Fool Awards: Best CEO of 2008

It's never easy to lead a company. It's even harder when the economy is throwing you more knuckleballs than fastballs over the plate.

Take a breather, Warren Buffett. We're giving the defending 2007 champion a break this year. Not that there's anything wrong with Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) , mind you. We just don't want the Oracle of Omaha hogging up all of the hardware. 

In fact, none of the finalists from last year's list are in the running this time around. The five nominees for 2008 that we've culled for your consideration are:

  • John Thain, Merrill Lynch
  • Reed Hastings, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  )
  • Steve Ells, Chipotle (NYSE: CMG  )
  • Alan Mulally, Ford (NYSE: F  )
  • John Allison, BB&T (NYSE: BBT  )

John Thain
Thain cut his teeth as the master architect of the global consolidation at NYSE Euronext (NYSE: NYX  ) before moving on to Merrill Lynch. 2008 wasn't a great year for the investment banker, but at least Merrill made it to 2009 by getting great-for-the-times terms in its sale to Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) .

Reed Hastings
Hastings has been able to consistently grow the subscriber base for his DVD rental service. With the value of unlimited rentals by mail -- and now digitally delivered -- proving to be recession-resistant, Hastings made my shortlist of winning chieftains. Fellow Fool Anders Bylund agrees.

Steve Ells
Ells has seen his burrito-rolling empire come undone lately. After a streak of routinely trouncing analyst profit expectations since its IPO, dinged margins have dealt Chipotle a few mortal blows in recent quarters. The upside here is that comps remain positive at the restaurant level. Finding an eatery concept that is growing without caving in to $1 burgers is a refreshing find these days.

Alan Mulally
Mullaly may seem like an odd name in the list, but consider Ford's fate relative to its two domestic automaker rivals. Sure, Mulally blew it by taking a corporate jet to the bailout hearings, but Ford will be the last stateside carmaker to tap the government's bailout money.

John Allison
Allison retired as CEO at the end of 2008, but the BB&T leader merits more than just a shot at a lifetime achievement award. He has successfully assembled a collection of community banks, conservatively guiding the company in a sector that went subprime-wild.  

To whom will Buffett hand the prize this year? That's where you come in. Vote for who you think should be the Fool's choice for Best CEO of 2008.

See the rest of our Fool Awards nominees.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. Bank of America and BB & T are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. NYSE Euronext and Chipotle Mexican Grill are Motley Fool Rule Breakers picks. Netflix and Berkshire Hathaway are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. The Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz isn't even the CEO of his own house. He does own shares in Netflix, though. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2009, at 2:47 PM, vscmic wrote:

    I don't know all of these CEOs, but it sure seems like Alan Mulally is one of the greatest CEOs of the decade. In just a few years, he revolutionized Ford. Ford now beats the Japanese in design, innovation, quality and fuel economy. Mulally made the tough decisions a few years ago to trim costs and put Ford on the right path. Ford earned a profit earlier this year, before the economy hit the tank, and increased its market share in the worst auto market in a generation. We should all thank Mr. Mulally for ensuring that Ford does not need a government bailout, like Ford's competitors. This guy, with the help of a very competent management team, has earned the title of Best CEO of 2008.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2009, at 7:54 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    I am very glad to see Mulally on this list. It might be premature in the sense that his work is far from done, but what he has done at F so far is absolutely astounding: He has completely changed a giant company's long-entrenched culture -- and he did it in months. He gets my vote.

    John Rosevear

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2009, at 2:56 PM, SideShowMel0329 wrote:

    You have to go with Steve Ells here. CMG has seen a huge surge in popularity after it increased it advertising spending, switched to naturally raised meats only, and kept its prices steady even through the recession. It's the number one name in mexican food, you can get it fast, but it's better quality than fast food.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2009, at 2:20 PM, atopper wrote:

    I find it very difficult to believe that ANYONE would consider John Thain for this award.

    From what I understand, Bank of America is now reporting huge losses because they acquired Merrill Lynch. And just before BoA requested bailout funds from the government to help them survive their losses related to ML, Thain awarded huge bonuses to himself and other ML execs. I've heard he's using his new found wealth to buy an $87,000 area rug and $13,000 toilet.

    How does that work???????

    Washington treated CEOs of the Detroit 3 like they were a bunch of criminals, but they've given banks all the billions they've asked for without question!!!!!

    Any problems Ford is experiencing now is only because BANKERS - like Thain and his croonies - fouled up the banking sector. Now no one can even get a loan for a car!

    If it weren't for damage done to our economy by thugs like Thain, Ford would be doing just fine under Mulally's competent and brilliant leadership.

    He has turned Ford around - no doubt about it!!!

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2009, at 6:27 PM, youareallsuckups wrote:

    This is not what Ford needs right now; a new generation of suck-ups - Sorry but Toyota is a Japanese company - big surprise - they are number 1 - oops, forget that part did you?

    and you know why he didn't take the bailout - he would have to give up his salary - he could have gotten a lot cheaper loans with the Fed - but no, can't give up the $21million a year - whatever would he do - wait till the Chinese call in their loans - see where your wonderful CEO is then - I bet in West Palm with all the rest of them, laughing all the way to the bank

  • Report this Comment On February 13, 2009, at 6:37 PM, DiamondStarHalo wrote:

    I just want to clarify something that has been blown out of proprtion in the mainstream media, and that many, many folks aren't aware of: it is in the contracts of the CEOs of the Big 3 automakers that they cannot fly via commercial airlines. Yes, it "looked bad" for Mr. Mulally and the others to show up in Washington fresh off their corporate jets, but they were abiding by the covenants of their contracts with their repective employers. I suppose they could have borrowed vehicles from the company motor pool and driven from Motor City . . . when gas was about $4 a gallon.

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