This topic is an all-time favorite, and you will see almost everyone writing about their favorites in a different hierarchical order. Obviously, because of individual differences and halo effect, the choices and rankings differ as there is no well-defined formula for success. Even researchers that use specific metrics to assess the greatness of CEOs fail to cover it all. Our list here features 15 of the all-time favorite CEOs from 15 different industries, and if you happen to disagree or have a favorite to add to the bunch, please add your comments below.
Steve Jobs – Apple Industry: Technology
Steve Jobs makes the top of our list without contradicting anyone’s views, hopefully. It is inspiring how Steve Jobs carved Apple’s future from scratch, and then 11 years later, returned to change the fate of the company from loss to profits after his initial departure at 30 years old. He brought a revolution in technology through the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and animation industry through Pixar. Today, Apple Computers is the most successful company globally, with a $1.285 trillion market capitalization.
Jeff Bezos – Amazon Industry: E-Commerce
Only intelligent brains like Bezos can think of turning an online bookstore into the most successful dot-com enterprise. Under Bezos ownership, Amazon now owns Zappos, IMDb, Alexa Internet, AWS, and Audible.com. Risk is a part of the entrepreneurship journey, and Bezos is successfully undertaking it to mint profits. His risky bets, from allowing other retailers to sell via Amazon to offering free shipping at the expense of profits to increase market share, have made Amazon.com a $96 billion market cap and the most prominent online retailer globally. Through the Kindle alone, Amazon made huge profits during the great recession of 2008 and coronavirus of 2020.
Elon Musk- CEO of Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Neuralink, and The Boring Company Industry: Neurotechnology and Infrastructure
This guy is a “Jack of all and also a master of all!” He has shown the world that honest, intelligent, hard work only brings success. We all know about his accomplishments at Tesla Motors and SpaceX, so we will cover Neuralink and the Boring Company here. But in case you want to know more, click here. At Neuralink, Musk is developing implantable brain-computer interfaces. It sounds like a sci-fi movie, and for sure it is. The Boring Company is working at enabling high-speed, long-distance travel. According to the latest reports, Elon is the wealthiest person on the planet, and his company SpaceX, which produces rockets, is valued at $46 billion.
Sam Walton – Wal-Mart Industry: Retail
Walmart is the biggest chain of supermarkets that every American needs in their life, and the credit goes to Sam Walton. Under Sam’s guidance, Walmart embraced technology quickly and became the first major retail chain to install electronic scanners at cash registers linked to a central inventory-control computer. During 1970, the company did an IPO; sales increased from $313 million to $1.2 billion, and the number of stores increased by more than eight times. In 1991, when the country was struggling financially, Walmart was growing sales by more than 40%. In 1992, President George Bush presented Walton with the Medal of Freedom. In 1998, he was recognized as one of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century by Time magazine and CBS News.
When the Oracle of Omaha bought textile company Berkshire Hathaway, little did anyone think that it would be the biggest holding company owning more than 60 companies one day. Hathaway now owns insurer Geico, battery maker Duracell, and restaurant chain Dairy Queen. The Kraft Heinz Food Company (formed by Warren Buffet’s partnership with 3G Capital) is the third-largest in North America and fifth largest in the world with $28 billion annual revenue. He is the only person who saved Goldman Sachs from a big crisis twice and built a fortune in the process.
John D. Rockefeller – Standard Oil Industry: Oil
John D. Rockefeller, who became the world’s first billionaire, did not leave any stone unturned to make Standard Oil the owner of 90 percent of the nation’s refineries and pipelines oil business. Rockefeller’s empire started small but soon acquired 22 petroleum firms in Cleveland. John was an outstanding business magnate who brought cheap traveling to America. His net worth peaked in 1912 to $900 million ($19 billion in today’s dollars). In the later years, Standard Oil was divided into more than 30 individual companies).
Frederick W. Smith – FedEx Industry: Logistics
Frederick W. Smith was the kind of CEO everyone wants to remember for his commitment to keeping the company afloat. When FedEx lost $29 million in its first 26 months, Smith brought $27,000 to the company by winning bets at the Blackjack table. He developed the first integrated air-ground shipping system, revolutionizing the shipping industry. Overnight delivery helped the company grow within 2 years, with 14 jets servicing 25 cities. Under his guidance, FedEx Corp. grew to a $75 billion global transportation, business services, technology, and logistics company serving more than 220 countries and territories.
