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The majority of Fortune 500 CEOs don’t come from marketing, product, or engineering—they come from finance.
This isn’t just a coincidence. Leading companies require executives who can make sense of the underlying financials to strategically allocate capital and create value. Here are six famous business leaders who started in finance before making it all the way to CEO.
Jeff Bezos is widely known for his technical expertise, but few realize that he spent his early career working at investment banking firms on Wall Street. After graduating with a degree in computer science and engineering from Princeton, he went to work for a fintech named Fitel before transitioning to roles at Bankers Trust and D.E. Shaw. When he was 30, Jeff walked away from his lucrative position as senior vice president at D.E. Shaw & Co. to start a company that would sell books on the internet. The rest, as they say, is history.
If you don’t understand the details of your business, you are going to fail. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.
After graduating from Columbia University, Martha Stewart spent seven years as a stockbroker at Monness Crespi Hardt. When the market collapsed in 1974, Martha decided it was as good a time as any to try her hand at entrepreneurship. Prior to becoming a TV personality, she had already created a range of highly successful business ventures under her Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MLSO).
Phil Knight started his career as a CPA and spent a short amount of time at Price Waterhouse before deciding to pursue an MBA from Stanford. The idea for Nike emerged from a paper he wrote during his MBA program on why shoes should be made in Japan instead of Germany.
To put his belief to the test, Phil started Blue Ribbon Sports—which would later be renamed Nike—and began selling shoes he imported from Japan out of the back of his green Plymouth Valiant. The company is now valued at $29.6 billion and is one of the 100 largest corporations in the United States.
It’s never just business. It never will be. If it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics, Jeff held several analyst positions including a role with Warner Bros. Studios where he was responsible for M&A evaluation. Before joining LinkedIn, Jeff had a wildly successful career at Yahoo and held positions as an executive in residence for venture capital firms Accel Partners and Greylock Partners. He went on to co-win the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2011, before playing an instrumental role in LinkedIn’s $26 billion acquisition by Microsoft in 2016. He is now the Executive Chairman for LinkedIn.
Randall Stephenson may be one of the lesser-known names on our list, but he’s no less impressive. Randall established his reputation by reducing company debt from $30 million to zero within his first three years as Southwestern Bell’s chief financial officer. As CEO of AT&T, he led acquisitions of DirecTV and Time Warner, transforming AT&T from just another phone company into one of the largest media corporations in the world.
Your number one job as an executive is appropriate allocation of capital resources. That’s just what you do as a living, to be quite candid.
John D. Rockefeller’s got his start in finance as an assistant bookkeeper when he was just 16. It was during this time that he realized his knack for negotiating transportation costs, a skill that would become a massive advantage as founder and CEO of Standard Oil Company. At its peak, Standard Oil Company was responsible for 2% of the entire U.S. GDP, giving John a net worth of $409 billion (adjusted for inflation).
Being a great CEO requires a wide range of skills, but the prevalence of Fortune 500 CEOs who got their start in finance shows just how important developing financial acumen should be to aspiring business leaders. A strong understanding of how money is made, invested and lost uniquely positions finance professionals to lead organizations.
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