Top Execs With Humble Beginings
Virtually anyone who made it to the top started at, or somewhere very near, the bottom. The vast majority do a fair bit of wandering around before arriving at the corner office, changing jobs, or even careers, more than once. But some made their transition without ever changing employers—they walked in the door as an intern or mailroom employee and ended up running the show. For students now starting their summer internships, the notion that a temp job could somehow lead to the very pinnacle of corporate power is no doubt a comforting one, even if lottery tickets would give them a better chance of hitting it big. What follows are 20 people who started at the bottom and ended up at the very top.
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George Bodenheimer Then: Worked the mailroom at ESPN (DIS)
Now: Executive chairman of ESPN
How: Launching his career as a driver in the mailroom just 16 months after ESPN was first born, Bodenheimer has had a long career at the network. To learn the ropes, he took jobs in the affiliate sales and marketing departments in different cities, including Chicago, Dallas, and New York. He was named to his latest role as executive chairman at the start of 2012, and his job description includes providing strategic direction for ESPN’s global business and serving as chairman of the network. His earlier positions have included overseeing all multimedia sports assets of ESPN parent Walt Disney and being co-chairman of Disney Media Networks. Bodenheimer is credited with creating unprecedented growth at ESPN, including expanding from four domestic television networks to eight, from 20 international TV networks to 48, and from 1,900 employees to 7,000, according to Disney. In 2008, Bodenheimer was inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame for his leadership and innovation.
Photograph by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for NASCAR
Richard Grasso Then: Floor clerk for the New York Stock Exchange (NYX)
Now: Former chairman of the NYSE
How: Raised by his mother and aunts in Queens, N.Y., Grasso began his career as a floor clerk at the New York Stock Exchange in 1968. He went on to become president, chief operating officer, vice chairman, and chairman, according to a BBC profile. While he was in charge, the exchange added numerous company listings, and Grasso’s drive to reopen the NYSE within days of the 9/11 terrorist attacks had him labeled an American hero for a time. His inability to justify his enormously high salary, however, would lead to his resignation. Still, he can boast a guest appearance on HBO’s Sex and the City.
Photograph by Brendan McDermid/Reuters /Landov
Ed Whitacre Jr. Then: Facility engineer at Southwestern Bell, which would eventually become AT&T (T)
Now: Former CEO of AT&T and General Motors (GM)
How: As CEO of Southwestern Bell, Whitacre, a graduate of Texas Tech University, acquired companies and formed SBC Communications, which bought AT&T, adopted its brand, and brought it back to life. Responsible for telecom consolidation, which helped transform AT&T into the largest U.S. phone company, Whitacre was known for his vision. This had everything to do with why he was chosen to lead GM after it filed for bankruptcy, according to numerous reports. His nickname, “Big Ed,” isn’t bad either.
Corrects Whitacre's current status at General Motors
Photograph by Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg
Randall Stephenson Then: Facility engineer at Southwestern Bell
Now: CEO of AT&T (T)
How: Stephenson, much like Whitacre, worked his way up from his engineering post at what would later become AT&T. After 25 years with the company, he became its chief financial officer and chief operating officer before replacing Whitacre as CEO in 2007. AT&T has remained the largest telecommunications company, maintained its position in mobile broadband and IP-based services, and enhanced its advanced TV services on Stephenson’s watch.
Photograph by Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman/AP Photo
Andrew Taylor Then: Car washer for Enterprise Rent-A-Car
Now: Chairman and CEO of Enterprise Holdings
How: The son of Enterprise’s founder, Jack Taylor, Andrew Taylor had to start at the bottom like everyone else. At 16, he got his first job at the company, washing cars. Since then, he proved himself by working at other organizations before rising in the ranks to take on the CEO role at Enterprise in 1991. Enterprise acquired Alamon Rent A Car and National Car Rental
in 2007, giving the company 7,800 locations worldwide. Annual revenues are up to $14.1 billion, and the company employs 70,000 people.
Photograph by /Bill Greenblatt/UPI/Landov
Jim Skinner Then: McDonald’s (MCD) restaurant manager trainee
Now: Vice chairman and CEO of McDonald’s
How: Skinner spent 10 years in the Navy before becoming a McDonald’s restaurant manager trainee in Carpentersville, Ill., in 1971. Over the years he has served as president and chief operating officer of the McDonald’s Restaurant Group and president and COO of McDonald’s Europe, Asia Pacific, and Middle East. In the U.S., he held the positions of director of field operations, market manager, regional vice president, and U.S. senior vice president and zone manager. Becoming CEO in 2004, Skinner has earned numerous accolades, including 2009 CEO of the Year from Chief Executive magazine and being among Barron’s “30 Most Respected CEOs.”
