The 25 Top Managers Of The Year

When it comes to reaching the top or being the best, there are no rules. So it should come as no surprise that BUSINESS WEEK's 25 Top Managers in 1997 are a diverse lot who defy easy categorization.

Yet in a year of global upheaval and near-constant change, they all had one characteristic in common: Each was able to break from the pack and clearly outperform. From a variety of countries and industries, the Top 25 span the gamut of age and background. They have earned their stripes in every conceivable business arena, from the intricacies of designing cutting-edge software to the guerrilla tactics of executing a multibillion-dollar takeover.

While their management approaches may differ, all these individuals have won the ultimate kudos: respect, and sometimes fear, from their peers. Many have also inspired near-fanatical employee loyalty. Each has put his or her personal imprint on operations. And all have moved quickly when necessary, seizing opportunity before rivals have had the chance to react.

Some of our Top Managers are strong-willed executives who took distressed companies and muscled them back into shape. Take Harvey Golub and Ken Chenault: the top-ranked duo at once-stagnant American Express. Rather than cutting prices to win market share, they expanded the market with credit cards that are linked to airline frequent-flier programs. They also used their card holders as a base from which to build a now-booming financial-advisory business.

Another turnaround ace, Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the chief executive of sport-shoe maker Adidas, transformed a company that not long ago was in dire straits. He moved production to cheaper quarters and then plunked the savings into marketing that was aimed at young adults. The brand's retro appeal has brought the company back to life--and put pressure on long-dominant rivals.

Other Top Managers got results by doing what comes most naturally to them: charging full speed ahead at companies they have been running for years. Caterpillar's Donald Fites posted record earnings even as the high dollar threatened competitiveness and a bitter labor dispute lingered. And at Tropicana, Ellen Marram was able to boast a three-year streak of double-digit quarterly earnings increases, thanks in part to her introduction of several new products such as smoothies and blended juices.

Business as usual for these go-go executives is anything but routine. And although big acquisitions were not the norm for '97's Top Managers, when they made them, they did so with a bang. Take Travelers' hard-charging Sandy Weill, who continued his decade-long empire-building campaign with the $9 billion acquisition of hallowed investment bank Salomon. It was a risky move in a 15-year bull market. But Weill has so far accomplished everything he has promised and more. Then there's Bernie Ebbers, the telecom exec--and former basketball coach--who exploded on the scene this year with the audacious $37 billion purchase of larger rival MCI.

Others have permanently changed their industries with radical technologies or bold business approaches. Then, seeing untapped opportunities, these executives rushed to get those innovations into new markets. Not stopping at that, they soon brought out more improvements, remaining several large strides ahead of their competitors.

That was the case with German entrepreneurs Hasso Plattner and Dietmar Hopp, whose business-applications software has taken the world by storm. Rather than kicking back, though, they revved into high gear in 1997, launching a host of new Internet software programs. And Bill George, another up-and-comer in the medical-products arena, moved beyond a core pacemaker business; in 1997, fully 70% of his company's revenues came from new products.

How did BUSINESS WEEK pick its Top Managers for 1997? First, we surveyed a team of experts--our staff of 178 writers and editors located in 25 bureaus around the globe. Then, we narrowed the group down to finalists based on financial and share-price performance. Since the strong economy gave a lift to so many corporations this year, we sought out managers who truly outperformed their peers.

Whether masters of the turnaround, hard-driving old hands, or bold upstarts, this group of overachievers proved an inimitable bunch in 1997.

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