Most big companies rise, then fall. Very few rise again.
Xerox now has a chance to do just that. What was once a firm synonymous with copying things -- Xeroxing -- is now basically a services-and-support business.
The most amazing aspect of this isn't that the person who engaged in the nuts-and-bolts of the turnaround, who managed the key acquisition that made this second chance at all possible, is a woman. Let alone a black woman.
It's that she's a Xerox lifer.
Ursula Burns came to Xerox as an intern back in 1980, and during the trips-and-dramas at the turn of the century, when the company really was about to sink under the waves, she was ready to quit like everyone else.
Board members told her that leaving would be like abandoning a sick spouse. So she stayed, convinced she might actually become CEO. And now, with the pending retirement of Anne Mulcahy, another Xerox lifer who has symbolized the company's transformation, she will become CEO.
Burns now faces the hard task of making its acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services a money-spinner. Mulcahy pulled the Xerox plane out of its dive, shedding sales and employees like mad. Burns must now get it back into formation with the rest of the Fortunate 500.
ACS calls itself a business process company. Its heritage is that of a bank transaction processor. It became what it is through acquisitions, most notably of Lockheed-Martin's IMS unit in 2002.
It was the company's turn toward health IT in the middle of the decade that made it most interesting to Xerox, and Burns stayed with the plan even through the Great Recession, which hammered Xerox' balance sheet like everyone else's.
What Burns must now do is turn the pieces that ACS bought to build itself into a coherent health IT leader under the Xerox brand. The gamble is the corporate culture, which Mulcahy re-instituted and which nurtured her, can transform those pieces into one highly-profitable whole.
Instead of seeing Xerox as xerox, as document management, Burns must get people to see Xerox as IT management, and then as simply management, a worthy competitor to HP's EDS unit, Dell's Perot Systems, and to IBM itself.
Her big advantage is that ACS may have been a bigger player in health IT than those competitors, as it was being acquired, and that customers in that fast-growing space tend to like brand names backed by corporate culture.
Success will have Ursula Burns taught in business schools alongside Lou Gerstner of IBM. There are few second acts in American business. Those who manage to engineer them are giants, no matter their back story.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com