We've all heard of the great business leaders of the world who always seem to be in the news, like Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, or Tim Cook from Apple. But there are plenty of terrific executives out there who quietly go about their days and have produced extraordinary results for customers and shareholders, without ever seeing their names on the front page.
We asked our team of Motley Fool contributors to put forward someone who tops their lists of a top-notch business executive who doesn't often make the news. Here is a list of five business leaders who we think the world should know a little bit better.
Brian Feroldi: While Jeffrey Boyd might not currently be a name that comes to mind when you think of top-notch executives, he's certainly on my list of top business executives given the incredible returns that he generated for investors during his tenure as CEO of The Priceline Group (BKNG 1.72%).
Boyd took the reins of Priceline during a very difficult time in its history, as the company was still suffering from the fallout of the dot-com implosion. Priceline's stock, once a dot-com darling, was in free fall at the time that he took over, with sales and profits plummeting. Shares ended up bottoming out for around $1.10 per share during the quarter that he was tasked with turning the ship around.
Boyd moved quickly, and decided that Priceline was too heavily focused on its "Name your own price" strategy in airline ticket sales. He decided that the company should instead focus its efforts on the hotel market, which offered more attractive economics, and he started to aggressively pursue international expansion opportunities.
The strategy change helped to right the ship, and in 2005, Boyd spearheaded the purchase of booking.com, which may go down as one of the most successful acquisitions in Internet history. Revenue and profits for its international division soared as booking.com expanded its massive lead in Europe. Boyd then continued his acquisitive ways -- he purchased Asian travel site Agoda.com in 2007 and also looked to shore up his stateside position in 2013 when he purchased meta-search site Kayak.
These smart strategy changes saved Priceline from the dot-com fallout and turned the company into the $60 billion travel behemoth that it is today. Investors who were smart enough to buy the stock when he took over and held until he left were rewarded with a mind-boggling 9,000% return. Better yet, Boyd left the company in terrific shape, and is currently serving as Chairman of the Board, so investors who want to buy into this rapidly growing travel giant can still enjoy the benefits of his leadership.
Sean Williams: Sometimes, the best leaders fly under the radar. This is exactly the case with PC-maker Lenovo's (LNVGY -0.77%) current CEO, Yang Yuanqing.
Yuanqing is a champion of innovation at Lenovo (which we'll get to in a moment), but even more so, he's been doing what's right for his employees since day one. With a net worth of more than $1 billion, Yuanqing isn't hurting for income, so he felt it right in both 2012 and 2013 to share his executive bonus with his employees.
Yuanqing's bonuses in 2012 and 2013 were $3 million and $3.25 million, respectively, meaning Lenovo's roughly 10,000 workers received a $300 to $325 bonus. While that may not sound like much, this is about equal to the average Chinese workers' monthly pay. It's long been stated that a happy workforce is a productive workforce, and Yuanqing's selfless actions clearly show he and Lenovo are looking out for the interests of its employees.
But Yang is also an innovator. He's currently transforming Lenovo into more than just a PC company -- even though Lenovo has been handily maintaining its lead as the top-selling PC brand, and enterprise PC demand is still generally strong. Yang is pushing Lenovo into the cloud-based servers, software, and even smartphones. The company even recently changed its logo, symbolic of its transformation into a broader technology company. Even with some recent bumps in the road Lenovo's stock has quintupled since its recession lows.
It's tough to say what the future might hold for Lenovo; but one thing for sure is that its leader is top-notch, and that certainly bodes well for the company over the long run.
Jordan Wathen: Great companies are built on great capital allocators -- people who look at a business as a mechanism for compounding money. In this regard, few are as good as Tom Gayner, Chief Investment Officer of Markel Corporation (MKL -1.54%).
Markel is a specialty insurance company that has done well by adequately pricing its policies so that the bulk of its wealth can be invested in stocks. Tom Gayner manages the portfolio, and his record is incredible. From 2003-2014, his stock investments have generated a return of nearly 13% compared to a return of 9% for the S&P 500 index during the same period.
Having a skilled stock investor at the helm of a profitable insurance company creates enormous returns for shareholders over the long haul, as underwriting profits pile on top of the returns on the insurer's stock portfolio. But unlike other insurers with legendary investors -- Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A -0.81%) (BRK.B -0.27%) being a familiar example -- Markel's $4.4 billion stock portfolio isn't yet large enough where size begins to create a drag on returns. Based solely on his record, I wouldn't be surprised if Gayner's performance is just as good 10 years from now as it has been during the last 10 years.
Jason Hall: Warren Buffett is regarded as one of the greatest business executives and investors ever, and he's about as well-known as they come. However, two of his lieutenants, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, are almost complete unknowns. The thing is, Buffett has said that both men, whom he brought to Berkshire Hathaway as portfolio managers in 2010 and 2011, respectively, have regularly outperformed the Oracle himself, with their portfolios outperforming Buffett's stock picks.
During the past year or so, both managers have also taken on more responsibility at Berkshire, with each taking on chairman duties at a Berkshire subsidiary. In other words, these two men are only becoming more important to Berkshire -- both today and in years to come. Here's another great example.
Berkshire's big recent news is its $37 billion acquisition of aerospace parts manufacturer Precision Castparts, which will be the largest in the company's history once it's complete. Todd Combs was integral in that acquisition, having introduced Buffett to the company and its CEO on a recent visit to meet with Combs at Berkshire's headquarters. According to Bufett, he wasn't even aware of the company until Combs started buying shares in it a few years ago.
Eventually, Buffett won't be making the big investing decisions at Berkshire. Having successful and devoted investing managers like Weschler and Combs around to take the reins bodes well for Berkshire investors.
Eric Volkman: My pick isn't a well-recognized name, yet is, quite literally, a highflier. Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines (LUV -0.23%), has managed to keep his company aloft in a tough industry beset by constant challenges. Southwest has historically been seen as an underdog in a business led by bigger incumbents. But unlike most of them, it has landed consistently -- make that relentlessly -- in the black throughout its history. In fact, it's currently got a streak of 42 straight years of bottom-line profitability.
More than a quarter of that stretch has been under Kelly's tenure. Since then, he's pushed the company to increasingly more impressive heights -- 2014's bottom line was the highest in that decades-long history, and was 51% higher than the 2013 tally.
Kelly has a smart, gritty, and instinctive approach to his job, running Southwest more like a young enterprise with something to prove than a reigning incumbent. For example, the company's famous "Bags fly free!" standard is an increasingly bold, counter-intuitive move that deepens customer loyalty and helps distinguish the airline from competitors. Kelly has launched a number of similarly clever initiatives since taking over in 2004, and he's unquestionably a key reason for the company's continued success.