Being a CEO in America today is a tough gig, but also a lucrative one. According to a 2016 AFL-CIO analysis, U.S. CEOs in 2015 earned 335 times the pay of the average American worker… for CEOs at S&P 500 Index companies, that rang in at around $13.1 million in total annual compensation.
But despite being showered with riches, most CEOs are, by definition, average. It doesn’t help that, in public companies at least, the market discourages venturing too far outside the box. Innovation is risky and it takes both vision, grit and flawless execution to pull it off.
But there are CEOs who have genuine vision and a drive to realize that vision and who are reshaping our world today, from how we buy mattresses to offering vacation trips to the Moon. Here are ten of the top visionary CEOs in American companies in 2017…
Elon Musk – SpaceX/Tesla
If planning to colonize Mars isn’t vision, we don’t know what is! Under CEO Elon Musk, that’s just one of SpaceX’s long-term goals, along with becoming a mainstay of supply and crew transportation to the International Space Station… developing reusable rocket technology… sending tourists around the moon… and maybe even throwing a high-speed hyperloop underground transit system beneath California in their spare time.
This is all while he has the side job of helming Tesla Motors – the other visionary company where Musk is CEO – as it aims to revolutionize electric vehicles and road-based transportation around the world. Having stacked his capital in the 90’s by developing then selling PayPal for a tidy $1.5 billion – something that similarly revolutionized secure online payments –
Musk is a hard player to bet against no matter how wild his visions seem.
Jeff Bezos – Amazon
If you haven’t received a package from Amazon lately, you’re probably the only one on your block. By February of 2017 the barely twenty-year-old company accounted for 43 percent of all e-commerce sales. More amazingly, the world’s largest internet company by revenue and fourth most valuable company in the world got there while almost never showing a profit. Still, investors line up to plow their money into the company based on vision.
That’s the vision of founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, and it’s as broad as it is mysterious. A recent acquisition of the Whole Foods grocery chain put the famously online company squarely into the brick-and-mortar sector, while the companies Web Services division dominates internet infrastructure service at nearly 40 percent. Bezos’ vision apparently includes world domination online and off but that’s not all—like Musk, he’s gotten into the space race as well with Blue Origin, with manned test flights scheduled for 2018.
Bob Iger – Disney
Disney may be old and well-established, but Bob Iger has brought vision and drive to a bastion of American entertainment. Brought on board in 2005 to help shake up the company, Iger has done just that, acquiring cutting-edge animation studio Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, and the rights to the Star Wars franchise.
What could be more visionary than bringing a galaxy from far, far away back onto the world stage with the sequels most fans thought they would never see?
Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook
Facebook has grown rapidly to become a part of daily life for 2 billion people worldwide and has become so influential that it’s now suspected of being the primary focus of leverage in swaying the 2016 American presidential election.
Servicing this massive market are only around 20,000 full-time employees, a massive degree of leverage. And the mind behind the effort has remained the same since its inception—Mark Zuckerberg not only wrote the original code but continues to helm the corporation.
Leonard Schleifer – Regeneron
Biotech is known to be a hot, cutting-edge industry, but, buried behind layers of testing and regulation and under heaps of obscure health science and chemistry, not everyone understands who has genuine vision and who is just coasting, Martin Shkreli-style, on the coat-tails of others.
Schleifer has proven to be the real deal at Regeneron, not only founding the company to perform research into nervous system diseases in a niche that was under-explored, but also finding rapid market success in the process.
Rodney Sacks – Monster
If you felt like all of a sudden the drink aisles at your local convenience store were suddenly overflowing with tall, scary-looking cans of black and green Monster Energy drinks, you’re not wrong—since 2002, when it was introduced, the company had rocketed to a market share of nearly 40 percent in 2015 thanks in large part to advertising sponsorships with sporting events and eSports sponsorships.
It’s all happened during the reign of South African CEO Rodney Sacks, who lead a consortium that acquired old-fashioned Hansen’s Natural Corporation and revved it up into… well, into the ravening, caffeine-charged, market-chewing monster it has become today.
Marc Benioff – Salesforce
Amazon may get most of the focus on the consumer side of the online cloud revolution, but Salesforce is doing the heavy lifting behind the scenes in the software as a service (SaaS) department. In fact, CEO Marc Benioff’s evangelizing helped launch SaaS as a concept, one that has since overtaken Internet giants like Microsoft and Google and helped fuel the demand behind Amazon’s platforms.
Salesforce started off as an online customer relations management (CRM) system but has expanded to fulfill many more needs under Benioff’s guidance by opening itself up as a development platform. The resulting ecosystem supports more than a million independent developers and powers 100,000 B2B corporate accounts.
Reed Hastings – Netflix
If you are one of the few remaining hold-outs to the online streaming video revolution, you may be wondering where all your video rental stores went. Well, Netflix, under the leadership of co-founder Reed Hastings, ate them.
The company’s subscription-based DVD-rental model revolutionized the industry and all but killed off traditional rental businesses. But Netflix then made another segue, to online streaming, when physical disk rentals started to lag.
Although both models were major innovations, the real vision behind Netflix is Hastings’ emphasis on maintaining an entrepreneurial culture at the company even as it expanded. Above-average pay coupled with independence makes Netflix an unusual and popular employer in the tech sector. The ability to pivot quickly as the market shifted is the proof that the vision works.
Arne Sorenson – Marriott
Most people don’t think “innovation” when they think of a hotel chain, but under CEO Arne Sorenson, Marriott International is working to change that. In 2016, the company introduced the world’s first hotel innovation incubator in Charlotte. The location was built to allow rapid prototyping and testing for technologies to be rolled out to Marriott properties worldwide including keyless entry to digital touch-screen technology in the fitness studio.
As the world’s largest hospitality company, Sorenson has also driven Marriott to innovate behind the scenes, rapidly integrating loyalty programs from various acquisitions and focusing on the customer experience to keep demand high and bypass online booking services with hefty commissions.
Philip Krim – Casper
Casper was founded in 2013 but has already given the sleepy mattress industry a serious wake-up call. Custom-designed to be easily delivered and provide a single, great sleep experience, Casper mattresses stand in stark contrast to the heavy, complex spring-laden mattresses that dominate showroom floors. By offering only one model, the company dramatically simplifies the buying decision for consumers.
CEO Philip Krim considers Casper to be a technology company first and a mattress company only second. Direct-to-consumer sales slashed the cost structure and a three-month, no-questions-asked free-return trial period quickly built a loyal customer base. His vision helped drive Casper to become a $100 million company in just two years.