5 CEOs With the Most Positive Coverage in 2015

1. Elon Musk, Tesla. Elon Musk is a true innovator, and not just as the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX. In addition, Musk is one of the tech luminaries backing OpenAI, an organization designed to advance digital intelligence to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return. Researchers will be strongly encouraged to publish their work, whether as papers, blog posts, or code; and patents (if any) will be shared with the world.

Musk is also regarded as someone whose great company is synonymous with its leader. While it’s not easy to pin down what sets extraordinary leaders apart from the rest of the pack, vision, passion and transparency are three qualities that great CEOs like Musk possess.

“While it’s not easy to pin down what sets extraordinary leaders apart from the rest of the pack, vision, passion and transparency are three qualities that great CEOs like Musk possess.”

2. Tim Cook, Apple. Tim Cook is widely applauded not only for leading Apple, but also for keeping it innovative and focused on the future, with products such as the Apple Watch. There has been a slew of leaks in recent months about “Project Titan,” a secretive internal Apple unit that allegedly has hundreds of employees working to develop an electric car. In addition, Fiat Chrysler’s CEO Sergio Marchionne hinted that Apple is covertly developing an electric car, even though the tech company has not publicly revealed any plans to move into the automotive space.

3. Mary Barra, General Motors Co. For GM, 2015 gave Barra a new chance to shift attention back to the automaker’s products and away from vehicle recalls that engulfed her first year as CEO. GM’s share price fell 14% over the course of 2014. Last January, Barra said that the company expected to see the return of younger consumers to the market. While automakers have been enjoying a boom in demand, difficulties finding jobs and higher prices for both new and used cars kept many of these younger shoppers away from showrooms.

The public chance to turn the corner came was never more pronounced than in September, when GM agreed to pay $900 million to settle criminal charges related to a bungled recall. Announcing the settlement, Barra said the legal and public relations crisis that has shadowed her for nearly two years was “a catalyst for meaningful change.”

Industry observers then remarked that now, Barra must show investors and consumers that the change at the No. 1 U.S. automaker is real, and goes beyond the steps she ordered to attack the engineering and managerial lapses that resulted in GM waiting more than a decade to fix dangerous vehicle defects now linked to 124 deaths.

4. Mark Fields, Ford. Mark Fields has been helping Ford become a state-of-the-art automotive leader. After unveiling the Sync 3 system in late 2014, Fields used his keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show last January in Las Vegas to introduce the company’s Smart Mobility plan, a global initiative to invest in transportation technology that goes beyond simply selling cars.

Ford’s Smart Mobility will “use innovation to take it to the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and big data,” the company said.

As part of the Smart Mobility plan, Ford announced its participation in 25 experiments around the world “to test breakthrough transportation ideas to create better customer experiences, more flexible user-ship models and social collaboration that can reward customers.” Fields told analysts that fully autonomous vehicles “are a real possibility.

5. Dan Price, Gravity Payments. Price earns a Gold Star for at least trying to do something about income inequality—though observers say he may have gone too far and unfairly hurt more deserving workers. Price, who heads up the Seattle payment processing firm Gravity Payments that he founded, in April pledged to make sure all his staffers make at least $70,000 annually in the next three years, doubling the pay of about 30 of his workers and significantly raising pay for an additional 40. To achieve that goal, he cut his $1 million salary to $70,000, and dipped into the firm’s annual $2 million in profits.

However, his brother, Lucas Price—a 30% minority owner in the company—filed a lawsuit for damages, and two senior employees quit shortly after the change, each complaining that the wage hike was unfair to skilled workers. Less skilled workers were simply sitting on the clock even after the wage increase—not exactly the behavior hoped for in the attempt to create an “emotional well-being” workplace.

More troubling, a few customers—dismayed by what they viewed as a political statement—withdrew their business. Others, anticipating a fee increase despite repeated assurances to the contrary, also left. While dozens of new clients—inspired by Price’s announcement—were signing up, those accounts will not start paying off for at least another year.

To handle the flood of business, he has already had to hire a dozen additional employees—now at a significantly higher cost—and is struggling to figure out whether more are needed without knowing for certain how long the bonanza will last.

However well intended, Price’s wage experiment raises the crucial question: “Is equal pay for unequal work really fair?” W. Scott Lamb, president of the Reformation Press, wrote in the Washington Times.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert
Katie Kuehner-Hebert has more than two decades of experience writing about corporate, financial and industry-specific issues. She is based in Running Springs, Calif.

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