The bottom has dropped out of the banking business, brokerages are floundering, home foreclosures are soaring, and the threat of recession looms. What better time to inaugurate a list of the smartest executive moves of the year?
Picking the winners is a subjective process, to be sure, and open to plenty of debate. And being smart is not the same as doing the right thing-though, thankfully, the two usually go hand-in-hand.
Appearing on Portfolio.com's list of the Ten Smartest C.E.O. Moves doesn't necessarily mark a great year for anyone. Indeed, being on the list doesn't mean an honoree is himself is smarter than his peers, just as exclusion isn't meant to imply the opposite.
But making does mean that the lucky winners were savvy enough-or lucky enough-to avoid embarrassment, make a mint, or just keep their job.
And, so, our nominees...
1. Pete Peterson of Blackstone
Quitting while he was ahead.
Okay, so he's technically not a C.E.O., but Blackstone Group chairman and cofounder Pete Peterson deserves credit for superb timing in cashing in his chips. Blackstone's I.P.O. in June came when the firm was at the height of its power -- and just on the eve of a series of major blows to the private equity industry.
Unlike Blackstone C.E.O. Steve Schwarzman, who opted to take much of his share in stock options, Peterson walked away from the offering with $1.88 billion in cold, hard cash. Hindsight confirms what a smart move he made: Blackstone shares now trade at just two-thirds of their $31 initial offer price.
2. Steve Jobs of Apple
Steering blame to his underlings.
Call Steve Jobs the Teflon C.E.O.-while most chief execs have been serving as target practice for frustrated investors, Jobs and his iconic black turtleneck remain immune to public ire.
After scores of backdated stock option grants came to light, Apple Inc.'s board rallied behind Jobs and passed the buck on to former General Counsel Nancy Heinen and ex-finance chief Fred Anderson-even after conceding that Jobs had been aware of and involved in the backdating.
3. Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide
Having fortuitous timing for share sales.
Angelo Mozilo, wily C.E.O. that he is, managed to net $132 million by selling Countrywide Financial stock before it became public knowledge that half of the lender's business had evaporated in the first six months of the year.
Mozilo's luck caught the attention of one investor in particular: The state treasurer of North Carolina, Richard H. Moore. In an October 8 letter to Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Christopher Cox, Moore wrote: "As an investor and a Countrywide shareholder, I was shocked to learn that C.E.O. Angelo Mozilo apparently manipulated his trading plans to cash in, just as the subprime crisis was heating up and Countrywide's fortunes were cooling off."
The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating. Mozilo denies impropriety, saying the stock sales were part of a routine series of transactions planned without reference to nonpublic information about the company.
4. Satoru Iwata of Nintendo
Beating out Sony and Microsoft with the Wii.
Nintendo's latest entertainment system, the Wii, introduced an innovative concept in gaming while rivals produced by Sony and Microsoft were still following the same old rules.
Nintendo's system, which sells for nearly half the price of the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, has seen tremendous successes and more than doubled the company's sales since it came out last year.
Holiday sales of the Wii are already off to a breakneck start, and the company warned of shortages as the Christmas holiday approached.
5. Robert Nardelli of Chrysler
Persuading someone to hire him so quickly.
One would think that Robert Nardelli would be stuck reading the "Help Wanted" section for a while following his ignominious ouster from Home Depot. After all, an embarrassingly bloated pay package, poor stock performance, and abysmal shareholder relations are not exactly resume gold.
But in August, Cerberus made the surprising announcement that Nardelli would replace Thomas LaSorda as C.E.O. of Chrysler. However, Cerberus has learned from Home Depot's mistakes-Nardelli's base salary will be $1, and all compensation will be performance based.
6. Michael Dell of Dell Computer
Taking matters into his own hands ... again.
In the three years since Michael Dell turned his company, Dell Computer. over to Kevin Rollins, it began missing earnings, lost its lead in the P.C. market to Hewlett-Packard, and saw the start of an S.E.C. investigation for possible accounting improprieties.
It was, to say the least, an uncomfortable position for a company that until 2004 was mowing down its rivals as numero uno in P.C. sales, and gaining market share. So in January, Dell stepped back into the C.E.O. seat to fix what Rollins had broken.
7. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs
Seeing the subprime meltdown on the horizon.
While most of Wall Street was on the ropes following this summer's credit crunch, Goldman Sachs suffered nary a blow. Why? Under Lloyd Blankfein's leadrship, the company had a superior hedging strategy in advance of the subprime meltdown, choosing to short C.D.O.'s as well as sell them.
Some people are crying foul now, citing Goldman's well-known tendency to be on both sides of most really lucrative ventures, but that's just sour grapes.
8. Richard Grasso of the NYSE
Tirelessly defending that ridiculous pay package.
If first you don't succeed, try, try again.... Richard Grasso scored a major win for greedy executives everywhere when he turned the tables in the fight for his outsized compensation package.
Efforts by Eliot Spitzer, New York's attorney general at the time, to block Grasso from extracting $187.5 million in pay from the New York Stock Exchange (strictly speaking a nonprofit organization at the time, now a for-profit company called NYSE Euronext) were successful in lower courts, but in May Grasso got an appeals court to throw out four of the six charges.
9. Jack Weil of Rockmount Ranch Wear
Being able to hang on as C.E.O. 61 years.
"Papa Jack" Weil founded Denver-based apparel company Rockmount Ranch Wear in 1946, and he remains C.E.O. to this day.
At 106, Weil is the oldest chief exec in the country and rumor has it he still goes to work every day. Which is more than you can say for James Cayne.
10. Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil
Picking a good time to be C.E.O.
When Lee Raymond stepped down as C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil in April of 2006, Rex Tillerson inherited a company that was virtually printing money. Oil prices have more than tripled since 2005, now within sight of $100 a barrel, and Exxon has managed record-breaking profits as a result.
Thanks to refinery bottlenecks, shaky geopolitics, and federal tax breaks, Tillerson hasn't had to do much beyond cash his check and not touch the controls.Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.