CNBC Titans

Top Execs Who Started at the Bottom

Mailroom Moguls

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The American Dream. We all know it well—the ability to set out with few prospects and little experience and work our way up the corporate ladder, one rung at a time. It’s the prospect of starting from the ground up and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps in the hopes of one day achieving tremendous success. Perhaps “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt comes to mind when you think of the great men and women of our time who have accomplished just that. There are plenty more, however, who started
Photo: New York Times Co. | Archive Photos | Getty Images

The American Dream. That celebrated ability to set out with few prospects and little experience and work one's way up the corporate ladder to the very top. There are plenty of successful executives who have done just that — starting their careers in the lowliest of low-tier jobs: the mailroom.

Click ahead for a glimpse of some of America's top executives who started out sorting mail and making copies, and rose to the top of their fields.

By Kirsten Chang
Posted 11 August, 2011

CNBC Titans: Barry Diller premieres Thursday, August 18 at 10 p.m.

Simon Cowell

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Occupation: A&R Executive, TV Producer, “The X Factor” JudgeMailroom: EMI RecordsCowell—best known for his stinging insults and bitter bluntness on the British “Pop Idol” and then Fox’s “American Idol”—began his career in the mailroom of EMI Records and worked his way up to become an executive producer with the BMG label, signing boy bands Westlife and Five—acts that scored multiple No. 1 singles in the U.K. and throughout Europe. Despite being nicknamed “Mr. Nasty” over the years, his true succ
Photo Background: Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images

Occupation: A&R Executive, TV Producer, “The X Factor” Judge
Mailroom: EMI Records

Cowell—best known for his stinging insults and bitter bluntness on the British “Pop Idol” and then Fox’s “American Idol”—began his career in the mailroom of EMI Records and worked his way up to become an executive producer with the BMG label, signing boy bands Westlife and Five—acts that scored multiple No. 1 singles in the U.K. and throughout Europe. Despite being nicknamed “Mr. Nasty” over the years, his true success is built on his TV-friendly personality and his devotion to churning out premier musical talent.

Cowell is now worth a reported $85 million, thanks in part to a deal that lets him sign “Pop Idol” winners to his own record label.

Dan Adler

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Occupation: Vice President at Walt Disney ImagineeringMailroom: Creative Artists AgencyThe “bootstrap” mentality was always in Adler’s blood. Adler’s father—orphaned as a teenager and liberated from Auschwitz—served in the U.S. Army before joining the mailroom of a Cleveland-based manufacturing company. Adler sought a similar beginning for himself 25 years ago, when he ventured out across the country to begin his journey into the realm of new media. The day after arriving in Los Angeles, Adler g
Photo Background: John M. Heller | Getty Images

Occupation: Vice President at Walt Disney Imagineering
Mailroom: Creative Artists Agency

The “bootstrap” mentality was always in Adler’s blood. Adler’s father—orphaned as a teenager and liberated from Auschwitz—served in the U.S. Army before joining the mailroom of a Cleveland-based manufacturing company.

Adler sought a similar beginning for himself 25 years ago, when he ventured out across the country to begin his journey into the realm of new media. The day after arriving in Los Angeles, Adler got a job in the mailroom of the Creative Artists Agency. He rose quickly through the executive ranks and became vice president at the world’s largest media conglomerate, The Walt Disney Co.

Wally Amos

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Occupation: Founder of “Famous Amos”Mailroom: William Morris AgencyRarely do our snacks inspire us as much as Amos’ aunt’s confectionary treats inspired him.While attending the Food Trades Vocational High School, Amos lived with his aunt, whose homemade chocolate chip cookies led him to develop his world-renown recipe.After working in the William Morris Agency mailroom, Amos became the firm’s first African American agent, attracting clients by sending them cookies and inviting them to visit.With
Photo Background: Dudley M. Brooks | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Occupation: Founder of “Famous Amos”
Mailroom: William Morris Agency

Rarely do our snacks inspire us as much as Amos’ aunt’s confectionary treats inspired him.

While attending the Food Trades Vocational High School, Amos lived with his aunt, whose homemade chocolate chip cookies led him to develop his world-renown recipe.

After working in the William Morris Agency mailroom, Amos became the firm’s first African American agent, attracting clients by sending them cookies and inviting them to visit.

