Best of the Best – The 10 Top CEOs for 2013

InvestorPlace experts weigh in on the top head honchos of the year

It’s that time of year where the consequences of being naughty or nice come home to roost. And that makes it a good time to reflect on the performance of big-shot CEOs to determine which ones did the most good for their businesses and shareholders in 2013.

elon-musk-tsla-jeff-bezos-amznWhile hefty compensation packages and outlandish perks make it easy to take shots at big-time execs, some of the best CEOs more than earned their keep this year.

InvestorPlace experts recently voted on on which head honchos were the most impressive CEOs of 2013. Some of the names — like CEO rockstar Elon Musk and drone-master Jeff Bezos — probably won’t surprise you. But some wildcards made the list as well. And, of course, only one can take the very top spot on our list of best CEOs.

Take a look at the results:

10. Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman

meg-whitman-hewlett-packard-ceo-hpqHewlett-Packard (HPQ) may have been dropped from the Dow 30 this year, but holders of HPQ stock shouldn’t be griping too much. After all, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman — the ex-eBay (EBAY) chief and unsuccessful California governor candidate — has driven HPQ stock up almost 100% in 2013.

Sure, the hardware-focused company’s revenues continue to struggle in a software and cloud-driven world, but Meg Whitman has been doing her best to cut expenses and refocus the tech giant. Hewlett-Packard is reportedly getting back into the smartphone market with the launch of “phablets” in emerging markets, for example — a move that, if successful, could boost HPQ stock even more.

The Hewlett-Packard CEO has been working for $1 a year since coming aboard in 2011, but Meg Whitman is getting a heftier paycheck for her efforts: a delicious $1.5 million.

9. Groupon CEO Eric Lefkofsky

eric-lefkofsky-groupon-ceo-grpnGroupon (GRPN) went from being called one of the hottest startups ever to struggling big-time as Groupon CEO and co-founder Andrew Mason proved himself unfit for the C-suite. GRPN stock slid more than 80% in the months following its June 2011 IPO – one of several reasons Andrew Mason was shown the door this February.

Enter Eric Lefkofsky, a serial entrepreneur who became the new Groupon CEO and almost immediately calmed GRPN stock holders by adding focus and gravitas to the venture.

Lefkofsky doubled down in the hot mobile commerce arena and launched Groupon Freebies, which issues digital coupons and elite discounts from more than 5,000 brands and retailers. Groupon also recently acquired Boomerang, an online marketing startup that shares local gift cards.

Oh yeah, and GRPN stock has doubled since Mason was given the boot.

8. Micron CEO Mark Durcan

mark-durcan-micron-ceo-muMark Durcan became the CEO of Micron (MU) in the worst possible way: Micron CEO Steve Appleton perished in a plane crash in February 2012.

Plus, while it’s always a huge challenge to take over under such circumstances, Durcan had already announced plans to retire in August 2012. After the tragedy, though, he reversed course and took the job of Micron CEO anyways.

Since then, Mark Durcan not only helped the computer memory manufacturer recover, but his acquisition of Japan’s Elpida Memory was a big shot in the arm for Micron stock.

MU stock is now trading at decade-highs and has gained over 240% year-to-date.

7. Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky

alex-gorksy-johnson-johnson-jnjAlex Gorsky, a former Army Ranger with a laser focus, has been working overtime to get Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) problems — including massive quality control issues and a criminal complaint over marketing of an antipsychotic drug –behind it.

So far, the Johnson & Johnson CEO is doing a pretty good job. After settlements — although in the billions — for both issues, it seems that the worst is finally behind the 127-year old pharmaceutical giant. Oh yeah, and Alex Gorsky is taking bids for the company’s Ortho Clinical Diagnostics unit, which is believed to be worth somewhere in the $4 billion range.

The result: JNJ stock is beating the market with a 32% climb this year.

6. Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly

hubert-joly-best-buy-ceo-bbyBest Buy (BBY) has been one of the most surprising stocks of the year … and a whole lot of credit has to be given to the relatively new Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly. Joly took the reins in August of 2012 and breathed life back into the consumer electronics and appliances chain, which had been slayed by “showrooming.”

Hubert Joly attacked the retailer’s problems — including its disastrous holdings in Europe — head on by cutting costs and inking in-store “boutique” deals with big names like Microsoft (MSFT) and others.

Wall Street was impressed by the new Best Buy CEO, too. In fact, BBY stock has gained 246% in 2013 after shedding around half its value in 2012.

5. JCPenney CEO Mike Ullman

mike-ullman-jcpenney-ceo-jcpSometimes, being a good CEO simply means cleaning up other people’s messes.

