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Portfolio's Best American CEOs of All Time

The Best American CEOs of All Time

Throughout the history of business, the failure or success of a company relies on many factors, not the least of which is the corporate savvy of the executive running the show. In recent times, many CEOs have come under fire for mismanagement of their corporations, while some have been applauded for successfully navigating a tough economy.With much controversy surrounding CEOs of today, the question stands: Who are the best CEOs of all time?  set out to answer the question. Assembling a panel o

Throughout the history of business, the failure or success of a company relies on many factors, not the least of which is the corporate savvy of the executive running the show. In recent times, many CEOs have come under fire for mismanagement of their corporations, while some have been applauded for successfully navigating a tough economy.

With much controversy surrounding CEOs of today, the question stands: Who are the best CEOs of all time? Portfolio.com set out to answer the question. Assembling a panel of professors from the top business schools around the country, Portfolio surveyed them on the records of CEOs who best created (or destroyed) value, innovation, while possessing the best (or worst) management skills. From this, they’ve formulated a list of the 20 Best American CEOs of all time. Here they are.

Rankings By: Portfolio.com
Posted 24 Apr 2009

20. Oprah Winfrey

A hug—or a plug—from O on The Oprah Winfrey Show is pretty much all you need to spur sales of anything, be it scented candles or obscure novels. The first female black billionaire in U.S. history, Winfrey started out as a local talk-show host; today, she runs an influential, if comparatively small, media conglomerate that publishes books and produces television shows, movies, and radio programs.THE STAT: Winfrey is now estimated to be worth almost $3 billion.
By Portfolio.com

A hug—or a plug—from O on The Oprah Winfrey Show is pretty much all you need to spur sales of anything, be it scented candles or obscure novels. The first female black billionaire in U.S. history, Winfrey started out as a local talk-show host; today, she runs an influential, if comparatively small, media conglomerate that publishes books and produces television shows, movies, and radio programs.

THE STAT: Winfrey is now estimated to be worth almost $3 billion.

19. Herb Kelleher

In his long tenure as CEO of Southwest Airlines, Kelleher chain-smoked Kool cigarettes, drank Wild Turkey, and produced the highest return to shareholders of any company in the S&P 500. Much of Kelleher’s success in later years can be attributed to his aggressive fuel-hedging program, which served the company well when oil prices were high but cost the company when they plummeted.THE STAT: During Kelleher’s reign, the stock went from 7 cents a share to over $20.
By Portfolio.com

In his long tenure as CEO of Southwest Airlines, Kelleher chain-smoked Kool cigarettes, drank Wild Turkey, and produced the highest return to shareholders of any company in the S&P 500. Much of Kelleher’s success in later years can be attributed to his aggressive fuel-hedging program, which served the company well when oil prices were high but cost the company when they plummeted.

THE STAT: During Kelleher’s reign, the stock went from 7 cents a share to over $20.

18. Lee Iacocca

In case there’s any lingering doubt, current Chrysler CEO Bob Nar¬delli is no Lee Iacocca. When Iacocca arrived at Chrysler, during a time of record losses at the company, he cut inventories by $1 billion, reduced the white-collar staff by 50 percent, and turned Chrysler around—not with government loans, but with $1.5 billion in loan guarantees. Iacocca repaid the loans ahead of time and the Treasury made a profit of $300 million.THE STAT: In 1992, the year Iacocca retired, the company recorded
By Portfolio.com

In case there’s any lingering doubt, current Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli is no Lee Iacocca. When Iacocca arrived at Chrysler, during a time of record losses at the company, he cut inventories by $1 billion, reduced the white-collar staff by 50 percent, and turned Chrysler around—not with government loans, but with $1.5 billion in loan guarantees. Iacocca repaid the loans ahead of time and the Treasury made a profit of $300 million.

THE STAT: In 1992, the year Iacocca retired, the company recorded a $700 million profit. Last year, Chrysler, now privately held, lost $8 billion.

