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10 CEOs Who Have Seen Military Combat


Now that companies are struggling to turn a profit and cut costs, they may want to look at the leadership examples set by these shrewd former members of the armed services.


MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL The business world has been witnessing a vanishing breed of executives, namely CEOs and senior business executives who have served in the military.

These boardroom generals led 59% of companies in 1980, but that percentage had dwindled to 8% by 2009 according to an essay published by the researchers at Boston University and Harvard University. (Read the paper here.)

  • US Soldiers in Vietnam, 1966
What are companies missing from this disappearance of military experience?

Syracuse University released a brief review of academic literature on the topic of military veterans in business in March of this year, highlighting 10 attributes that may allow former soldiers to excel in the workplace, such as being an entrepreneur, being comfortable in tough environments, and possessing advanced team-building skills. (See the review here.) Leading soldiers at the front line gives business executives the experience to lead a company during turbulent economic times.

In a time when companies are struggling to turn a profit and to cut costs, they may want to look at the potential employees returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of these brave Americans may become the next generation of great business leaders like the 10 battle-tested CEOs listed below.

Robert S. Morrison, Former CEO of The Quaker Oats Company and Former Vice President of Pepsi Co.
From leading soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam to leading employees in a struggling company, Robert Morrison has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to lead organizations through trying circumstances.

During the Vietnam War, Morrison served in the Marine Corps and eventually reached the rank of Captain, receiving the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. After returning home, he honed his leadership skills by earning an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 and launched his career at Proctor & Gamble (PG) that same year.

By 1991 he took command of key positions at Philip Morris (PM), namely as president of General Foods USA from 1991 to 1994 and president of Kraft Foods (KFT) from 1994 to 1997. At the end of his tenure at Kraft, he led the turnaround of The Quaker Oats Company, which was an independent company at the time. It had struggled as a result of incurring more than $1 billion in losses after acquiring Snapple. Under Morrison's leadership as its Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President, the company became profitable enough that Pepsi Co. (PEP) bought it for $13.4 billion in stock three years later, in 2000. Following the merger, Morrison served as Pepsi's Vice Chairman for a couple of years, working with fellow ex-Marine Steve Reinemund. Morrison also guided 3M (MMM) in 2005 when he served as the interim CEO.

Reaching the retirement age hasn't slowed him down. At the start of this year, he became a board member at Mrs. Fields Famous Brands. He also currently serves on several other corporate boards, specifically Illinois Tool Works (ITW), Aon (AON), Z Captial Partners, and 3M.

Did Robert S. Morrison's combat experience have a significant impact on his successful management style? In a newsletter to Wharton alumni from 2002, he stated that his Marine days helped set the foundation for his leadership. He wrote, "There were clear parameters that were instilled in everybody's mind, but in an actual battle situation, within those parameters, people had incredible freedom to act." Morrison views independence within a company as "tremendously important in business. Senior management can instill principles and guidelines, but you can't do people's jobs for them."

Richard D. Kinder, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Kinder Morgan
From a Captain in the US Army during the Vietnam War to a captain of the energy industry, Richard Kinder has built Kinder Morgan (KMI) into the fourth largest energy company in North America.

After being forced to file for personal bankruptcy, Kinder joined Enron and eventually became its President from 1986 to 1996. He left after he was passed over for CEO. (Some people attribute this to his affair with then-CEO Ken Lay's former wife.)

Kinder's tenure marked the time before Enron became associated with fraud and scandal. Running the company efficiently, he earned the appellation "Doctor Discipline," focusing hawkishly on "expenses, cash-flow, and employee levels." Despite his exacting standards, he also created a collegial atmosphere enjoyed by company employees. As history shows, things changed when Jeffrey Schilling became CEO in 1996. Kinder, with his business partner William Morgan, purchased Enron Liquids Pipeline and renamed it Kinder Morgan Energy Partners in 1997.

In 2007, Fortune Magazine recognized Kinder Morgan as one of the "Most Admired Companies in America" and ranked Kinder Morgan second -- tied with General Electric (GE) -- in "Quality of Management" among companies across all industries. Kinder himself was the 2005 recipient of Morningstar's CEO of the Year Award. Started with 175 employees, the energy company now employs 11,000 workers and oversees 75,000 miles of pipeline and 180 terminals. Its extensive pipelines make it the largest owner of natural gas pipelines in the country, profiting from the booming natural gas industry.

As he had during his time at Enron, Kinder has overseen an effective corporate governance at Kinder Morgan by constantly planning for the future and holding the oil company's executives to high standards. Kinder himself only receives $1 in annual salary and earns the rest of his annual income from distributions and dividends from his ownership stake. Executive salaries are capped at $200,000 annually with other earnings coming through performance-related bonuses and restricted stock.

