The best CEOs grow their businesses, reward their shareholders, and position their companies for long-term success. Among tech firms, there were several CEOs that did a fantastic job in 2014, but a few in particular stood out.
Although activist investors often bemoan a lack of quality managers, there was no shortage of strong tech executives this year. Many, including Apple's Tim Cook and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, could've easily made this list -- their shareholders certainly benefited in 2014.
But the three I've selected went further: Not just rewarding their investors, but steering their respective firms in a new direction.
Honorable mention: Satya Nadella, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)
Microsoft wasn't the best-performing big-cap tech stock of 2014 (though a market-beating 27% return isn't anything to scoff at), but as a leader, Nadella's performance was especially noteworthy.
Under his stewardship, Microsoft's future has begun to take shape. Going forward, the Windows-maker will focus on "productivity and platform[s]" for the "mobile-first and cloud-first world." This phrase seems to denote an emphasis on software and cloud services, somewhat eschewing Microsoft's brief detour into devices undertaken by Nadella's predecessor, Steve Ballmer.
Symbolizing this shift, one of Nadella's first acts was to release Microsoft Office on the iPad -- a move Ballmer had long resisted. More recently, Microsoft has gone further, making that version of Office (along with Office for iPhone and Android devices) free. Both initiatives jeopardize the success of Microsoft's own hardware, and even its Windows operating system, but help to ensure that its Office software suite remains the preferred business productivity package for years to come.
Runner-up: John Chen, BlackBerry (NYSE:BB)
Before John Chen, BlackBerry looked hopeless. The Canadian tech giant's bet on its new mobile operating system, BB10, appeared to have been a gigantic failure -- its handset business, which had been decimated by the rise of the iPhone and Android-powered handsets, was all but doomed.
But somehow, Chen has managed to stave off what once seemed inevitable. BlackBerry shares rose more than 40% in 2014, as Chen's plan for BlackBerry's future began to take shape.
Late last year, Chen announced a deal with Foxconn, partnering with the Chinese supplier to manufacture its handsets over the next five years. Then it June, it signed a deal with Amazon.com, bringing its app store (and the thousands of mobile apps it contains) to the BB10 platform. At the same time, BlackBerry pushed ahead with new devices, releasing a few unorthodox handsets (including the oddly shaped BlackBerry Passport). None of these moves seem likely to catapult BlackBerry to the top of the mobile world, but have helped to stem the persistent losses the company had faced prior to Chen's appointment.
BlackBerry has also begun to pivot into new markets: In May, it announced Project Ion, it's long-term bet on the growing Internet of Things trend. Using QNX, its embedded operating system, BlackBerry hopes to play a central role in the market for connected devices, helping enterprises collect data from a web of connected objects.
Winner: Andrew Wilson, Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA)
In September 2013, Andrew Wilson took over what was one of the most-hated companies in America. The video game giant, Electronic Arts, had continued to profit from its strong slate of well-known intellectual property (Madden, FIFA, Battlefield, among others) but the quality of its games was slipping.
Under Wilson's leadership, Electronic Arts has undertaken an aggressive effort to reform its public image, hiring a key executive from Starbucks -- Chris Bruzzo -- to win back discouraged customers. At the same time, the company appears to have strengthened its commitment to quality.
Electronic Arts has pushed forward with new methods of distribution, launching EA Access -- a first-of-its-kind, subscription-based digital service for older Electronic Arts titles -- in the summer. In a year full of high-profile gaming disappointments, Electronic Arts released two of the year's best-received titles, Titanfall and Dragon Age: Inquisition, the later of which has received Game of the Year accolades.
These moves, in addition to consistently strong earnings reports, have propelled shares of Electronic Arts nearly 100% in 2014, making it one of the year's best-performing tech stocks.
Sam Mattera has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.