17. Katharine Graham

"Kate the Great"  deserved her nickname. Under her leadership, the Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers and broke the Watergate story. Between 1981 and 1991, when Graham retired, the Washington Post Co.’s stock price increased elevenfold. THE STAT: Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Washington Post at a public auction in 1933 for $825,000. She began working at the company in 1938.
By Portfolio.com

"Kate the Great" deserved her nickname. Under her leadership, the Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers and broke the Watergate story. Between 1981 and 1991, when Graham retired, the Washington Post Co.’s stock price increased elevenfold.

THE STAT: Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Washington Post at a public auction in 1933 for $825,000. She began working at the company in 1938.

16. Warren Buffett

When the Oracle of Omaha bought a piece of Goldman Sachs last year, not only did he receive better terms than the government, he got better returns: As of February, Buffett’s $5 billion investment had appreciated 12 percent, while the Treasury’s $10 billion stake had fallen 25 percent.
By Portfolio.com

When the Oracle of Omaha bought a piece of Goldman Sachs last year, not only did he receive better terms than the government, he got better returns: As of February, Buffett’s $5 billion investment had appreciated 12 percent, while the Treasury’s $10 billion stake had fallen 25 percent.

15. Reuben Mark

Mark may have been boring as CEO—his big innovation was to focus on the small picture rather than on splashy initiatives—but he made Colgate the king of oral care. Under his leadership, the company rarely missed quarterly estimates, and its stock performed twice as well as the S&P 500.THE STAT: Mark once tried to get all 35,000 Colgate employees to wear ID tags with their first names in big type to make it easier for top executives to connect with workers.
By Portfolio.comPhoto: Tony

Mark may have been boring as CEO—his big innovation was to focus on the small picture rather than on splashy initiatives—but he made Colgate the king of oral care. Under his leadership, the company rarely missed quarterly estimates, and its stock performed twice as well as the S&P 500.

THE STAT: Mark once tried to get all 35,000 Colgate employees to wear ID tags with their first names in big type to make it easier for top executives to connect with workers.

14. Walt Disney

Imagine a world without Mickey. It could have been. The animator and entrepreneur’s first studio, Laugh-O-Grams, in Kansas City, Missouri, declared bankruptcy after less than two years in business. Disney bounced back in the mid-1920s and set up a new studio in Hollywood. Today, the company produces annual revenue of about $35 billion. As for Mickey, he was inspired by a pet mouse Disney had while he was working in a Kansas City studio.THE STAT: Disney lifted the idea for his amusement park—wher
By Portfolio.com

Imagine a world without Mickey. It could have been. The animator and entrepreneur’s first studio, Laugh-O-Grams, in Kansas City, Missouri, declared bankruptcy after less than two years in business. Disney bounced back in the mid-1920s and set up a new studio in Hollywood. Today, the company produces annual revenue of about $35 billion. As for Mickey, he was inspired by a pet mouse Disney had while he was working in a Kansas City studio.

THE STAT: Disney lifted the idea for his amusement park—where he thought employees would spend time with their kids—from Children’s Fairyland, in Oakland, California.

13. Andy Grove

Mr. Disrupter—he’s lately been pushing for GE to develop an electric car and for Wal-Mart to try to solve the health-care crisis—is the quintessential outside-the-box thinker. But his passions have backfired too. In 1994, Grove was so enamored of Intel’s first Pentium chip that he sent it to market, warts and all, which ended up costing the company $475 million. No matter. Under Grove, Intel’s stock rose from under $1 in 1987 to more than $20 a share in 1998.THE STAT: So just how many plug-in ca
By Portfolio.com

Mr. Disrupter—he’s lately been pushing for GE to develop an electric car and for Wal-Mart to try to solve the health-care crisis—is the quintessential outside-the-box thinker. But his passions have backfired too. In 1994, Grove was so enamored of Intel’s first Pentium chip that he sent it to market, warts and all, which ended up costing the company $475 million. No matter. Under Grove, Intel’s stock rose from under $1 in 1987 to more than $20 a share in 1998.