George Schaefer, Former CEO of Fifth Third Bancorp
For someone who fell into his military career on a whim, George Schaefer has done pretty well for himself.

Schaefer graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point more by necessity than by choice. He could not afford a strictly academic institution, so he enrolled in West Point after his high school football coach from West Cincinnati, Ohio, told him to apply with the blunt words, "Mr. Schaefer, I think you're the only person on this team who can read. Why don't you fill this out and send it in?"

After graduating from West Point in 1967 and later the US Army's elite Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia, the army deployed him to Germany for two years to serve on a nuclear-demolition munitions team. In the event of a Soviet attack, Schaeffer and his men would have used small nuclear bombs to destroy roads and bridges to prevent a Soviet advance.

Luckily the Cold War didn't turn hot, and Schaefer finished his last two years serving in Vietnam until 1971 leading a 280-man crew tasked with building a strategically important highway. The army awarded him a Bronze Star for valor as his unit worked while always vulnerable to enemy fire and even friendly fire.

Schaefer decided to try banking after he finished his commitment to the army and returned to Cincinnati in 1971 looking for engineering work. Upon finding nothing available, he enrolled as a management trainee at Fifth Third Bank (FITB) and simultaneously went to business school while beginning at Firth Third, receiving his MBA from Xavier University in 1974.

Rising through the ranks, Schaefer eventually served as the CEO of Fifth Third from 1991 to 2007, growing the total assets of the bank from $7 billion to $89 billion. By the time he stepped down, the company ranked in the top 15 largest bank-holding companies in the United States and in the top 10 largest bank-holding companies by market capitalization.

According to reports, Schaeffer ran the bank like an army unit, making sure no employee accrued excess expenses and refusing to upgrade the bank's corporate office, which had the same wood paneling from 1968 to 2003. Institutional Investor once described him as a "number-crunching, penny-pinching workaholic." While CEO, Schaefer never invested in company cars or drivers, and everyone flew Delta coach. But his efforts paid off: Fifth Third Bank received the best efficiency ratio among the top 25 banks in 2003, meaning it was the most frugal large bank that year. International Shareholder Services, an investor's advocacy and research group, ranked the company in the top 1% in publicly-owned banks in its corporate governance ratings in 2006.

Schaefer stepped down as CEO after the bank failed to boost profits from a series of acquisitions in 2007. He's currently a member of the boards of Ashland (ASH), a petroleum and chemical business, and Wellpoint Health Networks (WLP).

What did Schaefer learn from his military experience? "If you take good care of your people, whether they're soldiers in Vietnam or bankers selling checking accounts in Chicago, then they'll do a marvelous job for you."

Tom Dent, Current Member of the Board of Directors of Lumeta & Former Lumeta CEO
A veteran of both Vietnam and the software industry, Tom Dent applied his skills from serving three tours as a Navy fighter pilot in the Vietnam War to his 35 years leading and working in technology companies.

Dent began his first major executive role with the telecommunications company Telesoft based in Phoneix, Arizona, as its Executive and Chief Operating Officer from 1982 to 1993. Then from 1997 to 2001, he ran Quality Systems and Software in Las Vegas as its CEO and Chairman.

Following his time at Quality Systems, Dent became Lumeta's CEO and President from 2000 to 2006 as well as its Chairman until 2008. Lumeta specializes in helping security management teams at large organizations and governments to better watch their computer networks. Under Dent, the company expanded its sales team in 2002, and by 2004, Dent led the company to explosive revenue growth increasing revenue 118% year over year from the first half of 2003 to 2004. Ernst and Young selected Dent for their New Jersey Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2006 after Dent finished his tenure at Lumeta.

Dent continued in software and technology, becoming CEO of HardMetrics in Philadelphia from 2008 to 2011. HardMetrics specializes in turning enterprise data into actionable information for planning business growth. Currently he sits on the board of ClassLink, and he continues to serve on the Board of Directors at Lumeta.

Tom Dent kept a copy of Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach by retired Army Colonel Dandridge Mike Malone in his office when he served as CEO of Lumeta.

Sumner Redstone, Current Executive Chairman & Former CEO of Viacom
Although he didn't see combat, Sumner Redstone had as much of an impact on the battlefield as any soldier on the frontline.

Redstone served in a top-secret elite military intelligence unit that helped crack Japanese naval codes from 1943 until the end of the war. Many considered his unit's task impossible, as no such codes had ever been deciphered even in English. His team beat the odds, though, and Redstone recalls that his unit would send Japanese naval positions to the US Navy then "three days later [they'd] read in the newspapers that [Japanese] ships had been sunk." In other instances, they would read about how the intelligence they provided would result in the defeat of Japanese army units on land.

