This Is One Incredible CEO

The Motley Fool's readers have spoken, and I have heeded your cries. After months of pointing out CEO gaffes and faux pas, I've decided to make it a weekly tradition to also point out corporate leaders who are putting the interests of shareholders and the public first and are generally deserving of praise from investors. For reference, here's my previous selection.

This week, I'll turn your attention to my selection for CEO of the year in 2011, Ajay Banga, CEO of MasterCard (NYSE: MA  ) .

Kudos to you, Mr. Banga
There isn't much not to like about MasterCard's business model or the direction Ajay Banga has taken the company since he became CEO in July 2010.

The biggest concern for the two largest credit card processing companies -- MasterCard and Visa (NYSE: V  )  -- is whether or not consumer spending is growing or slowing. If global dollars transacted and volumes are falling, that would mean less processing revenue for these giants. However, I can't actually recall the last time we saw a steady decline in credit card usage since the deep recession of 2009.

MasterCard and Visa have notable advantages over some of the peers in the payment processing sector. Discover Financial Services (NYSE: DFS  ) and American Express (NYSE: AXP  )  -- both of which I think are fantastic long-term buys themselves, may I add -- process payments, but also have a separate credit lending division. While this allows these companies to double dip as both the processor and lender, it exposes them to bad debt expenses if delinquencies rise or the economy turns south. As payment processors only, MasterCard and Visa are exempt from the negative effects of payment delinquencies and defaults.

Another smart move Banga has pursued is pushing MasterCard into the prepaid debit and payroll card business. The 2010 Federal Reserve payment study, for example, showed that between 2006 and 2009, prepaid debit-card usage increased by nearly 15% per year. That's a huge market that's yet to be penetrated and Banga has MasterCard lined up to snare a significant chunk.

International and emerging markets are also a big part of Banga's plan to generate significant bottom-line growth. MasterCard's CFO Martina Hund-Mejean noted previously that 85% of all transactions around the globe are still conducted in cash . This leaves MasterCard and Visa plenty of untapped emerging market opportunity left to harness.

A step above his peers
In 2011, Banga won the honor of being my chosen CEO of the year because he led MasterCard to a greater than 50% gain in a year when financials performed abysmally. Today, I can give Banga credit for three additional reasons.

The first is MasterCard's increased efforts to return money to shareholders in the form of dividends and share buybacks. In February, the company approved a stock repurchase program worth as much as $2 billion and doubled its quarterly dividend to $0.60 from $0.30. Although the new yield is still microscopic at just 0.4%, I doubt too many investors are complaining with the share price up nearly 350% since January 2009.

Second, MasterCard does well by its employees. As you've come to expect with this series, I'm looking for examples of benefits and perks that go well beyond just supplying medical coverage and a 401(k)... and MasterCard certainly obliges. One of the greatest aspects of working for MasterCard is the flexible work hours. MasterCard understands its employees have lives beyond work, so it allows them to, in some cases, pick and choose their work hours. MasterCard also provides adoption assistance to employees and scholarships to eligible children of MasterCard employees.

Finally, MasterCard stays involved with the community. Not only does the company encourage employees to volunteer in community activities, but it also matches each employees' annual charitable contribution, dollar for dollar, up to $5,000 to their eligible non-profit organization of their choosing.

Two thumbs up
A little more than a year removed from the honor of being selected my top CEO and I'd have to say that Ajay Banga still hasn't missed a beat. The bottom line is still growing by double-digits as it attacks multiple fronts -- overseas markets, prepaid debit cards, and domestic payment processing -- and shareholders are being rewarded with share price appreciation, share buybacks, and a growing dividend. Furthermore, MasterCard is doing what's right by employees and the community. That's a formula for continued success and an easy reason for me to charge my thumbs up in the air in favor of Ajay Banga. 

With so much of the financial industry getting bad press these days, it may be a greedy when others are fearful moment. Not surprisingly, some of Warren Buffett's biggest investments are in the space. In the Motley Fool's free report, "The Stocks Only the Smartest Investors Are Buying," you can learn about a small, under-the-radar bank that's too tiny for Buffett's billions. Too bad, because it has better operating metrics than his favorites. Just click here to keep reading.


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