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5 CEOs That Play to the Cheap Seats

Where their products are concerned, these 'chief evangelists' lead by example

By Susan J. Aluise, Aviation, Auto & Transportation Writer

HardHatCEOs wear a lot of hats — “strategist,” “organizational architect,” “team-builder” and “agenda-setter” all rank near the top in terms of importance.

But when assessing the value that a CEO brings to the company in today’s hyper-competitive business environment, don’t sell short the power of evangelism.

Although the term “chief evangelist” was borne from tech startups, the function of getting employees, prospective customers or partners and investors excited about the company and its products or services is part and parcel of the top job. While all CEOs are chief evangelists for their companies in some way, some go beyond “talking the talk” to “walking the walk.”

And in this context, that means putting their proverbial money where their mouths are by using their own products. While that looks different from company to company (and carries wildly divergent risks depending on the product and market), here are five CEOs who have determined to lead by example:

Elon Musk: Tesla Motors Chairman, CEO and Product Architect

ElonMusk185CEO Since: 2008

Let’s say you’re a wildly successful serial entrepreneur, you’ve got a passion for electric vehicles and your Model S is flying out of dealer showrooms — and boosting your company’s stock to boot. What’s next?

You take your show on the road.

That’s exactly what Tesla Motors (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk is planning to do at the end of the year: drive his electric Model S 3,200 miles cross-country from Los Angeles to New York — with his five sons in tow — over a period of just six days.

The trip will build on Tesla’s expansion of its free Supercharger network announced in May. By the end of the year, the recharging network is slated to connect most of the major metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada.

While Musk is confident enough in his Model S that he believes it can go the distance with only nine hours spent charging, dicey weather and few refueling stations in America’s heartland potentially could extend the trip beyond the planned six days. Not to mention the likelihood of unscheduled stops when Musk’s sons — 8-year-old twins and 6-year-old triplets — start asking Dad the inevitable question for preteen kids on long car trips:

“Are we there yet?”

Robert Kaiser: PPSS Group CEO

RobertKaiser185CEO Since: 2009

It’s one thing to take a long drive to prove your product’s mettle; it’s quite another to take a bullet for it. But that’s exactly what our next CEO — U.K.-based PPSS Group’s Robert Kaiser — did recently.

You see, PPSS is entirely focused on designing, developing and manufacturing protective equipment and clothing — with a particular focus on hard-core threats like firearms, edged weapons, hypodermic needles, blunt trauma and human bites.

But don’t just take Kaiser’s word that his personal protective products are up to scratch — he stands behind their performance — literally. Check out this video of Kaiser testing the performance of one of PPSS Group’s covert bulletproof vests — by being shot with live ammo from a high-performance Glock 19 from a distance of just 9 feet!

Don Thompson, McDonald’s President and CEO

DonThompson185CEO Since: 2012

Don Thompson — the former aerospace engineer and 23-year McDonald’s (MCD) veteran who succeeded Jim Skinner as CEO in the top job in June 2012 — doesn’t have to take a physical bullet for his company. But other kinds of attacks can wound, too — and his company is far from bulletproof on the PR front as a growing chorus of health advocates takes aim at fast-food firms.

When 9-year-old Hannah Robertson took the floor at MCD’s shareholder meeting in May and asked Thompson to stop “trying to trick kids into eating your food all the time,” the CEO responded that his company “doesn’t sell junk food.” He also revealed that he and his children eat McDonald’s food.

At an analyst conference, Thompson revealed that he actually has lost 20 pounds during the past year while still eating at Mickey D’s “every, single day.” Thompson pointed out that he lost the weight by increasing his physical activity.

Hubert Joly, Best Buy CEO

HubertJoly185CEO Since: 2012

It has been a tough couple of years for Best Buy (BBY), which has seen its sales gutted by e-tailers like Amazon (AMZN). BBY shares plummeted after former CEO Brian Dunn left amid allegations of an improper relationship with a female employee; Chairman Richard Schulze’s attempt to take the consumer electronics firm private short-circuited.

Enter Joly, whose reputation as a turnaround artist was on display at Vivendi Universal Games and in the French unit of what is now Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) EDS.

But Joly didn’t simply settle in at the top: he donned a blue shirt, hit the sales floor at BBY’s stores in Minnesota and started learning the retail business from the ground up.

His strategic about-face to embrace the big-box stores as a strength and to cut partnership deals with Microsoft (MSFT) and Samsung (SSNLF) for product boutiques inside the stores has stemmed the erosion in same-store sales. However, investors likely were less impressed when Joly sold some $17 million in BBY stock this week to help pay for his divorce.

Michael Hoffman, Toro Chairman and President

MichaelHoffman185CEO Since: 2005

No matter how populist a corporate chief executive sounds, it’s hard to really believe that he (or she) is a regular person, just like us. But Michael Hoffman, chairman and CEO of outdoor equipment manufacturer Toro (TTC), has a better chance than most of convincing us that he’s an average guy who spends his weekends getting his lawn ship-shape.

You see, Hoffman, his wife and his son mow, weed and water their yard themselves instead of hiring a landscaping service. Last year, he “test drove” a new Toro device designed to measure soil moisture to prevent under- and over-watering. The product is a residential version of a wireless moisture sensing device that was developed for golf courses — and is installed at Target Field, the Minnesota Twins’ baseball team’s home park.

Hoffman installed the Toro sensor, which works in concert with in-ground sprinkler systems, then watched over the next several weeks as it passed what he calls “the driveway test.” During last year’s wet spring, Hoffman noticed that a strip of the driveway next to his lawn was not getting wet from the sprinkler — an indication that the wireless sensor was telling his sprinkler system that the lawn was getting enough water from the rain.

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media,

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