WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY
From left: Hogan, CEO Nadella, Hood, and Smith form the inner circle that has brought Microsoft to new heights.(STUART ISETT)
“LEAD FROM THE BACK,” Nelson Mandela famously said, “and let others believe they are in front.” In a year dominated by political chaos and bluster, it was a rare brand of steady—even quiet—leadership that won the day in the business world. And no one epitomizes that brand of obsessively results-driven, team-based leadership more than our new No. 1 (turn the page to find out more). To create our annual list, we first screen for results, looking at 10 financial factors ranging from total return to shareholders to return on capital. Then we search for the standouts. The leaders who tackled audacious goals, overcame impossible odds, found creative solutions. Read on for how they—and their companies—thrived in 2019. You just might learn something about tackling a challenge of your own.
ASSEMBLING THE RIGHT TEAM
When Satya Nadella was named the surprise choice to lead Microsoft in 2014, it was glaringly obvious the many things he was not. A computer scientist who had risen through the technical and general-management ranks at the software giant, Nadella was neither a founder like Bill Gates nor a big-personality sales leader like his predecessor, Steve Ballmer. He’d never worked in finance, another training ground for CEOs. And his stature on the global stage was nonexistent. What’s more, having joined Microsoft in 1992, he was thoroughly steeped in a dog-eat-dog Microsoft culture that had contributed to the company’s stagnation.
Today, Nadella wears the gaps in his résumé as comfortably as the jeans and blazers that are his corporate uniform. Key to his leadership style is a willingness to delegate, particularly to three powerful members of his management team: president Brad Smith, who runs policy and legal affairs; Amy Hood, Microsoft’s chief financial officer; and chief people officer Kathleen Hogan. Each cuts a wide swath in areas many CEOs call their own, a state of affairs that suits Nadella just fine. “I’m wired to be fairly confident in myself and to let others shine,” he says.
It’s not that Nadella lacks an ego, and the robust financial results his company has racked up give him undeniable bragging rights. The company earned $39 billion on revenue of $126 billion in fiscal 2019, while growing revenue at a three-year compound annual rate of 11%. Profits by the same measurement have jumped 24%. Microsoft is worth the once-unheard-of valuation of a trillion dollars.
Nadella credits Smith, Microsoft’s longtime general counsel and previously an outside lawyer to the company, for leading policy initiatives on areas from cybersecurity to ethics in A.I. and privacy. A roving corporate ambassador, Smith has deftly positioned Microsoft, once the scourge of Washington and Brussels, as the most thoughtful and least under attack of its Big Tech cohort. Smith is perhaps even better known in global capitals than Nadella. The CEO’s take on that? “Brad was a senior leader in the company long before I was a leader in the company.”
Hood was appointed CFO a year before Nadella’s promotion. He says she plays an outsize strategic role, particularly when it comes to capital allocation: “If you look at what was happening to Microsoft’s growth rates, we’ve had to go through the hard journey of not having growth to having growth at scale. That only happens when you can give oxygen to new businesses long before they become growth businesses.” A prime example is the company throttling back on its Windows franchise to pay for investments in its successful cloud business.
As for Hogan, a Microsoft sales consultant before Nadella promoted her in 2015, the CEO refers to her as the senior leadership team’s “conscience” and a “constant auditor” of the company’s culture, no small task in a Microsoft that Nadella has pushed to grow from a “know-it-all to a learn-it-all” mindset. Hogan has spearheaded tweaks to Microsoft’s HR approach, including revising the company’s forced-curve review system, which encouraged internal competition, to measurements that reward individual achievement and collaboration. “The amount of programmatic work that needs to happen in order to make cultural transformation an everyday exercise is a fairly sophisticated organizational capability,” he says.
Microsoft’s recent win of a $10-billion cloud computing contract from the Pentagon encapsulates the team approach. Microsoft emerged as a technically competent bidder thanks to having invested heavily in a sector Amazon leads. It stayed out of a nasty inside-the-Beltway fracas that tripped up others. And because Nadella heard out—and then overruled—employees who opposed working with the government, Microsoft didn’t face a rebellion that might have given pause to contract-awarding officials.
“CEOs can only do what they do if they have an amazing team,” he says. “I’m blessed to have that.”
CEO FORTESCUE METALS GROUP
MANAGING THROUGH VOLATILITY
Elizabeth Gaines knows how to get off to a fast start. Since she took over as CEO of Perth-based Fortescue Metals Group in February 2018, the stock of the world’s fourth-largest iron ore miner has delivered a total return of 90% vs. 5% for Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 benchmark index, pushing the company’s market value to around $20 billion. And for Fortescue’s financial year ending in June, Gaines’s first full reporting period in charge, revenues jumped 45% (to a record $9.97 billion) and profits rocketed up 263% (to a record $3.2 billion).
