Celebrity CEOs, Part 2 – Visionary Founders

What is a ‘Celebrity CEO’?  When I use the term, I mean “business CEOs whose names are widely known to the general population.”

In my last post, I observed that (at least today, at the largest American-based companies) celebrity CEOs seem to be more prevalent among high-tech companies.  Is there something about high-tech that makes it fertile ground for celebrity CEOs?  I think there is, but it’s more a matter of timing (and today’s business climate) than something inherent in technology companies.

The most obvious class of celebrity CEOs is the Visionary Founder.  Generally, these are people who, through their innovations, have transformed an industry (or created one).  In many cases, their transformations have been much broader.  Following are the famous CEOs people think of in this class:

Looking back to the list I posted last time, a few of the high-tech CEOs on that list also fit the Visionary Founder description:

I think the Visionary Founder is most often seen in industries that are new or are evolving quickly.  When new companies grow explosively from humble beginnings to huge influence, their founders often become the face of that new sector.  That’s true of high-tech today and has been true for several decades.  The earliest examples included William Hewlett and David Packard, founders of Hewlett-Packard. 

That kind of growth is less common in other sectors today.  However, looking back 100 years or more, we see that a similar pattern of Visionary Founders in the emerging industries of those days:

  • Andrew Carnegie – Carnegie Steel Company
  • Henry Ford – Ford Motor Company
  • Conrad Hilton – Hilton Hotels
  • J.P. Morgan – J. P. Morgan and Company
  • John D Rockefeller – Standard Oil

We can find similar examples from the second half of the 20th century:

  • Mary Kay Ash – Mary Kay Cosmetics
  • Ray Kroc – McDonalds
  • Ralph Lauren – Polo and Ralph Lauren
  • Ted Turner – CNN
  • Sam Walton – Wal-Mart

Today’s celebrity CEOs aren’t isolated to new business sectors.  We’ve seen quite a few others in recent years:

  • Giorgio Armani – Armani
  • Howard Schultz – Starbucks
  • Phil Knight – Nike
  • Richard Branson – Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways and dozens of others
  • Oprah Winfrey – Harpo Productions and Oprah Winfrey Network

All of these CEOs founded and built companies that transformed their industries.  Next time, we’ll explore some of the other “categories” of celebrity CEOs.

For now… I’ll leave you with this thought:
 
Visionary Founders can become famous as their companies grow. 

That’s common (but not limited to) in emerging industries, which is why we see so many today in high-technology companies.

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