From the Quill - Celebrity CEOs
Although almost everyone would recognize the face of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, the trend of celebrity CEOs is relatively new.
It wasn’t that long ago that Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of the largest publicly traded companies in the US would shy away from the spotlight and often be nameless and faceless outside the companies they led. For most of the 20th century, these men led companies in relative anonymity and were only seen at company board meetings and stockholder events. While a few who lent their names to the companies that they led were known, including Henry Ford, JP Morgan and Standard Oil Founder and richest man of his time, John D. Rockefeller, the vast majority were unknown to the larger population.
The first real celebrity CEO was Walt Disney, who would host his weekly “Wonderful World of Disney” television show and be the face of the organization until his death in 1966. When the lackluster and inflation ridden 1970’s gave rise to the “go-go 80’s” when the economy boomed and the stock market soared, CEOs started to see their role as chief spokesman and cheerleader for their corporation. Even those who did not own a Chrysler knew that Lee Iacocca had led the troubled carmaker back from bankruptcy thru his Chrysler commercials and numerous interviews. Ted ‘the mouth from the south” Turner was as ubiquitous as CNN and TNT during their early cable days.
At the same time, two huge tech companies from the west coast were growing and getting more and more embedded into the daily life of nearly every American. Suddenly everyone knew that Microsoft founder and CEO Bill Gates was the richest man in the world, and that Apple was slowly changing the world thru its’ hipster California cool CEO Steve Jobs. Gates and Jobs, never the closest of friends, led companies that became Wall Street darlings. An investment of $1000 in Microsoft on the day of its Initial Public Offering (IPO) in March 1986 would be worth just under $2 million today. Best selling books from both followed and both used their enormous wealth to invest in public health, museums, education and created grants and scholarships for colleges and universities. Suddenly the nameless, faceless CEO was long-gone, and the age of the celebrity CEO was born.
As the tech and dot com boom of the 1990s and the 2000s exploded to be a part of nearly every facet of our daily lives, we were introduced to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Stanford grads who created Google. At the same time, a small, online book-ordering and delivery company started in a non-descript office a few blocks from Seattle’s Pike Place Market by Jeff Bezos. That small start up is now seen as ‘the most influential brand in the world” and Amazon has branched out into online streaming and hosting most other company’s websites thru its Amazon Web Services. The last piece in the “big five” of information technology was started by a Harvard dropout and was originally called “The Facebook” by Mark Zuckerberg.
These five companies: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are among the largest and most profitable companies on the planet and only Facebook does not have a market capitalization of over $1 trillion. While these companies have taken over our lives, for good or bad (try spending 24 hours without using an Apple product, checking your Facebook or ordering from Amazon) their CEOs are now as well known, revered or vilified as the companies they either started or lead. All five companies have come under intense scrutiny by both political parties for their control of data, personal information and two, Facebook and Google, for the number of advertisements they blocked or promoted in the 2020 election.
Not only have the CEOs of these companies been pushed, or jumped into the spotlight, but others, including Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey (he with the nose ring and Civil War-stlye beard; imagine that being explained to an establishment CEO from the 1950’s) and Tesla founder Elon Musk (he of the smoking pot on a podcast) have moved from the boardroom and financial news networks to being seen as everything from bestselling writers, Hollywood power brokers, real estate investors, venture capitalists and overseeing massive endowments. Musk and Bezos have even branched into their own version of the space race by Musk starting SpaceX and Bezos starting Blue Origin.
Much like celebrity chefs such as Bobby Flay, Guy Fieri and Emeril Lagasse, these CEOs have come from the “back of the house” to be the “front of the house” and their incredible wealth and power have allowed them to be seen as larger than life figures. The ultimate sign that these CEOs have moved into the world of celebrity status happened this past weekend when Elon Musk, to the consternation of many of the cast members, will host “Saturday Night Live”.
Incredible wealth brings power and power brings celebrity and we have created celebrities out of these corporate titans.