THE STAT: So just how many plug-in cars does Grove think we should be driving? He calls for 10 million by 2011.

12. Ray Kroc

A century after the robber barons faded into the sunset, Kroc, a milkshake-machine salesman, was doing his business forebears proud. After initially agreeing to pay the McDonald brothers $2.7 million for the chain they founded, plus a royalty on 1 percent of gross sales, Kroc reneged. He never honored the royalty agreement because it wasn’t in writing. The result was a brand-new billion-dollar industry: fast food.THE STAT: Today, McDonald’s sells about 550 million Big Macs a year—contributing 29
By Portfolio.com

A century after the robber barons faded into the sunset, Kroc, a milkshake-machine salesman, was doing his business forebears proud. After initially agreeing to pay the McDonald brothers $2.7 million for the chain they founded, plus a royalty on 1 percent of gross sales, Kroc reneged. He never honored the royalty agreement because it wasn’t in writing. The result was a brand-new billion-dollar industry: fast food.

THE STAT: Today, McDonald’s sells about 550 million Big Macs a year—contributing 297 billion calories annually to the national diet.

11. Michael Bloomberg

The mayor who would be king, or at least New York City’s CEO for a term longer than originally allowed by law, reached City Hall by spending $155 million of his own money on two campaigns. But that sum is a drop in the bucket for Bloomberg’s $20 billion bank account. He earned that fortune through his financial-software-services venture, which makes money by charging a monthly fee for each of the 290,000 terminals it leases to clients. THE STAT: Bloomberg started his business with the $10 millio
By Portfolio.com

The mayor who would be king, or at least New York City’s CEO for a term longer than originally allowed by law, reached City Hall by spending $155 million of his own money on two campaigns. But that sum is a drop in the bucket for Bloomberg’s $20 billion bank account. He earned that fortune through his financial-software-services venture, which makes money by charging a monthly fee for each of the 290,000 terminals it leases to clients.

THE STAT: Bloomberg started his business with the $10 million severance package he received after being fired from Salomon Brothers.

10. Bill Gates

Fittingly, when you google Gates, you get almost seven times as many results as you get for Goliath, the Biblical giant famous for his battle with a pipsqueak competitor. The co-founder of Microsoft is said to be a cranky and impatient manager—an approach that helped Microsoft earn $60 billion last year. He is also known to be somewhat unfriendly to competition. In 2001, to settle a massive antitrust suit brought against Microsoft, Gates agreed to share technical information with other software
By Portfolio.com

Fittingly, when you google Gates, you get almost seven times as many results as you get for Goliath, the Biblical giant famous for his battle with a pipsqueak competitor. The co-founder of Microsoft is said to be a cranky and impatient manager—an approach that helped Microsoft earn $60 billion last year. He is also known to be somewhat unfriendly to competition. In 2001, to settle a massive antitrust suit brought against Microsoft, Gates agreed to share technical information with other software makers.

THE STAT: In February 1998, as Gates was on his way to a meeting in Belgium, a heckler hit him in the face with a cream pie.

9. Andrew Carnegie

Ah, the power of philanthropy! Carnegie, the iron-and-steel baron, wasn’t as ruthless as some of his fellow industrialists, but he still had a lot of reputation mending to do upon retirement. After selling Carnegie Steel in 1901 (it eventually became U.S. Steel), the former CEO polished his image by giving away most of his billion-dollar-plus fortune to support libraries and promote world peace and education.THE STAT: The self-help book Carnegie inspired, Think and Grow Rich, has been in print s
By Portfolio.com

Ah, the power of philanthropy! Carnegie, the iron-and-steel baron, wasn’t as ruthless as some of his fellow industrialists, but he still had a lot of reputation mending to do upon retirement. After selling Carnegie Steel in 1901 (it eventually became U.S. Steel), the former CEO polished his image by giving away most of his billion-dollar-plus fortune to support libraries and promote world peace and education.

