ROCKVILLE, Md. — Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) shareholders and gadget geeks are mourning the loss of the company’s iconic founder. Apple has been one of the few true growth stories on Wall Street lately, and the death of Steve Jobs at just 56 years old makes you wonder if we have any good stocks — and more importantly, any good leaders — remaining.
True, the headlines make it seem like only charlatans get to be CEOs these days, and shareholders have to fear executives more than trust them. An overpriced MBA and a golden parachute are more common than they should be in corner offices.
But take heart. While Steve Jobs was a cultural force the likes of which the world might never see again, there still are wise and talented leaders out there right now. These CEOs share the Apple founder’s ability to create value for shareholders and employees, and to define their industry to both competitors and consumers alike.
Lest you think such success depends on an iPhone-like innovation, it’s worth noting that gadgets were only part of the Steve Jobs story. There was his focus on a long-term vision that trumps the quarterly drumbeat of the Street. There was his shrewd use of capital to grow and cripple competitors. And above all, there was his desire to connect completely with customers so his product would almost sell itself.
Lest you think Steve Jobs was the only one who understood these concepts, here are five CEOs who think like he did:
James Sinegal, Costco
What the heck does a 30-gallon tub of mayonnaise at Costco (NASDAQ:COST) have to do with the iPad? Probably not much. But when it comes to innovative business builders — guys with a long-term focus on shareholder value and connecting with consumers in new ways — Steve Jobs and James Sinegal were two peas in a pod.
Sinegal co-founded Costco and has been president since 1983. His innovations made Costco the first warehouse club to include fresh food, eye-care clinics, pharmacies, gas stations and other businesses previously thought out of place on retail floorspace. Under Sinegal’s leadership, shares of Costco are up 2,800% and have paid modest dividends since 2004.
Perhaps the most Jobs-like quality Sinegal has is his desire to put the “user experience” above everything else. For a retailer, that means customer service — and happy, motivated employees who feel they have a stake in the company. About four out of every five Costco workers get health care and benefits, even though about half are part-timers. The average wage is $19 an hour, and there have been no layoffs in the recession.
In this respect, the Costco founder actually might be one up on Steve Jobs. Many Apple critics malign the company’s outsourcing to Asia, while Sinegal managed to create an industry leader that offers livable wages to almost 150,000 Americans — all while COST stock beats the market and is on track to turn a cool $1.4 billion in profits.
The only question is whether Costco can keep this up after Sinegal steps down at the end of the year.