After the war, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1947 and became a successful Washington lawyer, arguing cases before the Supreme Court. He later made a drastic career change into entertainment and media, taking over his father's drive-in movie theater business in Boston and coining the term multiplex. Like his World War II days, Redstone overcame seemingly impossible odds in 1979 by recovering from a hotel fire that he survived by hanging from a windowsill by his fingertips. Severe burns covered 45% of his body and required 30 hours of surgery to heal. Despite his doctors telling him he probably would be unable to live a normal life again, he became a major media executive less than 10 years later.

Redstone took over Viacom (VIA) in 1987. The company had nearly $3 billion in debt, but Redstone paid down the debt and turned the company around. He also brought CBS (CBS), Paramount Pictures, VH1, Showtime, Blockbuster Video, and Simon and Schuster under Viacom, making Viacom the fourth-largest media conglomerate in the world. In 2006, Redstone split Viacom and CBS into two publicly traded companies. Thanks to him, you might have enjoyed watching a variety of shows on MTV and Nickelodeon while growing up.

Redstone still serves as the executive chairman for the company though he stepped down as CEO in 2006. As determined as ever, though, he opened Viacom's annual shareholder meeting in March of this year at the age of 88, despite many reports claiming that he would be unable to attend. Viacom's profit soared 56% in the company's second quarter this year.

Redstone's dogged perseverance and dedication to his media career was certainly instilled in him by his past military experience. From tackling the seemingly impossible mission of cracking Japanese military codes, Redstone reinforced values he sees as key to success, specifically "that you have to be tenacious -- even relentless -- and you can't be deterred by obstacles."

John A. Luke, Jr., CEO of MeadWestvaco
John A. Luke, Jr. went from fighting, flying and winning (well, not winning- he served in Vietnam) in the US Air Force to turning ideas into impact at MeadWestvaco (MWV), a packaging and chemical solutions corporation. MWV manufactures the cans, cartons, clamshells, and other packaging materials that comedian Jim Gaffigan famously refers to as "clothing for food." It is also one of the world's biggest paper manufacturers, and owns an estimated three million acres of forest land.

In 1992, Luke, the fifth-generation leader of the family company that was founded in 1888, was appointed CEO. The timing of his appointment roughly coincided with widespread public awareness of Westvaco (now Meadwestvaco) as a severe known polluter. Luke, who remains CEO 20 years later, reacted by turning the company into something of an environmental poster child. The Dow Jones Sustainability World Index listee recycles water at its paper mills, procures raw materials from certified renewable sources, including its forests, and provides a transparency report about its resource usage, among other initiatives.

MWV's sustainability turnaround wasn't the only area in which Luke, who also holds an MBA from Wharton, demonstrated skill in adapting the company's strategy. He led the successful merger with Mead Corporation in 2002, but later spun off the merged company's Consumer and Office Products business, home to the Mead day planner and notebooks, in favor of more fruitful niches. Most recently, Luke's team expanded MWV's medication packaging business by purchasing AARDEX Group.

George S. Patton once said, "No good decision was ever made in a swivel chair." Perhaps Luke, in all his corporate success, is actually proving Patton wrong.

William V. Hickey, President and CEO of Sealed Air Corporation
Sealed Air is not a metaphor. From Bubble Wrap to styrofoam peanuts, construction foams to IV bags, Sealed Air Corporation (SEE) specializes in products that pad, seal, insulate, and contain air.

Sealing air, it turns out, is an $8.1 billion business. Former Naval Officer William V. Hickey, CEO of Sealed Air for the past 12 years, has kept the company buoyant through the 2000s with a strategic focus on developing regions, where tools like vacuum-packaging food could mitigate spoilage and - ideally - hunger. Working with the World Economic Forum, Hickey spearheaded an effort to supply farmers in Africa with food packaging machines, and helped establish a food packaging and transportation infrastructure on a continent in which 40% of food losses occur at the post-harvest or processing level.

Of course, becoming a key supplier of infrastructure as it is being established in developing countries is also shrewd, especially considering the burgeoning middle classes in the BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) group. And Hickey has enough qualifications to classify him as, at the very least, smarter than the average corporate bee. An engineer by training, Hickey left the service -- not before collecting a Navy Cross for rescuing Marines trapped and facing enemy fire in Vietnam -- to earn his Harvard MBA and a CPA, which he used when working as a consultant at Arthur Young & Company (now Accenture (ACN)) and later as Chief Financial Officer at WR Grace & Co. (GRA). He went on to work his way up the ranks at Sealed Air, serving as Vice President and General Manager, Executive Vice President, CFO, and COO before ascending to the Chief Executive position.

