This year, picking out poor CEOs was like shooting fish in a barrel. Even with the S&P 500 generally unchanged year to date, it just seemed like corporate scandals and a lack of fiduciary responsibility were constantly in the spotlight.
That's why I'm excited to instead present to you 10 CEOs who are deserving of a pat on the back after an impressive 2011 campaign. Just like the "Worst CEOs of 2011" that I covered earlier this month, this list will be in two parts and in reverse order. Below I tackle No. 10 through No. 6:
10. James Rogers, Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK )
This was an exciting year if you were a Duke Energy shareholder -- and that's saying something, because this stock hasn't exactly been anything to write home about for the better part of a decade. As one of the nation's largest electric and natural gas utilities, Duke regularly relies on the overall health of the U.S. economy to determine how strong or weak future earnings will be. Given an endless parade of bad news out of Europe and fears of both a Chinese hard landing and a U.S. economic slowdown, I would have expected Duke's outlook to be cautious. But it wasn't -- and that's why James Rogers gets the nod as the 10th-best CEO of 2011.
Mr. Rogers did something this year that hasn't been done in years: He made the utility sector exciting again! Earlier in the year, Duke announced a proposed merger with Progress Energy (NYSE: PGN ) , which will, if approved, create the nation's largest utility. As a combined entity, Duke and Progress would encounter huge savings related to operational synergies, which should ultimately boost the bottom line. This should only add to the earnings guidance boost the company announced in early November.
Last but not least, Duke continued to put shareholders first by announcing a modest 2% increase in its dividend. Even though the stock's trading at multiyear highs, the dividend yield is still an impressive 4.6%.
9. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
Yes, I'm cheating! Facebook hasn't gone public...yet -- but the way I see it, it's only a matter of time. The reason Mark Zuckerberg finds his way onto this list is based on one critical decision he made in September: to delay the filing of Facebook's IPO until sometime in mid-to-late 2012.
With countless social media sites hungry for cash in order to expand, many rushed their offerings to market and created one of the ugliest years on record for IPOs since the Internet bubble burst in 2001. Renren has fallen more than 85% from its 52-week high, while LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD ) has shed almost half of its value since touching a high of $122 on its first day of trading. These are just two of an overwhelming batch of absolutely underwhelming companies -- some of which haven't turned a profit in their history. No decision could have been smarter for Facebook's future value than to delay its IPO filing until the market is more accepting of Internet IPOs.
Then again, Facebook's growth is nothing to sneeze at either. Based on user data from July 2010 to July 2011, Facebook's user base grew by 50%, and it boasts the second-largest brand name according to the Nielsen rating agency. Facebook is sitting in the driver's seat for 2012, and Mr. Zuckerberg has two hands on the wheel. This should be a fact that prospective shareholders should come to appreciate when Facebook finally does go public.
8. Joseph Craft, Alliance Resource Partners (Nasdaq: ARLP )
If this name sounds familiar, that's because I've mentioned Alliance Resource Partners as one of the "10 Mid Caps to Rule Them All" and as a "Dividend Champion" this year. To put it mildly, it was a company I thought highly of entering 2011, and that's why I picked its leader, Joseph Craft, as the No. 8 Best CEO of 2011.
While all the companies on this list are looking out for their shareholders' best interests -- a primary reason their leaders all wound up as the Best CEOs of 2011 -- perhaps none consistently reward their shareholders more than Alliance Resource Partners. The company, which produces and markets coal used by electric power plants for energy generation, has raised its dividend for 14 consecutive quarters! Currently yielding 5%, Alliance Resource might be one of the strongest must-own dividend-paying stocks. To add to this, the company is on pace for its 11th straight year of record income. The company delivers for its shareholders, period! With management alluding to strong growth again in 2012, I feel Joseph Craft deserves some major kudos for this company's continued outperformance.
7. Steve Jobs, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL )
If this were a cumulative award and not just an award tied to 2011, Steve Jobs would have easily been my top choice. He single-handedly revolutionized the way we think about and use technology, turning once-clunky gadgets into easy-to-use and portable devices. But sticking to 2011 and 2011 alone, Steve Jobs didn't have to do much to earn himself a spot as a top CEO -- the technology he helped to create took care of that for him.
Without question, Apple remains the gold standard against which all other tech companies are compared. This year, we witnessed the emergence of the iPhone 4S, which set records by selling more than 4 million units in just the first week. The company also posted huge sales and profits, again boosting its cash balance. Although there isn't a dividend payment in the works for Apple, Steve Jobs did the next best thing he could do for shareholders -- he paid himself a $1 yearly salary for the past 15 years and rarely exercised his stock options.
Mr. Jobs' passing left Apple teetering on the verge of being the largest company in the world by market valuation and certainly one of the strongest, if not the strongest, brand name in the world. He's a revolutionary who will be missed and Apple shareholders can definitely give their thanks to Steve Jobs for the 25% gain in their stock this year.
6. Howard Schultz, Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX )
Just three short years ago, it looked like Starbucks' glory days might be behind it. Sales were slumping for the first time in its history, and consumers were turning to McDonald's and up-and-comer Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (Nasdaq: GMCR ) for their coffee needs. Then Howard Schultz reentered the scene from stage left, setting in motion a series of events that has culminated in Starbucks reemerging as the dominant coffee brand around the world.
2011 is shaping up to be another record year in sales for Starbucks, and it has Schultz's three primary ideas to thank for that. First, Schultz has made it a concerted effort to continually introduce new drinks into the stores to keep customers intrigued. Secondly, Starbucks has rebranded itself, with many of its stores getting facelifts in the past three years. The more inviting the locations are, the more willing consumers are to spend money. Finally, and most important, Starbucks eliminated its biggest competitor, Green Mountain and its Keurig single-cup serving system, by allying itself with the enemy. Starbucks wasn't going to beat Green Mountain at its own game, so it chose to join it instead rather than let precious market share be eaten away.
But don't think Howard has forgotten about the shareholders who have stuck by his side, either. In its most recent quarter, Starbucks boosted its quarterly dividend by 30% to $0.17 and expanded an already existing share buyback by an additional 20 million shares. Although Schultz earns a lot more than $1 per year, shareholders would probably agree that, based on recent results, he's worth every penny!
And if you like top stocks, I invite you to grab your copy of our latest free report, "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012," in which our analysts have highlighted a company they feel very strongly about for the upcoming year.