Four survivor CEOs since Nasdaq last hit 5,000

C-suite survivors, the story of 4 CEOs
C-suite survivors, the story of 4 CEOs   

Almost 15 years have passed since the Nasdaq first broke the 5,000 mark. Now, after the bursting of the dot-com bubble and a long recovery, the index is poised to pass that mark again.

The Nasdaq has changed though, as many of the companies that first drove the index to that lofty level have gone.

Still, a few that defined the index in 2000 have survived and thrived, as have their top executives—an unusual feat given the average tenure of an S&P 500 CEO is 9.7 years, according to the Conference Board.

"What these CEOs have in common is that they are business innovators, they have an ability to reinvent themselves and, importantly, they are not afraid to hire other people to help them reinvent," said Mike Kwatinetz, a general partner at the venture firm Azure Capital Partners.

The CEOs Kwatinetz is referring to are: Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Starbucks' Howard Schultz, Oracle's Larry Ellison and Cisco's John Chambers. All four were CEOs when the Nasdaq last hit 5,000 and all, save for Ellison, who stepped down as CEO last year but remains as chairman, are still in that role.

"They understand the business cycle," said Columbia Business School adjunct professor William Klepper when asked how these CEOs have lasted this long. "That it's like an 'S' curve with peaks and valleys and they've figured out what practices are best employed—what is the agenda."

Two of the four, Bezos and Ellison, are founders, and Schultz and Chambers were with their companies at the very early stages. Schultz bought the four original Starbucks outlets in 1987 and Chambers joined Cisco in 1991, becoming CEO four years later.

"The two things that strike me is that they are not only not just business innovators, they are organizational builders," said Don Hambrick, the Evan Pugh professor of management at Penn State University. "To have a great idea is rare enough, but to build a thriving organization is extraordinary. They are not Johnny-one-notes."

How Bezos has done it

Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc. and founder of Blue Origin LLC
Peter Foley | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc. and founder of Blue Origin LLC

At Amazon, an Internet retailing giant that started by selling books online, Bezos has not only built a thriving organization, but he also has disrupted all of retailing. He is criticized for focusing more on long-term projects than short-term profits, but the numbers show Bezos' strategy has worked. Amazon's stock is up 400 percent since the dot-com crash and more than 19,000 percent since the company went public in 1997.

"It is probably the most creative of any company in terms of continuing to reinvent itself," said Kwatinetz, who helped take Amazon public back in 1997 when he worked for Credit Suisse.

Investors credit Bezos' success to a number of different factors, including his willingness to fail. Bezos has spent plenty of money—hundreds of millions of dollars—on failed ventures like Amazon's attempt to sell toys from its own inventories. What Bezos is good at, they said, is learning from those experiences to constantly improve what is at the core of Amazon's mission, to create a good consumer experience.

"You have a little bit of a feeling he is off the wall when speaking more casually, which is inviting to creative people " said Walter Scott, professor of management at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

By bringing on creative people, Bezos has created a culture open to any idea that the company believes is worth trying, Scott added. This has helped to give birth to some of Amazon's more successful ventures like Web Service, or its cloud computing services.

Starbucks puts customer in focus

Like Bezos at Amazon, Starbucks' Schultz is fixated on the customer experience. Kwatinetz tells the story of a family friend who owns six coffeehouses in Brooklyn. He said that one day, Schultz walked into one of them to see what they were offering.

"From what I know, he constantly checks out the competition," Kwatinetz said.

This relentless focus on how to provide the best customer experience at the company's more than 21,878 stores worldwide has only increased since Schultz's return as CEO.

He stepped aside in 2000, remaining as the company's chairman, but returned as CEO in 2008 after Starbucks began to falter. Schultz acted quickly, closing stores, taking time from store hours to train baristas on how to make the perfect cup of espresso, hiring people from outside to reinvigorate the brand and asking customers to send him emails about their Starbucks experience, good or bad.

Since he came back in 2008, the stock has returned an impressive 360 percent. If you bet on Starbucks at the onset, your money has appreciated more than 12,000 percent since its initial public offering in June 1992.

"I sat next to Schultz at a conference once," said Scott. "He has an electrifying vision and can communicate with people in all levels of the company."

This, he said is important, as it's easy for a CEO to become isolated and surrounded by people who will only agree with them. Key to any successful CEO is that they protect the "naysayers," said Scott of those who challenge them.

How Chambers reinvented Cisco

John Chambers has faced a number of challenges in his 20 years of running Cisco.

Over the last decade, with Cisco's stock lagging (it's down 55 percent since the dot-com bubble burst in 2000), the calls for Chambers to step aside have grown louder. But those who have watched the tech space for years maintain the stock's performance masks the many challenges and changes Chambers has navigated at the company.

"He's more interesting because he had to reinvent the company now and then because the technology in his space has changed so fast, " said one investor who asked that his name not be used.

Back in 2000, for a brief time, Cisco was the most valuable company in the world with a market cap of just more than $550 billion. Its routers and switches directed traffic over the Internet, and there appeared to be an insatiable demand for this hardware.

Fast forward to 2015: Its market cap is a far less impressive $151 billion and the firm is undergoing yet another transformation. As a hardware company in a software world, its focus now is software defined networking—a new and purportedly easier way to manage networks.

"Something I like a lot about Chambers is that he has moved from a command-and-control type of leadership to a more collaborative leadership," said Columbia's Klepper.

In 2008, Chambers decentralized the company's management team, setting up working groups to better respond to customers and the marketplace. The results of this effort have proven mixed, though Cisco is given credit for still standing in a space where many of its former rivals have disappeared.

Azure's Kwatinetz noted that Chambers has been smart about building Cisco through acquisitions. Not all have been successful, but they have given Cisco access to talent it may not have been able to hire on its own, and that is another key to the company, and Chambers, longevity.

Ellison has used a similar approach in building Oracle. Founded as a database company in 1977, Ellison transformed it into an enterprise software giant through a series of acquisitions, in the process changing the way corporations bought software.

Before Oracle, companies bought different programs for different tasks. Oracle bundled the software, offering a suite of products for its clients and changed the space.

Last September, Ellison handed over the day-to-day operations of the software giant to the company's co-presidents, Safra Catz and Mark Hurd. He remains as chairman, and according to investors is still the company's primary strategic thinker and deal-maker.

While many may think of Ellison as a Teflon CEO, protected by his over 25 percent stake in the company he founded and the more than 15,000 percent-plus returns delivered to investors since Oracle went public, Kwatinetz remembers a time in the 1990s when Ellison was out of favor on Wall Street. At that time his board forced him to bring in talent to run the company, and he did in a move that helped to transform Oracle.

"They don't get stuck," said PSU's Hambrick of the CEOs. "They are quite adaptive."

Correction: This version corrects that in the next-to-last paragraph the company mentioned is Oracle.