When it comes to investing, it can be easy to bury our noses in balance sheets, cash flow statements, and analyst ratings while trying to divine the next homerun stock. In the process, we often forget that companies are real, tangible things run by real people.
What a business looks like on paper matters up to a point. However, there is no substitute to knowing who is actually running the companies that we own. Over the years, a few CEOs have demonstrated their ability to focus on what really matters and translated their unique vision into profitable investments for shareholders.
Below, Motley Fool contributors highlight three such leaders and what made them stand apart. Read on to see why Elon Musk of Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), Howard Schultz of Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), and Robert Iger of Disney (NYSE:DIS) have been true architects of success for their companies.
Tim Beyers (Disney): In March, Disney will celebrate 10 years with Bob Iger at the helm.
Plenty has changed since the dark days of 2005. Back then, the late Roy Disney had been leading a campaign to "Save Disney" from Michael Eisner, a long-tenured but controversial mogul. Iger stepped in to replace Eisner as CEO, kicking off one of the most transformative decades in Disney's 92-year history.
Iger deserves much of the credit for these gains. After all, he and his team are the ones who convinced the board at Disney to spend nearly $16 billion to acquire Pixar Animation (2006), Marvel Entertainment (2009), and Lucasfilm (2012), effectively securing a top position in young boys entertainment after years of appealing mostly to girls. Consumer products sales are up materially as a result -- from $2.215 billion in fiscal 2005 to $3.985 billion in fiscal 2014, according to data supplied by S&P Capital IQ.
Disney is also spending less and doing more at the box office. Operating margin in the Studio Entertainment Group is up from 2.76% in fiscal 2005 to 21.28% last year on the strength of two Marvel movies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy combined for over $1.48 billion in global box office receipts and nearly $400 million in estimated gross profit.
Mix in a profitable Interactive Division producing hit games such as Disney Infinity, a dominant and growing Parks group, and strong Cable results from the likes of ESPN, and you have the makings of one of the most impressive media empires in the world.
Not bad for a business that, just ten years ago, needed saving. Iger has done that and more.
Brian Stoffel (Starbucks): As a young man visiting Italy, Howard Schultz realized that coffee shops were about more than just espresso. He saw that they were a "third-place" for citizens, in addition to home and work. It was in coffee shops that communities came together. Inspired by this vision, he thought the same could be true for America.
Between taking the company public in July 1992 and April 2000, Schultz planted the seeds to grow Starbucks into what it is today. During that time, shares of the company jumped 1,300%. But soon after, Schultz left his position to focus on "global strategy" and then went on to run the Seattle Supersonics.
While he was away, Starbucks lost what made it special. Over the next eight years, Starbucks shares returned only 118%. Not terrible, but it was certainly a far cry from what investors had previously enjoyed.
Though growth was always part of the company mission, Starbucks lost its focus after Schultz left. The company expanded too quickly, focused on too many products, and forgot that -- at its core -- it was all about creating a place where community could come together.
Schultz recognized this, and when he rejoined as CEO in 2008, he set about addressing these issues. He closed underperforming stores, slowed growth domestically, and put the focus back where it belonged: on coffee and creating the right experience for customers.
Since then, shareholders have experienced a return of 350%, and Starbucks has gotten back the mojo that made it so special in the first place.
Tamara Walsh (Tesla): We would be remiss to discuss visionary leadership in business without mentioning Elon Musk, the outspoken mastermind behind PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors. Under his leadership, Tesla has grown from a niche electric car upstart into one of the most disruptive automakers of the 21st century. With Musk leading the way, Tesla shares went from being the most shorted stock on the Nasdaq in 2011 to one of the best performing stocks in 2013. Last year, shares of Tesla rose nearly 48% compared to a gain of 11% for the S&P 500.
Tesla Motors now boasts a market cap of $25 billion. "For me it was never about money, but solving problems for the future of humanity," Musk told Smithsonian magazine. The California-based company is now selling its zero emissions cars in 14 countries outside the U.S. including Canada, Australia, Norway, Austria, and China, to name a few. Moreover, as Tesla vehicles begin to gain traction in new markets around the world, it should significantly accelerate revenue growth for the company going forward.
Without Musk and his visionary leadership, Tesla would not even be half the company it is today. He is revolutionizing the sustainable energy industry and even space exploration in ways that others once considered impossible. For Tesla shareholders, it is also encouraging to know that Musk has skin in the game. In May 2013, for example, he invested an additional $100 million of his personal wealth into Tesla Motors during a secondary share offering. Musk should continue to carry Tesla to new heights in the years to come.