Photograph by Peter Wynn Thompson/The New York Times via Redux
Norman Brokaw Then: Working in the William Morris Agency’s mailroom
Now: William Morris Agency Chairman
How: Brokaw was only 15 when he began working in the William Morris Agency mailroom in 1943. Many a big name has come from that mailroom, including music executive David Geffen and media executive Barry Diller. Although the agency’s first office boy was a Russian immigrant, who later became the company’s president, Brokaw was the first from the mailroom to become a talent agent, which helped him rise to the top rung, according to an article first published by Online MBA.
Photograph by Chris Pizzello/AP Photo
Roger Goodell Then: National Football League intern
Now: NFL Commissioner
How: Persistence can really pay off. In 1982, after just about all the NFL teams turned him down for an internship, he called the NFL's New York offices. He was told no jobs were available but to stop by if he was ever in the area, so he drove all night to get there the next day—and managed to snag an internship, according to mentalfloss.com. After that, he took on a variety of roles at the NFL, including a brief stint working for the New York Jets in the team's public relations and administration offices. He has held the titles of public relations assistant, director of international development and club administration, and chief operating officer, among others, at the NFL.
Photograph by David Bergman /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Ursula Burns Then: Mechanical engineering summer intern at Xerox (XRX)
Now: Chairman and CEO of Xerox
How: In 1980, Burns joined Xerox as an intern. From there, she climbed the ladder of success by taking on various responsibilities, including roles in product development and planning, manufacturing, and supply chain operations, according to the company. Shortly after being named CEO in 2009, she made the largest acquisition in the company’s history—the $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services. Recently, on National Public Radio, she discussed how being an African American woman influenced her ascent at Xerox. “If you don’t transform,” she said, “you’re stuck.”
Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Daniel Hesse Then: Intern at AT&T (T)
Now: CEO of Sprint Nextel (S), former CEO of AT&T Wireless Services
How: For 23 years, Hesse worked for AT&T, where he launched his career as an intern. From 1997 to 2000, he was president and CEO of AT&T Wireless Services. From there, Hesse took on the role of CEO at Terabeam, a wireless telecommunications technology company, and Embarq, a telecommunications services company. He earned a BA from Notre Dame, an MBA from Cornell, and an MS from MIT.
Photograph by Stephanie Kuykendal/Bloomberg
Rob Cavallo Then: Intern at Warner Bros. Records (TWX)
Now: Chairman of Warner Bros. Records
How: Cavallo replaced Tom Whalley, who led Warner Bros. Records for nearly 10 years after he himself rose from working in the mailroom. Cavallo’s humble roots had him landing an internship working with Black Sabbath, according to Mentalfloss.com. He would become most famous for producing Green Day’s Dookie album. He briefly left the company, at which point he helped Phil Collins win awards for You’ll be in My Heart, from the Disney (DIS) animated feature Tarzan. Returning to the company in 2002, Cavallo was Warner Bros. Records chief creative officer before earning the title of chairman in 2010.
Photograph by Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo
Bill Summers Then: Intern at the municipal bond department of McDonald Investments
Now: Retired from the company in 2006, after serving as chairman, CEO, and president
How: Working as an intern for McDonald Investments in 1971, one year before graduating from Baldwin-Wallace College, Summers was named a general partner at the Cleveland firm a short four years later. After that, he held numerous titles, including executive vice president in charge of institutional fixed-income sales and chief operating officer before becoming CEO in 1994, a position he held until 1998 when the company was sold to KeyCorp (KEY). Summers was executive vice president of KeyCorp, chairman of Key Capital Partners, and a member of the KeyCorp management committee until 2000, when he retired.
Courtesy Baldwin-Wallace College
Brian Dunn Then: Best Buy (BBY) store associate
Now: Former CEO and former director of Best Buy
How: In 2012, Dunn became most famous for an alleged affair with a 29-year-old employee, which led to both his resignation and that of Best Buy founder Richard Schulze. He began his career at the company in 1985 as a store associate. At the time, the company consisted of only 12 stores. Through the years, he served as a district manager, president of retail in North America, and chief operating officer. He was CEO from 2009 to 2012, with a severance package potentially worth $3.35 million.
