Viewpoint: CEO of the Century

Sept. 21, 1999
Picks for CEO of the Century only slightly easier than Major League Baseball all-century team.

In an agonizing decision-making exercise, I sat down with a weighty book of baseball statistics and, after much hemming and hawing, marked my ballot for the 25 players on Major League Baseball's all-century team. (There was no room for both Sandy Koufax and Bob Feller. I gave the heave-ho to Koufax.)

That was a brilliant end-of-century promotion, the baseball folks had. The voting, which ended Sept. 15, created a buzz about their product, reinforced the sport's heritage, and got consumers involved.

We at IW missed a splendid opportunity by not sponsoring a similar vote among our audience for the top 25 industry CEOs of the century. But I'll take a stab at naming an all-century CEO team. I'm limiting it to 10 names -- the same as a baseball lineup including the designated hitter. And I'm limiting it to manufacturing, because that's IW's bag.

Some of my choices are entrepreneurs who founded dominant companies. Others are professional managers who were (or are) builders, rather than founders of their firms. Some of the more recent CEOs also are on the list, frankly, because I've interviewed them and found them to be neat people.

All, though, make the list because of their influence on their industries and on management generally. My list is exclusively male (Let's hope a 21st century list would include women). And it is embarrassingly American. (But this has been, after all, an American century.)

Here, in more or less chronological order, are my choices:

1. Andrew Carnegie. He founded U.S. Steel (now USX) in the first year of the century and built it into an economic titan that epitomized the U.S.'s industrial might for decades. Along with John D. Rockefeller (who isn't on the list because he basically was a 19th century man), he also set the tone for corporate philanthropy.

2. Henry Ford. You could no more leave him off the list than you could leave Babe Ruth off an all-century baseball team. He founded Ford Motor Co., automated assembly-line production, and introduced low-priced cars for the masses -- arguably the most pervasive single influence on 20th century society.

3. Thomas J. Watson Jr. Few companies have so bestrode an industry so completely as IBM Corp. did under him for many years. When he took over the company from his dad in 1952, few had heard of it. But in his two-decade tenure as CEO, he made the firm synonymous with computer -- and so famous that "Big Blue" has become the world's best-known cooperate nickname.

4. Alfred P. Sloan Jr. All he did in his years (1923-46) at the helm of General Motors Corp. was drive it from a one-of-the-pack auto company into the world's largest industrial corporation for much of the century. He perfected the concepts of disciplined professional management and decentralized operations with corporate oversight.

5. Akio Morita. Morita cofounded Sony in 1946 and in 47 years as its leader made it what many consider the world's first truly global company and best-known brand name.

6. Irving Shapiro. You won't see his name on many lists such as this, but his stint as head of Du Pont & Co. in the 1970s came at the time a welter of new federal agencies greatly expanded government's influence on U.S. business. A Democrat, he helped found the Business Roundtable in 1972 and led the way in convincing U.S. corporations of the need to forge closer relations with government. As the leader of a chemical company, he spearheaded greater environmental awareness by corporations.

7. Robert W. Galvin. Taking over Motorola, a family company with $200 million in annual revenue in 1959, he led it for 31 years, reinventing it into the $30 billion Goliath it is today. In the process, he revolutionized the communications industry and pioneered an emphasis on quality in U.S. manufacturing. Besides, he returns journalists' phone calls.

8. Andy Grove. Someone from Silicon Valley has to be on the list. I could have picked David Packard, but Grove -- the man behind Intel Corp.'s meteoric rise -- has personified U.S. leadership in high technology. He also gets my vote because he exemplifies the American dream, emigrating to the U.S. from Hungary with only pennies in his pocket.

9. Jack Welch. He's winding down as probably the greatest in a long list of legendary General Electric CEOs. Maybe he's the "CEO of the century" in the "company of the century." The pool of management talent he's developed has been a farm system for the current crop of American corporate CEOs. And how many companies have adopted his strategy of selling businesses in which they aren't No. 1 or No. 2?

10. Bill Gates. Say what you will about the guy, he's created the dominant company in the dominant industry at century's end -- information technology. And, yes, he's made a bit money in the process. Tough choices. Many others are deserving, but I'll defend these. (I'll also defend why Feller got my vote over Koufax in the baseball poll. He lasted longer and missed five prime years of his career serving in World War II.)

William H. Miller is an IndustryWeek senior editor based in Washington, D.C.

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