With a $25,000 loan from Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy, Amos launched his first “Famous Amos” store in 1975—a name that quickly spread to supermarket shelves across the country.

George Bodenheimer

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Occupation: President of ESPN and ABC’s Sports DivisionMailroom: ESPNCable industry pioneer George Bodenheimer is ESPN’s longest-tenured top executive, and he leads one of the world's premier brands with more than 50 business entities. Bodenheimer worked his way up to executive vice president of sales and marketing in 1996. In 2003, he was also appointed president of ABC Sports, overseeing all multimedia sports assets of The Walt Disney Co., and in 2004 he assumed the role of co-chairman of Disn
Photo Background: Getty Images

Occupation: President of ESPN and ABC’s Sports Division
Mailroom: ESPN

Cable industry pioneer George Bodenheimer is ESPN’s longest-tenured top executive, and he leads one of the world's premier brands with more than 50 business entities. Bodenheimer worked his way up to executive vice president of sales and marketing in 1996. In 2003, he was also appointed president of ABC Sports, overseeing all multimedia sports assets of The Walt Disney Co., and in 2004 he assumed the role of co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, in charge of strategic planning for Disney's media assets.

In 2008, The Sports Business Journal named Bodenheimer the most influential person of the year.

John Borghetti

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Occupation: CEO of Virgin Blue GroupMailroom: Qantas AirwaysBorghetti, who became CEO of Virgin Blue Group in May 2010, is starting to put his stamp on the airline business. Embodying the spirit and noble work ethic of his Italian migrant family, Borghetti climbed the corporate ladder to become the company’s executive general manager, in charge of domestic and international operations. He also took on responsibility for all full-service airlines in the Qantas Group in 2006. Borghetti left Qantas
Photo Background: Greg Wood | AFP | Getty Images

Occupation: CEO of Virgin Blue Group
Mailroom: Qantas Airways

Borghetti, who became CEO of Virgin Blue Group in May 2010, is starting to put his stamp on the airline business. Embodying the spirit and noble work ethic of his Italian migrant family, Borghetti climbed the corporate ladder to become the company’s executive general manager, in charge of domestic and international operations. He also took on responsibility for all full-service airlines in the Qantas Group in 2006. Borghetti left Qantas after working there for 36 years, and got on board at Virgin Blue, transforming the company into what former CEO Brett Godfrey calls "a new world carrier."

Helen Gurley Brown

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Occupation: Former Editor-in-Chief of CosmopolitanMailroom: William Morris AgencyBrown, long-time editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan hasn’t always lived in the stylish lap of luxury.After working as a clerk, Brown was a secretary at the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. Brown’s boss recognized her gifted writing skills and made her a copywriter, where she became one of the nation's highest paid ad copywriters in the early 1960s.Brown wrote the bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl” and became
Photo Background: John Lamparski | Getty Images

Occupation: Former Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan
Mailroom: William Morris Agency

Brown, long-time editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan hasn’t always lived in the stylish lap of luxury.

After working as a clerk, Brown was a secretary at the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. Brown’s boss recognized her gifted writing skills and made her a copywriter, where she became one of the nation's highest paid ad copywriters in the early 1960s.

Brown wrote the bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl” and became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan in 1965, where she reversed the failing magazine’s fortunes.

In September, 2008, Slate named her the 13th most powerful American over the age of 80.

Barry Diller

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Occupation: Chairman of Expedia and IAC/InterActiveCorpMailroom: William Morris AgencyMedia mogul Barry Diller used his family ties to obtain a post in the William Morris Agency mailroom.“My great strategy was to take what was seen as the worst job in the building—photocopying,” Diller said, according to David Rensin’s “The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up.” “I’d collect things to copy, along with as much of the file room as I could carry, and hole myself up reading through the his
Photo Background: Kevin Mazur | WireImage | Getty Images

Occupation: Chairman of Expedia and IAC/InterActiveCorp
Mailroom: William Morris Agency

Media mogul Barry Diller used his family ties to obtain a post in the William Morris Agency mailroom.

“My great strategy was to take what was seen as the worst job in the building—photocopying,” Diller said, according to David Rensin’s “The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up.” “I’d collect things to copy, along with as much of the file room as I could carry, and hole myself up reading through the history of the entertainment business as seen through every deal, every development, every contract … I read their entire file room.”

