The team at Chief Executive was saddened to hear that J.P. Donlon, who steered the magazine through most of its history, died last week. He was 73. It’s not an understatement to say that Chief Executive would not exist today were it not for Donlon, who served as its curator, its caretaker—even its rescuer—through decades of change and ever-increasing complexity for the CEO community he served.
Donlon joined the magazine as a senior editor a year after its launch in 1977, was named managing editor a year later and then editor-in-chief in 1981. When Donlon—a music writer for alternative Boston weeklies—was hired, Chief Executive was a publication operating at an entrepreneur’s whims, far more a networking vehicle for its original owner, a buccaneering Dutch oil trader named John Deuss than a platform for helping CEOs do a better job running their companies.
Duess “had grandiose dreams of creating a vehicle where leaders in business, government, religion, education and society would advance their thinking on an equal footing,” Donlon wrote in the 40th anniversary issue of Chief Executive in 2017. “The archbishop of Canterbury graced the cover of issue two, and in later years Saudi Arabia’s oil minister and the sultan of Oman were featured. But before long, the magazine directed its editorial efforts to becoming a voice for chief executives in business, principally international business.”
Donlon drove that change, and for 37 of Chief Executive’s 44 years of publication, through economic slumps and recoveries and across multiple owners, he worked to make the magazine ever sharper and more useful to its audience. He became both a confidante and a voice for two generations of CEOs along the way, recognizing their achievements, giving them a place to air their pressing concerns and furnishing them with a unique publication where they could share their experiences and ideas with each other.
“J.P. dedicated his career to serving the CEO community,” said Wayne Cooper, executive chairman of Chief Executive Group, the parent company of Chief Executive. “He helped establish Chief Executive magazine and Chief Executive Group as the leading voice of America’s CEOs with his sharp mind and the wisdom he gained speaking to the best CEOs in the world over the past 50 years. He will be missed but his legacy will continue.”
That legacy included ways of building community among the nation’s CEOs which were revolutionary for a business publication at the time. He conceived of and launched the idea of in-person “CEO Roundtables,” a forum for leaders to candidly share insights and ideas with their peers—a concept that has remained consistently popular with Chief Executive’s readers ever since.
In 1986, he debuted Chief Executive’s annual CEO of the Year award, once again pushing the boundaries of traditional journalism in the service of his readers. He designed it as an honor bestowed by a selection committee comprised entirely of CEOs—not editors judging from the sidelines. His instinct was spot on. The award—given to GM’s Roger Smith in its inaugural year—became a career-capping highlight for those who received it precisely because it was handed out by their peers.
This access and trust helped Donlon build a reputation as one of the few journalists in the U.S. who really understood CEOs at a time when public perception and scrutiny of those in the top job continued to grow. Under his watch, Chief Executive sought to do more than merely chronicle CEOs’ everchanging world, but to serve as a trusted resource and staunch ally to the community. If the business world came under fire from mainstream media, Donlon would appear on CNN, CNBC or Fox News, calmly, effectively and wittily representing the CEO perspective. “J.P.’s name is synonymous with Chief Executive,” said Bob Nardelli, CEO of XLR-8, who knew him for more than 20 years.
In person, on the phone, via email, he was in constant conversation with those who led American business. He knew the community like few others, researching the backgrounds of CEOs ahead of roundtable discussions and showing up armed with questions tailored to everyone there. Onstage at events, he’d peer over his spectacles to gauge the level of audience engagement as he led panel discussions. At the CEO of the Year gala, Donlon loved nothing more than quietly moving through the crowd, connecting one guest to another based on his intimate knowledge of what was on their minds—and how the right introduction would benefit both. “Colorful, creative, erudite and always smiling,” is how Yale’s Jeff Sonnenfeld, a friend and longtime Chief Executive contributor, remembers him.
In the pages of Chief Executive he interviewed hundreds of CEOs, including a who’s who of American business leadership, from Jack Welch and Michael Dell to Bill Gates, Larry Bossidy, Anne Mulcahy, Bill Marriott, Charles Knight, Andy Grove, Fred Smith and many more. Over the past few years, he served as editor emeritus of the magazine. His last cover story was an interview with Synchrony CEO Margaret Keane in February, 2020.
“His commitment to the principles of American business and the free market, and his compassion for others will ensure that he will always be remembered,” said Ted Bililies, managing director at AlixPartners, who hosted numerous CEO roundtables with Donlon. “J.P. will be sorely missed.”
In Chief Executive’s 40th anniversary issue, Donlon wrote that the publication was a vehicle to “witness and chronicle the ways in which changes in leadership style, shareholder value, technology and globalization have framed the CEO’s world.”
The editor who created the magazine did more than just witness and chronicle that world, though. Over nearly four decades, he helped shape it, too.