By - Brian O'Reilly

(FORTUNE Magazine) – HIS HOBBY is restoring old Porsches, and when both the cars he entered in an auto show several years ago failed to win, Sanford C. Sigoloff, 56, the chairman of California-based Wickes Cos., worked on them 20 hours a day for a week. In the next show they took first and second places. Says Sigoloff: ''I'm a goal-oriented perfectionist and a terrible loser.'' He's the same when it comes to repairing corporate basket cases, a job at which he is an acknowledged champion. ''There's a certain creativity in taking something debilitated and increasing its value,'' he says. Wickes, a chain of home improvement, apparel, food and drug stores (sales: $3.5 billion), had filed the second-biggest bankruptcy ever a month after he became chief in 1982. The bankruptcy was over in 33 months. In 1986 Sigoloff proved just how healthy Wickes is by attempting the takeover of two major companies in 48 hours. It hardly matters that one deal, the $1.7-billion bid for Lear Siegler, foundered. Sigoloff landed Collins & Aikman, a well-regarded textile and wallpaper maker, for $1.1 billion and left no doubt he would strike again. Sigoloff paid $1 billion for some Gulf & Western spinoffs in 1985, giving Wickes $2.8 billion of sales in panty hose, socks, bathing suits, and auto parts retailing. Last year he also tried to get Owens-Corning Fiberglas and National Gypsum. But he walked away, he says, when the bidding got out of hand. Since dying companies are something most executives take pains to avoid, what prompts Sigoloff to seek out the likes of Wickes, or Daylin, a retail chain he steered through Chapter 11 in the 1970s? Says Bruce Spector, a top bankruptcy lawyer in Los Angeles who worked on Wickes with Sigoloff: ''It's the complexity. He's got to have it. His love is problem solving and synthesizing information. He lives on it.'' Sigoloff's talents reflect a serious scientific background. The son of an Army physician, he has a degree in physics and chemistry from UCLA and in the 1950s was one of the country's top researchers into the effects of atomic radiation on health. ''In my day, I was considered very good,'' he says matter-of- Colleagues still see the scientist in his for detail, data collection, and order, which proved invaluable in mastering the operational and financial problems at Wickes. ''During the bankruptcy Sandy would floor everybody at the Saturday meetings with the detail he had absorbed,'' says Spector. ''It turned out that when he was visiting the operations he had been pacing off how many feet it was from the loading dock to the conveyor belt, whether there was a ladies' room on the first floor and how far it was from the elevators, and how many items were on the shelves.'' He developed cash flow models working late at night on a home computer. Sigoloff sold many divisions and shrank the company's employment by a third, to 28,000. But he won managers' loyalty too, moving quickly to solve their most basic problems -- patching leaking store roofs, ordering stock for empty shelves. He used droll humor to ease tensions among Wickes executives by resurrecting his old nickname, ''Ming the Merciless,'' which he had given himself during the Daylin bankruptcy. When his staff was grappling with a series of crises known as ''ticking time bombs,'' he gave them mock bombs complete with clocks. Now Sigoloff would like to show he's not just a whiz in bankruptcy court. ''There's a perception that in bankruptcy you enter a vacuum devoid of the regular world -- that a great mist descends insulating you from all competition,'' he says. But his goal at Wickes was to create a going enterprise, and that required mastering its operations. He'll keep growing Wickes by acquisitions too, and figures the best opportunities lie in manufacturing companies that have improved their efficiency with little fanfare. A sign of the times: He's ready to modify ''Ming the Merciless,'' linked as it is with hardship. ''Maybe 'Ming the Unrelenting,' '' he muses. ''I don't mind that.''