Our Favorite Underdogs: Why Everybody Loves a Comeback
By Guest Columnist STEPHANIE STUCKEY, CEO of Stuckey’s Corp.
Rocky is one of my favorite movies. In the popular cinematic journey that so engaged millions of fans – and improbably won a Best Picture Oscar – our hard-luck hero overcomes the odds to make an unexpected turnaround. But it wasn’t easy for Rocky.
No one believed a has-been southpaw boxer from the slums of Philadelphia could get a shot at the world heavyweight championship belt. His unorthodox training methods – like boxing raw meat in a freezer – made him unlike any opponent that the champ, Apollo Creed, had ever faced. But Rocky got his shot, and unlike the fighters that came before him, he was able to “go the distance” against Creed in an amazing exhibition of guts and stamina. He also learned to believe in himself.
Rocky is the classic American story of the underdog making a comeback. Stories like these – both fictitious and real – are what inspire us during challenging times. Having recently taken over my family’s company, I’ve been studying a lot of turnaround tales these days. Failure – and persevering through adversity – is a much greater teacher than success, and it holds a lot of relevance for the Stuckey’s journey.
Stuckey’s was founded by my grandfather as a roadside pecan stand in Eastman, in the midst of the Great Depression. From these humble origins, he built a veritable roadside oasis of stores that were famous for our pecan log rolls and kitschy souvenirs. At our peak, Stuckey’s included almost 370 stores nationwide, a candy plant, a billboard company, and a trucking operation. We reached our pinnacle when family vacations meant taking to the open road in a station wagon and stopping at fun attractions like South of the Border, Wig Wam Motels, and Stuckey’s.
Then we hit a slump. My grandfather sold the chain, which was then acquired in a hostile takeover by a Chicago railroad conglomerate in 1976. He died a year later.
Fast forward 35 years … Stuckey’s is still on America’s highways, albeit fewer stores (and many in need of some TLC). We’re back in family hands. But Stuckey’s has yet to complete its comeback.
When I took over the company in November of 2019 – after three decades of working as a lawyer, legislator, and sustainability leader – I knew I had a fixer-upper on my hands. Since then, I’ve been learning from businesses that have managed to reinvent themselves after suffering a downfall. Here are my favorite “brand comeback” stories.
Converse: In 1917, Converse launched the All Star, the first basketball sneaker. It became a household name when they signed on basketball star Chuck Taylor in 1932. As the first co-branded shoe in history, its sales soared to 80% of market share. But by the 1970s, due to competition from Nike and others, market share sank to 2.3%, and Converse filed for bankruptcy in 2001. The turnaround occurred when its competitor, Nike, purchased the brand in 2003 and used its marketing power to make it hip again, with slick ad campaigns featuring Kurt Cobain and the Ramones. Converse is an example of a takeover by a corporation that “gets” them – and has financial and marketing resources to “rebound” them to success.
Levi’s: Founded by German-Jewish immigrant, Levi Strauss, in San Francisco in 1853, Levi’s were originally known for their durability – a wardrobe mainstay for cowboys, lumberjacks, and railroad workers. They gained popularity in the 1950s with their shrink-to-fit 501 jeans popularized by iconic celebrities like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Sales peaked in 1989 at $7.1 billion, but then plummeted with the rise of designer jeans. Levi’s began to turn the heritage brand around in 2017 with the launch of their ad, “Circles,” that became one of the most watched commercials on YouTube. The brand made a comeback with the smart, hip messaging that you may wear other jeans, but you live your life in Levi’s.
Domino’s: Brothers Tom and James Monaghan started the pizza delivery empire in Ypsilanti, MI with a $500 down payment in 1960. By the 1980s, Domino’s was the fastest-growing franchise chain in the U.S., fueled in part by their 30-minute pizza delivery guarantee. But they soon were hit with a slew of complaints about their pizza quality. Instead of burying this feedback, Domino’s listened and adapted. They changed the crust, the sauce, the cheese – and created a totally new product. They also ramped up their e-commerce and digital games, and even repaired potholes so pizzas could be delivered faster. Domino’s stock has soared 2,000% since its turnaround, outperforming Amazon and Apple.
What these brands share – like our hero Rocky – is the ability to keep going, adapt, and believe in what they represent. I aim to take these lessons and apply them to the Stuckey’s turnaround. Like Levi’s, we’ll need to innovate with the times to make Stuckey’s retro vibe cool again. Like Domino’s, we need to listen to customer feedback and offer more services that today’s consumers expect. Plus, while we’re not looking for a company like Nike to acquire us, improving our cash flow to finance a solid marketing play is high on the Stuckey’s turnaround agenda.
There’s also an element of good timing. As the roadtrip is experiencing a resurgence with more families taking trips by auto, Stuckey’s is well-positioned to be part of that revival. Most importantly, all of these companies — and Rocky, too! — share a loyal fan base with a true emotional connection. We hope you’ll cheer us along as we make our big comeback. And of course, with Stuckey’s, you’re always welcome to come along for the ride.
Note to readers: Stephanie Stuckey is a lawyer who served 14 years in the Georgia House of Representatives; as executive director of GreenLaw; as Atlanta’s chief sustainability officer, and as a director at Southface before becoming CEO of Stuckey’s Corp.