Digital disruption may be crippling old business models. But it hasn’t stopped 2017 emerging as a banner year for the elder chieftain.
Insurance giant AIG hired a 70-year-old CEO in May, and shareholders in CSX had no qualms about paying the American railroad operator’s new 72-year-old chief an eye-popping $84 million sign-up bonus.
We’re all living longer due to improvements in medical technology and living standards, and a study by the Korn Ferry Institute found that CEOs are older than holders of other managerial roles. In the US, the average age of managerial roles currently stands at 58.
But humans aren’t invincible yet. One study in the Journal of Empirical Finance states that an age-related decline in a leaders’ cognitive abilities, on average, ends up hurting their company’s share prices.
Just try telling that to these 10 corporate sages, who are showing that youthful vigour and tech experience can be no match for good old-fashioned tenacity and wisdom.
Brian Duperreault, AIG (age 70)
The last thing AIG needs right now is a leader on the decline. Since the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the insurer has gone through six leadership changes. Enter Brian Duperreault, an industry veteran who’s shown that age is no barrier to change. Duperreault has successfully steered four large insurance companies, and only recently was credited with bringing sophisticated data analytics to the industry.
Brian Duperreault, AIG (Rob Kim/Getty Images)
Hunter Harrison, CSX Railroad (age 72)
Never averse to a sharp course change, the industrious Hunter Harrison is credited with improving the fortunes of three major railroads: Canadian Pacific, Canadian National Railway and Illinois Central. It was while at the latter, though, that Harrison revolutionised the industry with his so-called precision railroading system. Breaking with tradition, it involved dispatching loads to customers as quickly as possible, rather than waiting until trains were full. Pulling it off meant introducing a whole new level of sophistication to asset utilisation and cost control.
Leslie Wexner, L Brands (age 80)
Wexner has been in charge of Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands for more than 54 years, making him the longest-serving chief in the Fortune 500. Yes, the company’s shares have sagged of late, but Wexner was still ranked last year as the 34th-best-performing CEO by Harvard Business School. Described by Forbes magazine as a ‘chronic contrarian’, Wexner has constantly re-shaped his business to adapt to fickle consumer tastes, whether it was selling off Abercrombie & Fitch in 1996 or recently pushing into lower-priced sports bras.
Rupert Murdoch, News Corp (age 86)
Love him or hate him, nobody can deny the Australian media mogul’s grit. He’s held firm in the face of everything from phone-hacking scandals to the decline of the newspaper and continues to command a formidable influence in business and political spheres. Murdoch isn’t afraid to take risks, having incurred massive initial losses on Sky. In addition, his passion for traditional media is helping the industry hang on in the face of intense competition from the likes of Google and Facebook.
Nobutsugu Shimizu, Life Corporation (age 91)
In 1945, he was assigned to go on a World War II suicide mission. Fortunately for Nobutsugu Shimizu, the war ended in the nick of time and the 19-year-old went on to pursue a career in business. His survival was also fortunate for investors in Life Corporation: shares in the Japanese supermarket chain have almost doubled in value since he took the reins in 2006. His age isn’t particularly unusual in Japan, where the average CEO is over 60. The next-oldest leader of a large company there is 90-year-old Shintaro Tsuji, steward of the Hello Kitty empire.
Frederick Smith, FedEx (age 73)
Sure, FedEx’s recent success has a great deal to do with the e-commerce revolution boosting demand for courier services. But the company wouldn’t hold the commanding market position it has today if Frederick Smith hadn’t been in it for the long haul. Smith first flagged the idea for FedEx in a term paper at Yale, receiving an average grade. Following two tours of duty in Vietnam, he revisited the idea to glittering success. He’s still growing FedEx’s already-high share price via well-executed acquisitions that are spreading its global reach.
Frederick Smith, FedEx (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Martin Sorrell, WPP (age 72)
The longest-serving CEO on Britain’s FTSE 100, Sorrell has masterfully transformed WPP from a manufacturer of wire shopping baskets into the world leader in marketing communications services, largely via dozens of smartly-executed acquisitions. He allowed new companies to run autonomously, until a market downturn in 1992 prompted him to centralise functions to leverage WPP’s size. The approach worked and Harvard Business Review considers Sorrell to be the second-best CEO in the world, behind Novo Nordisk’s Lars Rebien Sorensen.
Li Ka-shing, CK Hutchison (age 89)
Hong Kong’s richest man is worth around $34 billion, but it didn’t used to be this way. Li Ka-shing came from the humblest beginnings, having quit school aged 12 to work in a watch-strap factory after his school-teacher father died of tuberculosis. He went on to start a plastics trading business and, alongside Warren Buffett, is now known as one of the savviest investors in the world. Never one to rest on his laurels, Ka-shing has constantly morphed his sprawling empire to stay on top, whether through the recent sale of Asian telecom assets, or a timely 2008 investment in Facebook.
Michael Bloomberg, Bloomberg (age 75)
Donald Trump became the oldest American president-elect at the age of 70, while his rival Hillary Clinton is currently 69. This may hearten supporters of Michael Bloomberg. Could the media tycoon and former New York mayor conceivably run for president in 2020? By then he’d be 77, but judging by his most recent achievements, it’d be unwise to rule him out. His continued success running financial data company Bloomberg is supporting multiple philanthropic endeavours, helping him emerge as a leading light in the fight against climate change.
Michael Bloomberg, Bloomberg (David M Benett/Getty Images)
Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway (age 87)
Perhaps it’s got something to do with the five cans of Coke he likes to drink each day, but at 87, Warren Buffett still races at the front of the pack. His value-based approach to stock-picking, and generosity and sharp wit have earned him a cult following around the world – and enriched investors too. Since 1964, Berkshire Hathaway has notched up a return on investment of more than 10,000 times. With those kinds of results, it’s no wonder the group’s general meetings in Omaha still draw multitudes of Buffett devotees a year.