Cover Story -- The Best Managers: Introduction
THE TOP MANAGERS OF 1996
Running a company is never easy, but 1996 presented execs with a tougher-than-usual set of hurdles
SENIOR MANAGERS worth their stock options know how important it is to articulate a consistent corporate vision that the troops can rally around, right? Not quite. The idea of an explicit vision may have joined cost-cutting and reengineering as hallowed truths of the business gospel, but the road to management greatness in 1996 required a far different attribute: flexibility.
In fact, last year, plenty of good managers seemed able--indeed, eager--to gaze into the corporate mirror and see a totally different visage than expected. But the best of the crop, BUSINESS WEEK's 25 Top Managers of 1996, followed up those revelations with actions, boldly embracing new directions even when it meant eschewing old strategies that had served them well.
Consider the headstrong CEO of a software giant, dominant in operating systems, who was forced to recognize that the Internet is the real driver of his business. Or the chief of a manufacturing and finance powerhouse who realized that providing services globally offers his company the best future. Both understood that even leading corporations that rest on their laurels risk decline.
Another way many top managers helped stave off corporate lethargy last year was continued commitment to product innovation. As markets consolidate, distinctive products often define the true leaders. The boss at one Silicon Valley chipmaker kept rivals at bay by quickly rolling out wave after wave of ever faster microprocessors. But innovative products needn't always be so tangible. In fact, one long-distance company figured out that the simplicity of one-rate pricing would bring customers flocking. Now, the concept is quickly changing the entire industry.
Ultimately, the key to success for many top managers lies in an age-old dictum: Give the customers what they want. Sounds simple, but the devil is in the details. Yet, two chieftains at a U.S. auto maker profited handsomely in 1996 by following that customer-first tack, providing smartly styled trucks and minivans to an America increasingly tired of the venerable sedan. And an airline CEO piloted his carrier back to profitability thanks to new services for high-paying business flyers.
Such savvy management is by no means restricted to U.S. executives, however. Shrewd foreign CEOs capitalized on economic and technological shifts last year to better serve their customers, wherever they resided. A Japanese auto chief exploited the weak yen, boosting standard features and lowering price on models hawked in the U.S. And, thanks to growing global affluence, the head of an Italian carmaker scored big by his early push to develop a "world car" for emerging markets.
To be sure, sometimes even the most talented managers have help from outside forces. In the booming 1996 U.S. stock market, most securities firms fared well. But the industry's strongest managers did much more than just play a winning hand. The head of a big securities house deftly defused a scandal that could have overshadowed big gains in retail brokerage and investment banking. Likewise, the CEO of a major commercial bank enjoyed hefty profits from the bull market activity only after years of carefully steering his company into debt underwriting.
How did BUSINESS WEEK forge its list of Top Managers of 1996? First, we tapped the collective wisdom of our vast global editorial staff--with more than 150 writers and editors in 25 offices worldwide, the largest of any business magazine. That on-the-ground insight allowed us to discard some managers who simply rode the wave of a strong market. Then, we scrutinized the financials of the nominees and their rivals to sift out the true leaders. The resulting 25 businessmen and women may be BUSINESS WEEK's top managers of 1996, but the strengths they exhibit--flexibility, innovation, and customer focus--will always be in fashion.Return to top