Indra Nooyi- PepsiCo Industry: Beverage and Food
Nooyi, the first woman CEO of PepsiCo, showed the direction to Pepsico when she could see a giant competitor, the Coca Cola Company. She oversaw Tropicana Products’ acquisition in 1998 and a merger in 2001 with the Quaker Oats Co. In 2010, under her guidance, the company acquired the two biggest soda bottlers for $7.8 billion. Credits to her courage and farsightedness that even though Nooyi cut down spending during the great recession, she did not hold back on the restructuring and diversification costs. She made Pepsi the largest producer of food and beverages in Russia. Indra also restructured the company by bringing in KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell—into Tricon Global Restaurants (which later became Yum! Brands, Inc.). When Indra stepped down in 2018, the company had more than 260,000 employees and $64.7 billion in revenues.
Oprah Winfrey- Harpo Productions and Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Industry: Multimedia Production
When most people struggle to manage one company, Oprah has been successfully managing two. She is the first African-American billionaire and the third woman in the American entertainment industry to own her studio with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion. Harpo Studios publishes books and produces television shows, movies, and radio programs. In 2018, she bagged a multi-year content partnership with Apple’ for its TV service for her company and has exclusive deals with HBO to her credit. In 2006, in an interview, Winfrey declared her intentions of never going public and has been true to her word till today.
Katharine Graham – Washington Post Industry: Publication
Katharine Graham’s leadership saw the company grow to become one of the nation’s major diversified media corporations with newspaper, magazine, television, cable, and education. Her career’s defining moments were publishing the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Scandal, making the newspaper the most influential and powerful newspaper in the nation. Graham, the pioneer for women in business, became the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company, whose tenure rose the company’s stock by 30 times.
Bill Allen – Boeing Industry: Aerospace
Bill, who started as a lawyer, came up with the idea of diversifying Boeing from a bomber specialist to a world-class airplane maker. He guided the production of Boeing 707, 727, 737, and 747. Boeing developed the first stage booster to the Apollo-Saturn V rocket and the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft under his leadership. To add to it, he also introduced the B-47, B-52, and KC-135 and was awarded the Collier Trophy for the B52. He was the longest-serving President with a tenure of more than 2 decades, earning the Tony Jannus Award for his commercial aviation contributions. Today Boeing is stamped as the world’s largest builder of commercial aircraft.
Mary Barra – General Motors Industry: Automobiles
Mary Barra is the first female CEO and the third-largest individual shareholder of General Motors. Barra led the company through the 2014 ignition switch defect crisis and purchased the $1 billion Cruise Automation in 2016 as a part of the company’s autonomous vehicle strategy. She courageously did a massive restructuring by closing five factories, dropping six car models, and shedding 15,000 jobs to increase profitability. Barra remains committed to the company’s plan to invest $20 billion in all-electric and autonomous vehicles through 2025.
Gail Boudreaux – Anthem Industry: Health Insurance
It seems like Boudreaux has been a CEO all her life, starting from GKB Global Health, LLC to United HealthCare and now Anthem. But this isn’t true as she has worked her way to the top. She is leading Anthem Inc, a Fortune 50 company, providing health insurance to approximately 78-million-members across 27 states. Boudreaux has been a leader within the healthcare industry for more than three decades, because of which the company’s stock plummeted by 20% within 2 years of her tenure. She led the acquisitions of America’s 1st Choice, HealthSun, and Aspire Health. Gail has been named one of Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Business and was awarded the 2018 Billie Jean King Leadership Award.
Mark Parker – Nike Industry: Manufacturing
Parker has taken the company’s products a notch up by embracing innovation and prioritizing design. Parker has successfully appealed to the street style generation with his bestsellers, including but not limited to Free Runs, Air Max, and Fly Knit product lines. In 2009, Nike absorbed the soccer company Umbro and, in 2012, expanded its Portland-area campus by more than 500,000 square feet. In 2014, the company made a significant commitment to sustainability, including green manufacturing. It had 500 patents in 2015 alone, and all of this happened under Parker’s leadership. It’s said that the company grew 3 times after Parker became CEO, with annual sales of $39.1 billion and 76,700 employees. In 2015, he was named Fortune’s Business Person of the Year.
Bob Iger – Disney Industry: Entertainment
Bob Iger joined Disney as CEO in 2005 and has been a peace-maker throughout his tenure that grew the company’s profit revenue 335%, to $260 billion. Under his leadership, Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion, Marvel for $4 billion, Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, and 21st Century Fox for $71.3 billion. Disney is now the second-largest media company in the world. Iger also created more than 70,000 new jobs at Disney. He has also set the stage for the launch of Disney+, a seed that will harvest the best fruits in the coming years.