Photograph by Denis Doyle/Bloomberg
Jim Ziemer Then: Freight elevator operator at Harley-Davidson (HOG)
Now: Retired president and CEO of Harley-Davidson
How: Ziemer and Harley-Davidson go way back. He is a native of the Milwaukee neighborhood near the company’s original factory, and he’s a lifelong motorcyclist. In 1969, while still in college, he began his career with the company as a freight elevator operator. When he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in accounting, he joined the accounting department. By 1990, he was named chief financial officer, and in 2005 he became the president and CEO. He announced his retirement in December 2008.
Photograph by Louis Lanzano/AP Photo
Samuel Palmisano Then: Executive assistant to then-CEO of IBM (IBM) John Akers
Now: Chairman and retired CEO of IBM
How: Palmisano began his career at IBM as the executive assistant to then-CEO John Akers in 1973 in Baltimore shortly after graduating from Johns Hopkins. He later worked for the company in Japan and held numerous executive positions, including president and COO. Being a great salesman is among his many accomplishments, and it earned him the nickname “The Closer” for helping the company win billion-dollar deals, according to Barron’s. What some don’t know is that Palmisano, according to Barron’s, once turned down a chance to try out for the Oakland Raiders.
Photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
William Weldon Then: In the sales and marketing department of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)
Now: Chairman of Johnson & Johnson
How: A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Weldon joined Johnson & Johnson in the sales and marketing department of its McNeil Pharmaceutical subsidiary in 1971. By 1995, he was named a company group chairman of Johnson & Johnson. In April 2002, he was appointed chairman, CEO, and chairman of the executive committee. In April 2012, he stepped down as CEO and chairman of the executive committee, ceding those titles to Alex Gorsky, another J&J lifer who started his career at the company as a sales rep.
Photograph by Jay Mallin/Bloomberg
Rex Tillerson Then: Production engineer at Exxon
Now: Chairman and CEO, ExxonMobil (XOM)
How: Holding a bachelor of science degree from the University of Texas-Austin, Tillerson joined Exxon USA as a production engineer in 1975. Over the years he gained increasing responsibility, rising to the position of senior vice president. He has been chairman and CEO since 2006. His outside pursuits include serving as the national president of Boy Scouts of America.
Photograph by Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg
Anne Mulcahy Then: Field sales rep at Xerox (XRX)
Now: Retired chairman and CEO of Xerox
How: Xerox has a history of CEOs who rose from the trenches (see current CEO Ursula Burns, who is also on this list). Mulcahy climbed the ladder by taking on more and more responsibility, serving as vice president of human resources, corporate senior vice president, and chief operating officer. She took on the CEO role in August 2001, a time when Xerox was nearly bankrupt and at the center of an accounting scandal. She is credited with turning the company around, but at the same time she's held board positions at Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Citigroup (C) when those companies were landing in hot water. Mulcahy holds a BA in English and journalism from Marymount College.
Photograph by Chris Crisman/Redux
Paula Marshall-Chapman Then: Filled pie shells in Bama Companies’ manufacturing plant
Now: CEO of Bama Companies
How: This is a true story of rising to the very top from the very bottom. A native of Tulsa, which is home to Bama Companies, a dessert and baked goods manufacturer, Marshall-Chapman spent her teen years working there. She reportedly filled pie shells in the manufacturing plant. She earned her bachelor of science in business and her PhD in commercial science, both from Oklahoma City University, in 1982 and 1993, respectively. In 1984, she became CEO of the company her grandfather founded more than 50 years earlier. On her watch, the company has grown and now offers a variety of frozen desserts and baked goods to fast-food chains and casual dining restaurants.
Courtesy Bama Companies
Muhtar Kent Then:
Making deliveries for Coca-Cola (KO)Now:
Chairman and CEO of Coca-ColaHow:
With a master’s degree in hand, Kent began his career at Coca-Cola in 1978 after answering a want ad in the newspaper. He spent nine months after that working on trucks, making product deliveries in Atlanta, Lubbock, Los Angeles, and other cities. Kent recalled his humble beginnings in a 2012 commencement speech at the Kenan-Flagler Business School
at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It wasn’t glamorous work getting up at 5:00, going into supermarkets, bringing product in off the truck, stacking it on shelves, and building displays,” he said. “And, frankly, there were moments when I asked myself what I was doing. But I always believed that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow is better than today. And that philosophy has carried me ever since."
Photograph by Ramin Talie/Bloomberg