Whatever business you’re in, running it successfully is the ultimate responsibility of every owner, Managing Director, President or CEO. Employees can make mistakes, the economy can turn against you, you can be out-competed – but ultimately the fate of the business is in your hands.
US President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office, reading “The buck stops here” – as should the CEO of every large, public company. Ultimately responsible to shareholders, the CEO’s job is basically to turn a profit (except in Amazon’s case, apparently). Sometimes it goes wrong, and sometimes disastrously so.
So, in terms of pure market capitalisation, who are the worst corporate CEO in history?
10. Julie Wainwright, Pets.com
Pets.com has come to epitomise the dotcom bubble of the late 90s, and gets a special mention for going bust just 268 days after its public debut on the stock exchange. Under the stewardship of Julie Wainwright, from August 1998 until its closure on 6th November 2000 the company chewed through investment capital at an astonishing rate, and aggressively expanding its warehousing operation despite no customer demand for shipping or stock to fill them with.
The companies highest valuation – on the day of its IPO – stood at $325 million (about $450 million today), but it was only downhill from there.
Length of tenure: 2 years, 3 months, 8 days
Total losses: $325 million
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $540,000
8 & 9. Mike Lazaridis & Jim Balsillie, Blackberry
Mike and Jim grew Blackberry into one of the defining companies of the early mobile era. No businessman would be seen without a QWERTY-equipped Blackberry, and the company’s squat handsets became synonymous with success.
A failure to innovate and react to consumer demand ultimately caused the firm to crescendo and drop precipitously in value since the launch of the iPhone. Mike and Jim’s successor, Thorsten Heins, lasted less than two years in the job, and the company is currently in the midst of a painful period of restructuring and redundancies.
Length of tenure: 28 years, 28 days
Total losses: $51.81 billion
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $5.22 million
7. Mario Conti, Swiss Air
When he took the helm at Switzerland’s national airline the media were calling him “Super Mario”, however “Unfortunate Mario” may have been a better title. He took over just as the cracks were beginning to show in the company’s aggressive “Project Hunter” expansion programme.
The September 11th terrorist attacks hit the company hard, and on October 1st the entire fleet was grounded as the company’s coffers ran dry, as did their supply of jet fuel.
The company was subsequently resurrected as Crossair, but not before the once financially bulletproof airline known as “The flying bank” was dead and buried.
Length of tenure: 6 months, 19 days
Total losses: $1.9 billion
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $12.79 million
6. Kenneth Lay, Enron
Generally cited as one of the worst corporate disasters of the modern era, Enron was a wildly successful energy and commodities company based in Houston, Texas employing some 20,000 people. Around the turn of the millennium it became obvious that a large amount of Enron’s success was down to fraudulent accounting practices, and the company quickly spiralled into bankruptcy.
When all was said and done a new law, Sarbanes-Oxley, had been put in place to prevent companies emulating Enron, the accounting firm responsible was dissolved, and founder Kenneth Lay was found guilty of 10 counts of fraud. He died in July 2006, around three months before his sentencing.
Length of tenure: 17 years, 26 days
Total losses: $70 billion
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $14.8 million
5. John Chambers, Cisco
Communications and networking giant Cisco’s market value hit all-time highs riding atop the dotcom bubble of the late 90s, and although it is still a hugely successful business its stock price has deflated significantly since.
John Chambers has the unlikely accolade of being one of the few fortune-losing CEOs that is still in his job, raking in around $11 million last year.
Length of tenure: 19 years, 5 months +
Total losses: $430 billion
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $60.74 million
4. Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, Nokia
Nokia and Blackberry have suffered equally as the rising tide of Android and Apple-powered smartphones have drowned their businesses. Nokia has tried repeatedly to catch up, throwing their software lot in with Microsoft before selling them their handset business wholesale. Kallasvuo oversaw the boom times of Nokia’s handset empire, but also orchestrated its collapse.
Nokia’s market share collapsed almost 9% in the final year with Kallasvuo at the helm, and will never recover from the Finnish firm’s dominance in the early 2000s.
Length of tenure: 4 years, 30 months, 20 days
Total losses: $100.09 billion
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $69.18 million
3. Jeff Immelt, General Electric
Another stock riding the coattails of the late 90s tech bubble, Jeff Immelt had the misfortune of stepping into the CEO role at the very moment the stock peaked in September 2001. Since then the firm, which deals in everything from investments to healthcare to aviation, has steadily slid in value. Despite this, Immelt is still at the helm, and was even appointed to President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board in 2009.
Length of tenure: 12 years, 9 months +
Total losses: $332.86 billion
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $71.61 million
2. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft
What Steve Ballmer lacks in ability to keep stock prices high he more than makes up for in bluster. The now-retired Microsoft CEO is famed for his exuberant presentation style, and equally forthright management acumen. Ballmer infamously threw a chair across a meeting room when a long-serving deputy announced their departure to arch-rival Google, and openly wept during his goodbye speech to the assembled Microsoft faithful.
Chair-throwing ability counts for nothing on the markets though – and the Ballmer era cost Microsoft dearly as mobile efforts floundered, Windows went stale and the battle for web services was spectacularly lost.
Length of tenure: 14 years, 1 month, 8 days
Total losses: $441.81 billion
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $85.82 million
1. Craig Barrett, Intel
After joining chip manufacturer Intel as a manager in 1974, Barrett worked his way up the corporate ladder to become Chief Operating Officer in 1993, before succeeding Andrew Grove to become CEO in 1998.
Barrett steered Intel through the dotcom doom and bust, and the deep recession of the early 1990s. Like so many companies on this list, Intel lost ground in the shift to mobile devices to the likes of ARM, and only recently has begun to catch up.
Despite Intel losing around two thirds of its value under Barrett’s leadership, his time running the firm is considered a period of prosperity at Intel. Barrett proves that even though he is perhaps the costliest CEO in history, running a business is about more than just your bottom line.
Length of tenure: 7 years, 18 days
Total losses: $355.63 billion
Loss per day (adjusted for inflation): $167.78 million
Are you a company director?
You might find our Director Responsibilities guide useful.
With the power of a company director comes, of course, responsibility.
If you’re a sole trader, contractor, or freelancer who’s just set up a limited company, you may be unsure about what your responsibilities as a director are.
This guide will help you fully understand the duties you hold as a director, providing everything you need to know to make sure you act effectively and, crucially, within the law.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons & Julie O