THE STAT: The self-help book Carnegie inspired, Think and Grow Rich, has been in print since 1937 and has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

8. Jeff Bezos

A few pointers from the Bezos school of leadership: Micromanage, micromanage, micromanage. It’s a strategy that has kept Bezos—one of the first to recognize the potential of online commerce—in the CEO seat since the Web 1.0 era. He’s also been willing to make risky bets—from allowing other retailers to sell via Amazon to offering free shipping at the expense of profits in order to increase market share—that have ultimately paid off. THE STAT: Amazon’s recession buster: the Kindle. The wireless r
By Portfolio.com

A few pointers from the Bezos school of leadership: Micromanage, micromanage, micromanage. It’s a strategy that has kept Bezos—one of the first to recognize the potential of online commerce—in the CEO seat since the Web 1.0 era. He’s also been willing to make risky bets—from allowing other retailers to sell via Amazon to offering free shipping at the expense of profits in order to increase market share—that have ultimately paid off.

THE STAT: Amazon’s recession buster: the Kindle. The wireless reading device did an estimated $75 million in sales last year and is expected to double that figure in 2009.

7. Steve Jobs

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tries to ¬explain the seemingly unexplainable: how the most amazing people got to be so amazing. His conclusion is that extraordinary people like Bill Gates and the Beatles aren’t mysterious freaks of nature but the logical ¬products of considerable talent, good timing, and precisely 10,000 hours of early training. Gladwell claims that Steve Jobs fits into the scheme because of his age (54, perfect for taking advantage of the PC revolution that started in the 1970s)
By Portfolio.com

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tries to explain the seemingly unexplainable: how the most amazing people got to be so amazing. His conclusion is that extraordinary people like Bill Gates and the Beatles aren’t mysterious freaks of nature, but the logical products of considerable talent, good timing, and precisely 10,000 hours of early training. Gladwell claims that Steve Jobs fits into the scheme because of his age (54, perfect for taking advantage of the PC revolution that started in the 1970s) and the neighborhood in which he was raised (Silicon Valley).

6. John D. Rockefeller

It’s hard to top Rocke¬feller as a monopolist or philanthropist. While doling out dimes and nickels to the poor, John D. built a sprawling empire by squashing, undercutting, and buying up the competition. Over a two-month period in 1872, Standard Oil absorbed 22 of the 26 petroleum firms in Cleveland, where the company was first headquartered. By 1879, it had about 90 percent of the market for refining petroleum and all but complete control of the U.S. oil industry.  THE STAT: Rockefeller’s fort
By Portfolio.com

It’s hard to top Rockefeller as a monopolist or philanthropist. While doling out dimes and nickels to the poor, John D. built a sprawling empire by squashing, undercutting, and buying up the competition. Over a two-month period in 1872, Standard Oil absorbed 22 of the 26 petroleum firms in Cleveland, where the company was first headquartered. By 1879, it had about 90 percent of the market for refining petroleum and all but complete control of the U.S. oil industry.

THE STAT: Rockefeller’s fortune peaked in 1912 at $900 million ($19 billion in today’s dollars), but by the time he died, in 1937, he’d given most of his money away to heirs and charities.

5. Lou Gerstner

At a time when quarterly write-downs in the banking industry regularly top $10 billion, a onetime restructuring charge of $8 billion seems like chicken feed. But back in 1993, when Gerstner inherited IBM, putting up that kind of figure would’ve been a death knell. The CEO worked to unite far-flung units and improve efficiency, and by the time he left, he had created a company with a net profit of $5.3 billion. One black mark: Because Gerstner didn’t recognize the threat posed by Microsoft, IBM l
By Portfolio.com

At a time when quarterly write-downs in the banking industry regularly top $10 billion, a onetime restructuring charge of $8 billion seems like chicken feed. But back in 1993, when Gerstner inherited IBM, putting up that kind of figure would’ve been a death knell. The CEO worked to unite far-flung units and improve efficiency, and by the time he left, he had created a company with a net profit of $5.3 billion. One black mark: Because Gerstner didn’t recognize the threat posed by Microsoft, IBM lost ground in the software market.