CEO Gaines in Fortescue’s headquarters in Perth. In August, the Australian iron ore miner, founded in 2003, reported record sales and profits.(CLAIRE MARTIN)
Some of that spectacular performance can be attributed simply to market forces. Supply disruptions in the global iron ore market this year—including a dam disaster at a mine run by Brazilian giant Vale—combined with stronger than expected demand from China caused prices to spike from $75 per ton in January to as high as $122 in July, before plunging back closer to $80. To reduce costs, Chinese steel mills shifted to Fortescue’s products—which are of a lower grade, and thus cheaper, than the ore sold by Vale and Anglo-Australian rivals Rio Tinto and BHP.
But Gaines is quick to tick off reasons for Fortescue’s success that go beyond the price spike. “Stretch targets,” she says over the phone, with a soft laugh, “have always been a hallmark at Fortescue.”
She points out that the miner doubled the number of products it offers in 2019, from three to six, including its first-ever ore with a grade of higher than 60% purity. Greater efficiency boosted Fortescue’s average revenue per ton of ore produced by 48%. And some of those cost savings came from Fortescue’s fast-growing use of autonomous trucks to haul ore. The autonomous fleet travels more than 750,000 miles every month inside its mines, or more than twice the distance around Australia per day.
Though Gaines, 56, grew up in commodities-heavy Western Australia, she didn’t start her career in mining. She worked in private equity and served as the CEO of travel company Helloworld before joining the board of Fortescue in 2013. Gaines became CFO in 2017 and, later that same year, Fortescue’s billionaire founder, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, announced she would soon become the miner’s third chief executive. Her deputy CEO is also a woman, as are 26% of executives at the company overall and half of the board. Women, says Gaines, “are key to helping us reach our stretch targets.”
Since Gaines joined Fortescue, the company has radically reduced its net debt—from $10.5 billion in 2013 to just $500 million last quarter. With the balance sheet under control, Gaines is in investment mode: plowing nearly $4 billion into a pair of new mine projects—one set to begin production next year, the other in 2022—that will allow Fortescue to sell more high-quality ore. That should keep Fortescue out front, even if prices retreat.
GETTING THE BASICS RIGHT
Chipotle CEO Niccol.(SHAUGHN AND JOHN)
CEO CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL
Brian Niccol’s favorite food is spaghetti Bolognese.
That may seem like an odd choice, given that he’s spent his career reimagining fast food for the masses, first at Procter & Gamble—where he helped develop niche Pringles flavors—and then at Yum Brands, where he worked on Pizza Hut and helped turn around Taco Bell. And now, Niccol runs Chipotle Mexican Grill, the once beleaguered chain that has, under his watch, again become a Wall Street darling.
But growing up in a “big Italian family,” spaghetti was a beloved staple—and a classic example of how good getting the basics right can be. “When it’s done well, it’s one of those dishes you talk about for a while,” he says.
It’s an appreciation that has served Niccol well since joining Chipotle in March 2018. He was tasked with turning the chain around after a spate of E. coli food scares beginning in 2015. A raft of executives departed, and the stock sank some 66%.
The company had become defensive, Niccol says, rather than embracing the innovative approach to ethical eating that made it such a sensation in the first place. Oh, and customers told him the food had gotten, well, bland.
“We had to get better at making the food,” he says. Niccol began by shoring up the essentials, for instance, making sure employees were retrained in making guacamole the “culinary” way, tasting it to make sure the flavors were in balance. He then debuted some classic fast-food strategies Chipotle had long eschewed: launching ad campaigns and introducing new menu items, a rewards program, drive-thru windows, and additional assembly lines to meet delivery-only orders.
The changes have driven revenue growth of 13.1% to $5.4 billion over the past 12 months, and the chain quickly became one of 2019’s best-performing stocks, hitting a record high in July and again in October. Meanwhile, the company has delivered an impressive run of 12 consecutive quarters of revenue growth through the third quarter of 2019. In 2019, it expects to open 140 to 155 stores and, in 2020, up to 165—from just over 2,500 stores at the end of the third quarter of 2019. But even as the chain grows, says Niccol, “we can never go backwards on the things people already love about the business: the guacamole, the chips, the chicken, or—as my 8-year-old daughter would point out to me—the white rice,” he says.
