An innovator tests his skills with Polaroid

Polaroid chairman Bobby Sager unveiled new products with Lady Gaga at an industry show in Las Vegas last week. The singer is Polaroid’s creative director. Polaroid chairman Bobby Sager unveiled new products with Lady Gaga at an industry show in Las Vegas last week. The singer is Polaroid’s creative director. (Ethan Miller/ Getty Images)
By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / January 13, 2011

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When pop diva Lady Gaga unveiled three new Polaroid products at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, the crowd probably didn’t recognize the man onstage with her. But she made sure they knew who he was.

“Let’s hear it for Bobby, everyone,’’ Lady Gaga said. “Bobby is wonderful.’’

Bobby Sager, sporting trendy sneakers and a scarf, was on stage with Gaga because he brought her there. Sager is chairman of the board of the revived Polaroid, a name that for decades was associated with the Boston area, where he grew up and still lives.

His mission now: restore Polaroid’s status as a global brand — the “next Apple,’’ as he puts it.

In his hometown, Sager is known as the hard-driving executive who turned a small jewelry liquidator called Gordon Brothers Group into a diversified international financial advisory firm; and as a globe-trotting philanthropist who has created foundations with the Dalai Lama, the musician Sting, and others.

His quest to restore Polaroid to its earlier household-name status would give Sager, 56, another resume highlight.

“Polaroid is a magnificent, iconic brand that stands for innovation,’’ Sager said. “It was the original Apple. It could be the next Apple, and it’s going to be.’’

It won’t be easy to bring back Polaroid, which invented and popularized instant photography after World War II. The company has struggled in the digital era. Since 2001, it has been through bankruptcy court twice and has had two owners, including one who is now in jail for orchestrating a Ponzi scheme that used Polaroid as a cover. The company’s flagship locations in Cambridge and Waltham have long been shuttered; Polaroid is now headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn.

But Sager says he will bring it back. “We didn’t buy Polaroid to take a walk down Memory Lane,’’ he said. “We’re at the very beginning of our innovation road map.’’

At CES, Sager and Gaga, who last year was named Polaroid’s creative director, presented new products including sunglasses that take digital photos and a portable printer that can produce paper copies on the spot.

Chris Chute, an analyst with IDC, talked to company executives and visited the Polaroid booth at CES. “We’re at a point where people want to do a lot of different things with photography, and Polaroid could be well positioned to get some of that business,’’ he said.

Sager said 90 percent of the products Polaroid will offer in the next few years have yet to be invented. “We’re not only going to be thinking outside the box, we’re going to crush the box.’’

Sager, who grew up in Malden, joined Gordon Brothers as president in 1985. Sager led an expansion that transformed the company from a liquidation firm that specialized in jewelry stores into a powerhouse that appraises, buys, and sells businesses. Today, the company has locations in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo, and sells more than $10 billion in assets every year, according to its website. Gordon Brothers also owns or co-owns such brands as The Sharper Image and Linens ‘n’ Things.

“The spectacular growth of Gordon Brothers was largely Bobby’s strategic vision,’’ said Stewart Cohen, principal and managing director, strategic planning at Gordon Brothers and a longtime friend of Sager.

In 2000, Sager made a shift to philanthropy, reducing his involvement in Gordon Brothers. He and his wife, Elaine, took their two children out of school and began touring the world. He formed “The Sager Family Traveling Foundation and Roadshow,’’ and over 10 years created more than a dozen projects.

One of his projects distributes indestructible soccer balls to disadvantaged children; another helps women in developing nations market their crafts. Sager, an avid photographer, has also documented his travels; the family’s home overlooking Boston Common is wallpapered with oversized portraits of people he has met in areas of crisis.

“I don’t do charity,’’ he said. “I get involved in screwed-up places because I can make a difference by doing what I’ve done in business: by making a plan and holding people accountable.’’

Nearly two years ago, Sager was working on a philanthropic project when he read a routine Gordon Brothers memo that mentioned Polaroid was for sale.

“I was interested right away,’’ he said.

What attracted him, Sager said, was the company’s reputation for innovation and its resonance with consumers, many of whom associate it with family events and memories. Sager also regards Polaroid’s instantly recognizable snapshot, surrounded by its paper frame, as a welcome antidote to digital picture taking.

“Today photography is virtual, vaporous,’’ he said. “People click off thousands of photos and the pictures end up sitting on a hard drive somewhere.’’

Polaroid’s niche, Sager maintains, is that “it’s about real people, real moments. You take someone’s picture, write something on the bottom, and give it to them. Polaroid pictures are the original social network.’’

In April 2009, Gordon Brothers Group and Hilco Consumer Capital bought Polaroid out of bankruptcy for $85.9 million. Less than a year later, Sager’s touch became evident, when the company announced its new creative director: Lady Gaga.

“That was pure Bobby,’’ said Cohen. “When he first told me about it, I admit, I didn’t understand it. Now, I think it’s brilliant.’’

Gaga is “much more than a spokesperson,’’ Sager said. Over the past year, he said, the two of them have hashed out ideas for new products all over the world, including in Gaga’s dressing room at Madison Square Garden.

The question is whether those ideas will be enough to make Polaroid the powerhouse Sager envisions.

The CES event “was an impressive launch,’’ said Ed Lee, an analyst at InfoTrends in Weymouth, but “at this point in time, you need some seriously deep pockets to make a dent in consumer electronics,’’ he said. “Is Polaroid ready to invest that much time and money?’’

Lee is also skeptical whether young consumers can be won back to printing instant pictures.

“If someone is taking pictures at a party, those are almost immediately posted to Facebook, and kids expect to find them there,’’ he said. “Those kids may already be lost to printing pictures out, Polaroid-style.’’

But Sager is confident he can bring back the magic. “Polaroid needs to be re-imagined,’’ he said. “And that’s what I do: I re-imagine.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at