Madonna, Sir Alex Ferguson and my mother: tales of reinvention

One of the most fascinating features I find about a person or a business is the ability to stay relevant as the world around keeps changing, sometimes drastically.

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Some of the world's most-successful and enduring brands have achieved their long track record by constantly reinventing themselves.

"The lesson for me is clear: being sustainably successful involves evolving and changing."
Tareq Muhmood, Managing Director, Global Diversified Industries, Global Banking

Many of us are familiar with the story of Apple and its constant reinventions, not least its move away from computers towards hand-held devices. It's a decision that has created phenomenal brand equity – and sales – the world over.

Similarly epic was the rise and fall of Kodak, the brand that popularised photography. With the advent of the digital age, the company was slow to innovate and continued to be synonymous with film. It eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012.

Then, after emerging from 20 months of bankruptcy, it reinvented itself. No longer a consumer company, it has transformed itself into a technology company focussed on imaging for businesses and is slowly getting back on its feet - it learned from its lesson of not reinventing.

The National Geographic Society is another great example. First published in 1888, the iconic yellow-bound National Geographic magazine became a coffee-table staple for generations of families around the world.

Facing an aging readership, National Geographic CEO John Fahey didn't wait around for the magazine's demise. Instead, he spearheaded the brand's reinvention across all media platforms, most notably on the popular National Geographic Channel, launched in 2001. National Geographic saw well around the bend and reinvented before they needed to.

In my part of the world, the story of Singapore is one of constant reinvention – from third-world economy to entrepot, then from manufacturing hub and technology centre to today's global financial capital. Now with the passing of founding father Lee Kuan Yew, even though he had relinquished a formal role, Singapore again stands on the edge of another major reinvention. It will be fascinating to watch.

These are business cases. But what really caught my imagination was when my thoughts turned to Madonna and then my mother. Madonna released her first album 32 years ago. But she has evolved her music over the years and in March 2015 released her latest album, Rebel Heart. Her ability, passion and discipline in generating successful hit after hit has not been replicated by many other musicians over such a period of time.

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My mother is no Madonna but in her own way her story of reinvention is just as remarkable, if not as flamboyant. She started an English School in Kuwait in 1979 (Kuwait English School). Thirty six years later, she is still the Headmistress (at the young age of 70+) and now runs one of the largest English Schools in the Middle East. Some of her leadership team have been working with her since the school started. For a project, I once video-interviewed her and her team to ask them how they stayed fresh. They found the question fascinating - as it was not something they had to think about.

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Staying fresh, finding new ways of doing things, helping the students and parents, and evolving the business just appeared to be second nature. Manchester United, under Sir Alex Ferguson, was able to reinvent itself and maintain its winning ways for over 25 years (until recently!).

From what I saw, this was done mostly through continuously improving the team, dropping or selling players and bringing in fresh blood at different levels to keep the team hungry. Again, this passion of not 'resting on your laurels' appears to have been the catalyst in making Sir Alex one of the most successful team managers of all time.

There are lessons in these life stories and corporate histories for all of us. Apple showed it was important to follow a technology shift to mobile; Sir Alex recognised football tactics change and players age; Madonna stays relevant by evolving with her audience. And my mother recognises she is in the business of educating – the methods and institutions may change but core mission remains.

Here at ANZ, I've watched a major reinvention as the bank has re-focussed its attention on Asia. That decision, taken by Mike Smith and the board in 2007, is central to my own career, connecting clients right across Asia Pacific.

The lesson for me is clear: being sustainably successful involves evolving and changing. For some, it appears to be a concentrated effort. For others, it seems second nature. For the majority, it never happens – that's why Madonna and Apple and Sir Alex, and my mother, will be hard to replicate.

I would be delighted to hear your thoughts or sources of inspiration on 'reinvention'.

Feature photo: Editorial Credit: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES /

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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