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What Does Excellence Mean Today?

The selection process for this year’s Chief Executive of the Year is drawing to its high point. By the time …

The selection process for this year’s Chief Executive of the Year is drawing to its high point. By the time you read this the committee will have made its decision. We asked readers to submit names of current CEOs who have distinguished themselves in any of several ways, such as best managing technological innovation, inaugurating a successful turnaround, besting international rivals in world markets, or simply having a stellar performance over a five-year period.

The most frequently nominated names are submitted to our selection committee, which ultimately decides the winner. We have no vote in the proceedings, and each year we rotate a third of the committee to introduce new blood. Our longtime “Speaking Out” columnist, Columbia Business School Executive-in-Residence Bob Lear, is the one permanent member of the board because we feel there’s something to be said for having what Walter Wriston calls “institutional memory.” Another continuity feature in the process is to have last year’s winner-in this case, Ford Motor Company’s Don Petersen-serve as the honorary chairman of the selection committee. Petersen will deliver the accolade to this year’s recipient.

In testimony to the regard in which his peers hold him, Petersen was the second most frequently nominated individual this year. Since he has already received the highest honor his peers can bestow, this left the field of top candidates to the following: AT&T’s Robert Allen, BankAmerica’s Alden Clausen, Baxter International’s Vernon Loucks, Comdisco’s Kenneth Pontikes, ConAgra’s Charles Harper, H.J. Heinz’s Anthony O’Reilly, Pepsico’s Wayne Calloway, Rubbermaid’s Stanley Gault, and Xerox’s David Kearns. Each year we try to discern a pattern from readers’ nominating remarks. In the last two years, for example, team building figured prominently and difficult turnarounds are always a crowd pleaser, as the presence this year of BA’s Clausen and Xerox’s Kearns attest. Admirers of the Woody Hayes (10 yards in a cloud of dust) school of management, where consistent year in, year out mastery of the fundamentals is crucial, tilt toward figures such as Rubbermaid’s Gault and ConAgra’s Harper. Globalization, the buzzword for the 1990s, seemed to be uppermost in many nominators’ minds in recommending Heinz’s O’Reilly and Pepsico’s Calloway as both are seen as builders of transnational enterprises.

Historically the selection committee considers candidates of companies with at least $290 million in annual revenue. Henry A. Truslow, chairman of Sunbury Textile Mills, Sunbury, Pa., scolds us for this. “It is wrong to exclude smaller companies,” he writes, “as their challenges are as great or greater than those of the ‘big boys’ and, in fact, these somewhat smaller companies make up the majority of our industrial economy.”

Truslow’s last point is undoubtedly true, but the first is arguable. We have posed the Truslow Question at various times to our judges in the past. Invariably the sentiment is that the challenges facing a bigger company are far greater. I don’t suppose this answers the question to Truslow’s satisfaction. We do not intend any anti-small-boy bias. For that matter we welcome nominations for non-U.S.based companies in the belief that only the best in an international market should win. (But since the process is peer driven and U.S. based, we’re not holding our breath.) The issue isn’t closed. We’re open to ideas and suggestions that will steer recognition where it is deserved.


About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.