In case you forgot, former Apple (AAPL) executive Ron Johnson tried to revive JCPenney (JCP) by ditching coupons — but failed miserably. As a result, Johnson was ousted in April and replaced by a familiar JCPenney CEO: Mike Ullman … the man he took the top job in 2011.

It’s hardly been smooth sailing for JCP under Ullman — especially when it came to the mixed signals surrounding the secondary offering of JCP stock in September —  but he’s done a commendable job considering just how ugly things had gotten. In fact, JCP stock has posted a pretty solid comeback since late October.

There are still headwinds to face, and the odds are against Mike Ullman and JCP stock rising from the ashes in 2014. But Ullman has given a heroic effort as JCPenney CEO so far.

4. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos


When you talk about Amazon (AMZN), you simply have to talk about Jeff Bezos. And when you talk about Jeff Bezos, you have to talk about his brilliance. The only problem is that it’s hard to know where to start, because the Amazon CEO has done more than remake the retail game.

The latest proof that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a mastermind simply has to be the company’s plans for drone delivery. Even setting aside the technical feasibility and regulatory issues for a moment, the idea — not to mention the spot on 60 Minutes promoting it — was a masterstroke.

Besides, the Amazon CEO is constantly pushing the envelope, as Jeff Bezos & Co. have a hand in everything: grocery delivery with AmazonFresh, the cloud with Amazon Web Services, and old media with its Washington Post acquisition.

Yes, Jeff Bezos is an innovative force to be reckoned with. What’s even better? AMZN stock recently topped $400 and has risen over 60% this year.

3. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings

reed-hastings-netflix-ceo-nflxIt’s not often that a CEO survives a strategy misstep and a subsequent stock plummet … but that’s exactly what happened in the Netflix (NFLX) corner office. Remember, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had the not-so-brilliant idea to boost revenues by splitting the company’s streaming video and DVD services.

Subscribers, presented with the prospect of suddenly paying more for less, bailed out in droves, while NFLX stock tanked. Yes, Netflix stock fell from nearly $300 in July of 2011 to to under $65 just four months later.

But Netflix CEO Reed Hastings didn’t just survive the struggles; he is now being hailed as both a conquering hero and a cable-killer. Hastings invested in video streaming, just in time to cash in on the tablet revolution. Plus, he continues to position NFLX as a viable alternative to cable TV and has moved the company into original programming.

Reed Hastings is keeping shareholders happy, too; NFLX stock is up more than 365% in 2013, with shares trading above $375 … not bad for a company that was left for dead.   

2. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

mark-zuckerberg-facebook-ceo-fbNext up, we have to give a nod to Facebook (FB) founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That’s because Zuck finally grew up in 2013 — and FB stock showed it.

To state the obvious, Mark Zuckerberg and FB have moved past the IPO that Wall Street viewed as a disaster in March 2012. And while there was a healthy share of investor skepticism surrounding how or whether the social network would be able to monetize its vast user base, the Facebook CEO has been spinning that vast (and mobile) user base into gold.

Yes, Facebook’s focus on becoming a “mobile first” company is not just buzz; it raked in $882 million in mobile ad revenue during the third quarter alone. And by staking a claim in mobile and moving quickly, Mark Zuckerberg & Co. are positioned to ride that growth into 2014.

Add in the fact that FB stock has gained 140% over the past six months, and it’s easy to see why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is so high up on this list.

1. Tesla CEO Elon Musk 

elon-musk-tesla-ceo-tslaIf you think about it, naming Elon Musk as the best CEO is a pretty obvious choice. He has an illustrious past as co-founder of PayPal — which was snagged by eBay (EBAY) — and founder of both rocket company SpaceX and electric car company Tesla Motors (TSLA). Oh, and he also helped create SolarCity (SCTY), the leading residential solar provider in the U.S.

As one of our experts summed it up: “He’s the new Steve Jobs. Manufacturing any auto — let alone a luxury EV — from a full stop is a crazy business idea in the 21st century, but he built a real business that is changing the world.”

Sure, there have been headwinds for the Tesla CEO; last month, regulators opened a formal probe into reports of Tesla Model S fires, for example. But the National Highway Safety Administration last week still reaffirmed its five-star safety rating on the Tesla Model S. And TSLA stock speaks for itself with gains of 360% in 2013.

As another InvestorPlace expert characterized Tesla CEO Elon Musk: “People believe in the guy, he’s a social media lightning rod and he’s a genius with efforts outside of his own company.” That makes him the best CEO of the year, hands down.

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

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