Diller was later hired by ABC and put in charge of negotiating broadcast rights to feature films. As vice president of development in 1965, Diller pioneered the concept of the made-for-TV movie. Nine years later, he served as chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures.

As of April 2011, Diller's estimated net worth was $1.3 billion.

Dick Grasso

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Occupation: Former NYSE ChairmanMailroom: New York Stock ExchangeThe New York Stock Exchange’s high-powered executive kicked off his career in 1968, when he was hired as a floor clerk in the mailroom of the exchange.Grasso moved up rapidly in the ranks, becoming president of the exchange and then chief executive in the early 1990s. As CEO, he was widely credited with cementing the NYSE's position as the pre-eminent U.S. stock market and landmark icon of American commerce. After the Sept. 11, 200
Photo Background: Daniel Acker | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Occupation: Former NYSE Chairman
Mailroom: New York Stock Exchange

The New York Stock Exchange’s high-powered executive kicked off his career in 1968, when he was hired as a floor clerk in the mailroom of the exchange.

Grasso moved up rapidly in the ranks, becoming president of the exchange and then chief executive in the early 1990s. As CEO, he was widely credited with cementing the NYSE's position as the pre-eminent U.S. stock market and landmark icon of American commerce. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Grasso became the public face of the exchange and was praised for his role in helping restore and restart its trading operations.

Ron Meyer

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Occupation: President & COO of Universal StudiosMailroom: William Morris AgencyAs a high-school dropout, Meyer knew his prospects in the film industry were slim. At 19, he searched desperately for a job, starting out as a driver for the Paul Kohner Agency, then becoming a mailroom clerk. Meyer became a talent agent himself in 1964.In 1975, he and a few friends formed the Creative Artists Agency, opening up a rented office with nothing but card tables, folding chairs, and their wives working as t
Photo Background: Getty Images

Occupation: President & COO of Universal Studios
Mailroom: William Morris Agency

As a high-school dropout, Meyer knew his prospects in the film industry were slim. At 19, he searched desperately for a job, starting out as a driver for the Paul Kohner Agency, then becoming a mailroom clerk. Meyer became a talent agent himself in 1964.

In 1975, he and a few friends formed the Creative Artists Agency, opening up a rented office with nothing but card tables, folding chairs, and their wives working as their secretaries. Today, Meyer heads Universal Studios and is the longest serving chief of a major motion picture company in the history of Hollywood.

Sidney Weinberg

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Occupation: Former Goldman Sachs CEOMailroom: Goldman SachsWeinberg, long-time leader of investing giant Goldman Sachs, didn’t rise to power on a path of glamor or an Ivy League education. He started out as a janitor's assistant, earning $3 per week by brushing hats and wiping mud from the firm partners’ shoes. Weinberg became a clerk soon after.Years later, Weinberg became a trader and Goldman bought him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1925. He took over the investment trusts when the
Photo Background: Mark Kauffman | Time & Life Pictures | Getty Images

Occupation: Former Goldman Sachs CEO
Mailroom: Goldman Sachs

Weinberg, long-time leader of investing giant Goldman Sachs, didn’t rise to power on a path of glamor or an Ivy League education. He started out as a janitor's assistant, earning $3 per week by brushing hats and wiping mud from the firm partners’ shoes. Weinberg became a clerk soon after.

Years later, Weinberg became a trader and Goldman bought him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1925. He took over the investment trusts when the firm’s market value plummeted more than $490 million, and served as CEO from 1930 until his death in 1969.

CNBC Titans: Barry Diller

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"CNBC Titans" profiles remarkable people who made careers turning the “unthinkable” into reality and companies that grew from humble roots to worldwide recognition.Get the real stories behind some of the most famous icons, the greatest companies and the giants of industry who helped build them. Discover the key to their fortune and the passion that drove their success. They changed the world and how you do business — and lived to tell the tale.CNBC Titans: Barry Diller premieres Thursday, Aug. 1

Barry Diller is one of the most successful media titans in history. As CEO of Paramount Pictures, creator of the Fox Network and CEO of InterActiveCorp, Diller revolutionized the media industry.

CNBC Titans: Barry Diller premieres Thursday, Aug. 18 at 10 p.m. ET