THE STAT: In retirement, Gerstner is still under contract with IBM; the consulting gig, worth up to $2 million a year plus expenses, expires in 2012.

4. Alfred Sloan

Notoriously lax on auto safety and a unionbuster to boot, Sloan probably wouldn’t have cut it in today’s era of de rigueur air bags and making nice with the UAW. But his turnaround of GM - which was nearly bankrupt when he inherited it in 1923 - ensured the company’s survival. Among his top innovations: making each of GM’s brands into its own separate unit and ordering designers to come up with different cars for different demographic groups—the first successful challenge to Ford’s one-size-fits
By Portfolio.com

Notoriously lax on auto safety and a unionbuster to boot, Sloan probably wouldn’t have cut it in today’s era of de rigueur air bags and making nice with the UAW. But his turnaround of GM - which was nearly bankrupt when he inherited it in 1923 - ensured the company’s survival. Among his top innovations: making each of GM’s brands into its own separate unit and ordering designers to come up with different cars for different demographic groups—the first successful challenge to Ford’s one-size-fits-all approach.

THE STAT: Sloan is credited with pushing the idea of annual changes in style—a practice that led to the development of planned obsolescence.

3. Sam Walton

He was a plainspoken hayseed. He liked dogs and pickup trucks. He owned suits and ties, which he proudly wore to church and to the office when he had to. He didn’t live in a 46,000-square-foot mansion. More than a decade after his death, the operating culture of the world’s largest company continues in his tradition. “What would Sam do or think?” is a question Wal-Mart management still asks.
By Portfolio.com

He was a plainspoken hayseed. He liked dogs and pickup trucks. He owned suits and ties, which he proudly wore to church and to the office when he had to. He didn’t live in a 46,000-square-foot mansion. More than a decade after his death, the operating culture of the world’s largest company continues in his tradition. “What would Sam do or think?” is a question Wal-Mart management still asks.

2. J.P. Morgan

What do you call a man who personally bails out the U.S. Treasury twice? Brilliant? Yes. Warren Buf¬fett? No. During the depression of 1895, John Pierpont Morgan replenished the Treasury with $65 million worth of gold in exchange for government bonds. He came to the rescue again during the panic of 1907.  THE STAT: Morgan was so good at saving troubled businesses that he got his own noun. In the early 1900s, the process of turning a firm around came to be known as Morganization.
By Portfolio.com

What do you call a man who personally bails out the U.S. Treasury twice? Brilliant? Yes. Warren Buffett? No. During the depression of 1895, John Pierpont Morgan replenished the Treasury with $65 million worth of gold in exchange for government bonds. He came to the rescue again during the panic of 1907.

THE STAT: Morgan was so good at saving troubled businesses that he got his own noun. In the early 1900s, the process of turning a firm around came to be known as Morganization.

1. Henry Ford

Drive, he said. And America listened. The father of the modern moving assembly line changed the world by selling his standard-issue Model T cheap—the price was $260 in 1924—and creating car lust. Ford also paid his employees well. In 1914, in a controversial move, he doubled most wages to $5 a day, which tamped down turnover, goosed productivity, and cornered the market for top engineers and mechanics. On the downside: He was famously anti-Semitic. THE STAT: Ford launched his eponymous car compa
By Portfolio.com

Drive, he said. And America listened. The father of the modern moving assembly line changed the world by selling his standard-issue Model T cheap—the price was $260 in 1924—and creating car lust. Ford also paid his employees well. In 1914, in a controversial move, he doubled most wages to $5 a day, which tamped down turnover, goosed productivity, and cornered the market for top engineers and mechanics. On the downside: He was famously anti-Semitic.

THE STAT: Ford launched his eponymous car company with just $28,000. By 1918, half the cars in the U.S. were Model Ts. Now that’s a return on investment!

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