Five Admirable CEOs

It has been alleged that I’m unthinkingly rude and negative about the rich, famous and successful. To disprove that assertion, here’s the first of a series of articles.

1. Aaron Feuerstein, CEO of Malden Mills.

In 1995, a fire burned the Malden Mills factory to the ground. Everyone thought they were out of work, but no. The company CEO kept all the employees on the payroll until the factory could be rebuilt. Wear your Polarfleece with pride!

2. Paul Fireman, CEO of Reebok.

The contrast between Paul Fireman of Reebok, and the weaselly Phil Knight of Nike, couldn’t be stronger. Knight publically welched out on a deal he made with Michael Moore on camera, continues to use sweatshop labor without apology, and hijacks events like the Boston Marathon for publicity without paying anything in sponsorship fees.

Fireman, on the other hand, is an active member of Amnesty International. He has written articles for business publications stressing the importance of human rights, and supporting the right of workers to unionize. Reebok sponsors many AI events, and Reebok board members have stood for election to serve on the board of Amnesty, with the company’s approval.

Sure, the company’s not perfect. It still makes its shoes in third world countries, and has plenty of critics. But in an industry where margins are wafer thin and competition is extreme, little gestures like paying your laborers 24% above minimum wage mean a lot.

3. Akio Morita, founder of Sony.

No grand humanitarian gestures here. Just a company that, after Apple, is the most consistently brilliant at creating beautifully designed high-tech devices of reasonable quality. Morita was an engineer, responsible for inventing the Walkman, a device that I think has changed everyone’s environment in surprising ways. His company also gave the world the transistor radio, the VCR, and many other devices we now take for granted. In the process, it changed the perception of the words “MADE IN JAPAN”. Morita built Sony from the ground up, and maintained a punishing schedule right up to his death in 1995.

4. Sergey Brin, founder of Google.

I’m sure everyone reading this knows how wonderful Google is. Sergey Brin is the “moral compass” of the company, trying to do the right thing in a world where the search engine’s visibility has made it a magnet for lawsuits and commercial temptations. I think, by and large, he’s succeeded.

5. The Kashio brothers, founders of Casio

Tadao Kashio founded Casio with his three younger brothers; Kazuo is now the CEO. It’s still a family business.

What I love about Casio is that they’re the poor man’s Sony. They have consistently produced quality, reliable products at low prices. It’s hard to imagine now, but a reliable wristwatch or calculator used to cost hundreds of dollars. I think the company’s biggest gift to the world, however, was putting cheap-but-good synths and samplers into the hands of thousands of musicians in the 80s and 90s.

To price products way lower than the market required, build them better than necessary, and yet survive and thrive on razor-thin margins, is an amazing accomplishment. To keep the company in the family while doing so is astonishing, even for Japan.