And his job isn’t done. He admits he’s not quite happy with the queso—yet.
A good partnership, says Keane, is really like a “marriage.”(REBECCA GREENFIELD)
CEO SYNCHRONY FINANCIAL
FORGING THE RIGHT PARTNERSHIPS
As a Venmo user, Margaret Keane has just one gripe: “It’s mostly money going out,” she says, laughing. “I rarely get any money coming into my account.” She had been using the app ever since her son introduced her to it, primarily as a way to send money to younger relatives.
So when she learned that Venmo wanted to launch a credit card, she knew she wanted to go all-out to win the deal.
Synchrony, which split off from GE Capital in 2014, powers branded credit cards for the likes of Amazon, Google, Lowe’s, Banana Republic, T.J. Maxx, and PayPal (which, by the way, owns Venmo). But Keane understood this partnership required a unique pitch. “When you’re striking partnerships, you can’t get too comfortable and just rest on your laurels,” she says. Indeed, earlier in the year, Walmart had announced that, after a 20-year partnership with Synchrony, Capital One would become its new credit card issuer.
Keane organized a task force of millennial employees who worked across Synchrony’s technology groups to create “vignettes,” or potential scenarios (think: a ski trip with friends splitting costs), that best describe how the Venmo credit card experience should feel.
The credit card would have an in-app experience, a personalized touch, and a mechanism for rewards. Synchrony won the deal and, in 2020, will roll out the new offering to Venmo’s 40 million customers.
Keane’s fast-twitch sales muscles are part of what has powered Synchrony’s stellar results. Its stock delivered a total return to shareholders of 62% year to date, and it is outpacing rivals handily when it comes to both return on capital and return on equity.
Keane admits she isn’t sure Synchrony would have won the Venmo deal prior to 2014. That’s when Synchrony started making huge tech investments, including in cloud data centers, machine learning, predictive analytics, and robotics process automation to help drive speed and personalization. Synchrony has hired more than 170 data scientists, and its tech teams are among the fastest-growing groups within the firm, now numbering approximately 1,000 people. “The big investment we’ve made in technology has definitely paid off,” says Keane.
In the end, she notes, you can’t be complacent in any partnership. The word she likes to use for such long-term unions? They are, she says, “marriages.”
REDISCOVERING YOUR ROOTS
Meek Mill is thumping in the background at Puma’s new Manhattan flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Shoppers, many hailing from well out of town, browse the latest shoes, workout gear, and street fashions designed by Puma’s celebrity style gurus: Rihanna, Jay-Z, and, yes, the rapper, Meek Mill.
FIELD OF VISION Gulden, a former professional footballer, has brought Puma credibility among athletes.(DIRK BRUNIECKI)
“Cool” is how one Belgian shopper sums up the vibe. Yet just a few years ago, “cool” and “Puma” were seldom uttered in the same sentence. In 2013, Puma was losing everywhere. Sales were tanking. Market share was slipping. More ominously, the brand had little street or performance cred. Ballers wanted Nike. Skateboarders wanted Vans. Nobody wanted Pumas.
To regain the allegiance of athletes, Puma turned to one: Bjørn Gulden.
In his youth, Gulden was a footballer. He played soccer professionally in the 1980s in his native Norway and for two seasons in Germany for FC Nuremberg, just down the road from Puma headquarters. A midfielder, he wasn’t much of a goal-scorer. His talent lay in a kind of supercharged field vision that’s stuck with him all these years. After his career ended, he went on to earn his MBA and later to manage divisions at Adidas and Helly Hansen and to run Danish jeweler Pandora.
When he took the helm at Puma in July 2013, Gulden zeroed in on the “Forever faster” brand mantra, which came to embody the entire business strategy. “Puma is about fast products, fast athletes, fast designs, and fast decision-making,” Gulden told the markets when introducing his turnaround strategy.
It’s working. Six years on, Puma is on pace to nearly double sales to an estimated $6 billion in 2019 and more than double operating margins. Those collaborations with Rihanna and Jay-Z as well as hits like the Clyde shoe (originally made famous by the Knicks’ Walt “Clyde” Frazier in the 1970s) have propelled Puma to nearly 20% year-over-year sales growth in its left-for-dead U.S. business. The brand is as cool in Brooklyn as it is in Beijing. Says Berenberg analyst Graham Renwick: “At the rate they’re growing, they should be closing in on No. 3 globally” behind Nike and Adidas. Over three years, the stock has returned 232%.
Says NPD’s Matt Powell: “Puma has read the market well.” Guess it’s that vision thing.
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