As if that four-tier row of corporate achievement stripes wasn't enough, Hickey is also well-connected in the business community, holding director positions at Public Service Enterprise Group, Sensient Technologies Corp., the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Northern New Jersey Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

If all that responsibility stresses Hickey out, he's not showing it. Perhaps that's because he keeps two feet of Bubble Wrap next to his desk: A Sealed Air survey recently discovered that popping Bubble Wrap actually has healing powers.

Kevin W. Sharer, Former CEO/ Chairman of the Board of Amgen
What does the world's biggest biotechnology firm have in common with a nuclear submarine? Both entities are large, tech-savvy, and were once driven by Kevin W. Sharer. Unlike Amgen (AMGN), however, America's nuclear submarines did not generate $94 million in total compensation for Sharer, which may be why the recently-retired CEO navigated his way into the corporate world after serving on subs during the Cold War era.

Longtime journalist Luke Timmerman, who apparently knew Sharer quite well, suggests that Sharer's leadership style retained militaristic aspects. "Sharer's Amgen … exuded a command-and-control, disciplined, and insular culture," Timmerman wrote in an illuminating Xcomony article. "[Sharer] seemed to relish the image of himself as a businessman with military discipline. He famously hung a picture of General Custer on his office wall, he has said, to remind himself of the dangers of overestimating his own abilities, and underestimating the enemy … He … has a forceful voice that seems to contain no doubt, and sounds like it was born to bark orders and instill fear into subordinates."

Timmerman also pointed out that, during his 11-year reign as CEO, Sharer only delivered half-percent annual stock growth. Nevertheless, Sharer did grow Amgen's revenue by more than $12 billion during his tenure, money that seems to have stayed inside of the company. FierceBiotech reports that Sharer is being handsomely rewarded for his achievements with a $49 million retirement package, which is more than enough to buy his own recreational submarine.

Clayton M. Jones, Chairman, President, and CEO of Rockwell Collins
If there's such a thing as an ideal career path for a fighter-pilot-turned-businessman, Rockwell Collins (COL) President, Chairman, and CEO Clay Jones may just have followed it. Jones served as a fighter pilot for the US Air Force between 1971 and 1979. After leaving the service, he joined Rockwell Collins, one of the US government's largest aviation contractors. Over the next 22 years, Jones ascended from ground-level positions to the very top of the company, receiving his MBA in the process.

In a Korn/Ferry and Economist Intelligence Unit report entitled "Military Experience and CEOs-Is There a Link?," Jones extolled the benefits of the military for corporate leaders. "At a very young age, you get a chance to be in leadership positions of significant magnitude," he said in the report. "You become comfortable in a leadership role." He indicated that the Air Force helped him become more flexible from a strategic and tactical standpoint, and more resourceful.

With a market-leading dividend stock, ongoing partnerships and contracts with both public agencies and private corporations, and an established position in the lucrative government contractor industry, Jones and Rockwell Collins are indeed staying resourceful.
There are, however, clouds on the horizon for the military contractor. A looming cut in federal military spending poses what Jones calls a "devastating $500 billion threat of sequestration" in early 2013, which may (barring an effective lobbying campaign) result in layoffs.

Herb Vest, CEO of
In the era of free love and unsafe sex, Vest served as an infantry commander in Vietnam. The Purple Heart recipient spent about three and a half years serving in two decorated Army units, the First Cavalry and the 173rd Airborne Brigade, commanding the helicopter platoons that remain a powerful symbol of the Vietnam War.

"Over time … You start thinking about the people you killed, their mothers and spouses and children," Vest told Del Jones in this excellent USA Today interview. "You develop an extreme caring and a mission to make people's lives better."

Vest went on to found and run, a popular dating site that indeed has love inside, albeit under very specific and scientific conditions. It appears that Vest, a lawyer with an MBA who used to run his own financial services firm, does not mess around, even when it comes to passion. uses scientific personality and sexual compatibility testing to enable users to hunt down mates with sniper precision.

"The only single dating service that screens for marrieds and felons," "can't guarantee criminals won't get on the site, but … can guarantee they'll be sorry if they do." What's an ill-intentioned, adulterous criminal to do? even has an answer for that: "If you are married or a convicted criminal, please close your browser."

To boot, also has a certification process that awards "Single Certified" status. Users can proceed to find love in a safe, protected, smart, and technologically-empowered venue. Vest, it seems, recognized the mercurial nature of Internet users, and had the foresight to create a quality-assurance structure around the online dating process, so that users can say with certainty: "I want YOU for my partner."

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