taking is rarely a comfortable pursuit. It inherently produces uncertainty, which most of us would prefer to avoid. At the same time however, regular risk taking helps build inner strength, a resiliency and an ability to cope with a variety of circumstances. By producing a certain amount of stress that pushes us to develop our abilities and self-confidence, risk taking allows us to stretch our limits to grow and to improve.

Moreover, research has shown that a moderate amount of stress actually does help improve performance.

Of course, we shouldn’t get in over our heads. Taking risks without the necessary skills and know-how can put us as well as others in a dangerous situation. The challenge is to be aware of our limits and the consequences (be they positive or negative) associated with our action and be willing to accept those consequences for the promise of a greater reward.

Exhilaration when reaping the successes

In his book “Human Motivation”, R.E. Franken reported that “the more fear we feel in anticipating a difficult task, the greater the subsequent elation is when we have been successful at that task.”

According to Kerviel, after successfully earning EUR 500,000 in profit in initial trading with the company Allianz in 2005, he commented: “I had mixed feeling because I was proud of the results, but surprised at the same time. That produced a desire to continue, there was a snowball effect.”

As Kerviel’s case clearly demonstrates, once he had mastered a stressful task, he sought out greater and greater challenges in order to experience the same emotions. As his skills and knowledge improved, so did his optimism and confidence to trading on a large scale.

Three years after Howard Schultz bought Starbucks in 1987, the chain consisted of eleven stores; by the end of 1991 the number of outlets reached 115. Today, even though the Starbucks chain includes 13,000 stores, Schultz’s goal is to reach 40,000 stores, thereby allowing the company to become the biggest retailer in the planet.

When asked if he would have been happy if things would have turned out differently, if say Starbucks had become a chain of 100 stores, Schultz replied: “I would not have been happy if I knew the opportunity was greater than 100 stores and we stopped. But I don’t think anyone then or now believed the runway we would have would be this great. And sitting here today, it’s going to be greater from this point on to the future than it has been in the last fifteen years. That’s going to be the stunner.” (Quote taken from the book Starbucked by Taylor Clark).

Taking risks is not only a natural part of our lives, it also contributes to our growth and the development of new skills. It is an approach that helps us develop an awareness to respond and to adjust to the ever-changing aspect of life. Every situation provides an opportunity to take a new risk.

As we go through life, instead of trying to distinguish the good risks from the bad risks, we should use risk to explore the limits of our dreams and our potential.

With patience and practice, our strength and ability to identify the advantages and the disadvantages of each situation will improve over time. And as we continue to test our abilities through challenging situations, we will feel more comfortable with risk in our lives and increase the chance for fortune to truly side with us.

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.