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An innovator tests his skills with Polaroid

January 13th, 2011

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.

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