In a given year, investors will cheer any number of corporate leaders for delivering shareholder-friendly profit, but only a handful of leaders stand out as deserving of even greater praise. These select few navigate the tough times as well as they do the good times, in the process positioning their companies to reward investors for the long haul. We asked three Motley Fool contributors to share with us who they think are the best of the best CEOs.
Cheryl Swanson: Alex Gorsky parachuted into rough terrain when he became the CEO of sprawling healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) in 2012. The former West Point grad and Army Ranger faced massive problems. Among other things, dozens of recalls of consumer staples such as Tylenol and Motrin had badly tarnished the consumer giant's once sterling reputation.
J&J isn't completely out of the woods in its consumer-products segment, but under Gorsky's leadership, it has revamped supply chains, standardized manufacturing, and greatly increased internal checks and balances.
Earlier this year, Gorsky unloaded the company's poorly performing Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics unit for $4 billion, part of his roadmap to streamline operations and increase shareholder value. All year long, he has successfully refocused the company on the higher-margin business of pharmaceuticals.
As Fool contributor Sean Williams pointed out, the company is sitting on a practical gold mine of blockbusters, including blood cancer drug Imbruvica. Gorsky has said the company intends to launch 10 new pharmaceutical products between 2014 and 2017.
In April, J&J marked the company's 52nd year of dividend increases by raising the dividend 6%, as well as announcing a share repurchase of $5 billion in common stock.
"Rangers lead the way" is a well-known Army Ranger motto. Luckily, for J & J, thus far it seems to be proving true in corporate leadership as well.
Dan Caplinger: The CEO who impressed me the most this year was Whole Foods Market's (NASDAQ:WFM) John Mackey. After seeing the stock soar more than tenfold since the depths of the financial crisis, Whole Foods suffered another crisis of confidence late last year, as investors worried about slowing growth rates and the onset of competition from both similarly focused niche organic and natural-foods stores and mainstream grocers. The stock gave up more than a third of its value, and many people concluded that the days of the premium-grocery chain's being able to command huge margins were over.
Yet co-CEO Mackey remained dedicated to the guiding principles behind Whole Foods' business, as the pace of demand growth for organic products appears likely to remain at double-digit percentage levels well into the future. By paying as much attention to keeping workers happy as on bringing customers in the door, Mackey creates employee loyalty and gives his people incentives to contribute their own good ideas toward the collective whole.
Most importantly, Whole Foods has started publicizing its leadership position with a brand-new marketing campaign that promotes the chain as America's Healthiest Grocery Store. By changing the nature of the conversation about Whole Foods away from its perception as a high-end premium-priced store to the quality of the products it offers, Mackey has restored shareholder confidence and has also reawakened the store's customer base -- a vital component of the company's future success.
Leo Sun: Since being appointed as Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) new CEO in February, Satya Nadella made it clear that he isn't afraid to sacrifice margins to expand its defensive efforts against Google and Apple.
For years, Microsoft milked its Windows and Office cash cows while ignoring Google and Apple's growth in cloud and mobile-based ecosystems. Yet Microsoft's slavish dependence on operating system and productivity software upgrades was abruptly disrupted by Google's free cloud-based alternatives. Meanwhile, Apple took smartphones and tablets mainstream, two areas in which Microsoft had minimal market presence.
Nadella changed Microsoft's habit of pursuing safe profits over innovation. In April, Microsoft made Windows (8, RT, and Phone) free for devices under 9 inches. In May, it unveiled Windows 8.1 with Bing, a low-cost version of Windows to help PC manufacturers challenge Google's Chromebooks. In November, it made Office free for iOS and Android devices. Windows 10 could even be a free upgrade for Windows 8.1 when it arrives next year. All these margin-sacrificing, market share-grabbing moves will lead into the arrival of Windows 10, a unified OS for PCs, tablets, and phones that will tether more users to its cloud-based ecosystem.
Nadella's approach -- which replaces the company's old "Windows First" mantra with a cloud-based "One Windows" philosophy -- finally made Microsoft an exciting stock to own again.
John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Cheryl Swanson and Leo Sun are long Apple. Dan Caplinger is long Apple, Google, and Whole Foods. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A and C shares), Johnson & Johnson, and Whole Foods Market and owns shares of Apple, Google (A and C shares), Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, and Whole Foods Market. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.