If anyone has any doubt about their ability to succeed in this country, they should take notice of the number of CEOs who worked their way up from the bottom of their companies. Here are fifty individuals who started at the bottom and worked their way up to the position of CEO.
1. Nick Akins – CEO and President of American Electric Power
Atkins’ career at American Electric Power (AEP) began in 1982. Rising through the ranks, he started out as an electrical engineer and then moved to other positions with more responsibility.
He was elected president of AEP in December 2010. From 2006 to 2010, he served as executive vice president, where he was responsible for AEP’s approximately 38,000 MW of generation resources. His responsibilities consisted of construction, engineering, power plant operations, fuel procurement, logistics, new generation, marketing, and trading.
American Electric Power is one of the largest electric energy companies in the United States. They provide power to over five million homes and businesses in eleven states.
2. Samuel Allen – CEO of John Deere
Since 2009, Samuel Allen has been CEO of John Deere and chairman of the board. In 1975, Samuel Allen began working at John Deere as an industrial engineer. He soon visualized himself working in senior roles and having responsibilities in almost every department. Allen feels fortunate to be the president of the worldwide construction and forest division.
Allen has spent his entire career at John Deere in various areas of the company. His responsibilities have included manufacturing and managing sales geographic regions. Allen credits this diverse experience as being the most beneficial to his career.
John Deere is a leader in the heavy equipment industry. Their specialty is providing building products and technologies for use in construction, agriculture, lawn and garden, and forestry. The company was established by its founder, John Deere, in 1837.
3. Dan Amos – CEO of Aflac and Aflac Incorporated
Amos was just a teenager when he joined Aflac in 1973 as a sales associate. His sales territories were number one in 1981 and 1982. In 1983, Amos was appointed the president of Aflac and chief operating officer of Aflac in 1987. He became chief executive officer of Aflac Incorporated in 1990 and was named the chairman of Aflac’s board of directors in 2001.
In 2000, Amos launched the company’s popular advertising campaign featuring the Aflac Duck, which helped Aflac become a top national brand.
In 2015, Aflac was named by FORTUNE magazine as one of America’s Most Admired Companies for the 14th time.
Aflac has appeared for 17 straight years on FORTUNE’S list of the 100 Best Companies to Work for. For the past nine years, the company has been on Ethisphere® Institute’s annual list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies.
4. Tracey Armstrong – Copyright Clearance Center CEO
In 1996, Tracey Armstrong started working at Copyright Clearance Center as a clerk. She held that position for almost a year. During her spare time, she took the initiative to create a tri-fold marketing brochure. The Marketing department was so impressed with her work that they asked her to do additional projects.
Having demonstrated her abilities, she was called upon again to help when the company had a large project that was behind time and over budget. Armstrong remembers that she was a customer service manager, who was at home on leave for personal reasons when her boss asked her to come into the office. When she arrived, she was asked to manage the project. That was the beginning of her experience as an MBA.
Armstrong soon discovered why the project was behind schedule and advised her employer. Eighteen months later, the project was complete. Others who worked on the problem with Armstrong are still employed at Copyright Clearance Center. They attribute the success of that initial project to the reason why the Copyright Clearance Center has the success it has today.
5. Mary Barra – Chairman and CEO of General Motors
Mary Barra began her career with General Motors (GM) when she was 18 years old. She enrolled in a co-op program at GM to help her pay for her college tuition at General Motors Institute. Barra’s responsibilities included checking the panels on the hood and fender of the Pontiac Grand Prix models at the Pontiac, Michigan automotive plant.
Upon graduating with her undergraduate degree, Barra was hired by GM as a senior engineer. Impressed with Barra’s leadership abilities, GM offered her a fellowship to attend Stanford Business School, where she earned her Master’s in Business Administration.
Barra has held at least 10 different positions at the automotive manufacturing company. On January 15, 2014, Barra became of the CEO of General Motors and the Chairman of the GM Board of Directors on January 4, 2016. Barra was the first female in the automotive industry to hold the position of CEO.
6. Mark Barrenechea – CEO, Open Text
After graduating from college in 1980 with a computer science degree, Mark Barrenechea began his career with Open Text as a computer programmer.
Because of Barrenechea’s unwavering commitment to new ideas and obtaining results, he was able to successfully realign the company’s products, which resulted in OpenText being transformed into a leader in the field of Enterprise Information Management.
Barrencheas credits his desire to learn and ask questions is a large part of the key to his success. Later in life, after surviving leukemia, he learned the importance of humility, empathy, and mindfulness.
Barrencheas also teaches that leadership is an act of the heart and mind. He believes it is more of an obstacle course than a ladder.
Open Text is a corporation that provides intranet, extranet, and corporate portal solutions to organizations located throughout the world.
7. James T. Blackledge – Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company CEO
Blackledge, 48, joined Mutual as an actuary in 1989 and has been executive vice president, chief information officer, and chief risk officer. He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Creighton University.
In November 2014, Mr. James T. Blackledge became the President of Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company and Chief Executive Officer in April 2015. Mr. Blackledge served as an Executive Vice President of Information Services at Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company. He served as Senior Vice President and Product Line Officer of Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company.
8. Ursula Burns – XEROX Chairman and CEO
Ursula Burns grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York City on the Lower East Side. She earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
When Burns graduated from her Catholic high school, there were not many career options available for women. Unless she wanted to be a nurse, teacher, or a nun. Burns decided to make her own way and became a chemical engineer.
In 1980, Ursula Burns began working at Xerox as an intern. The next year, she became a permanent employee after graduating with her master’s degree. In the beginning, Burns worked in planning and product development.
Opportunities came for Burns to work closely with the company’s senior executives, including CEO Annie Mulcahy. Under the leadership of Mulcahy, Burns assumed the role of president of Xerox in 2007. In July 2009, Burns succeeded Mulcahy as CEO. Burns was the first black woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company and the first woman to succeed another woman as head of a Fortune 500 company.
Burns led Xerox in a split into two independent companies: Xerox Corporation and Conduent Incorporated. In May 2017, she left the Xerox board and her role as chairperson.
9. Susan M. Cameron – Chairman, President, and CEO of Reynolds
When Cameron was two years old, her family moved to Florida. In 1976, Cameron graduated from Ft. Lauderdale High School. In 1980, she graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelor of Science degree in business. In 1984, she earned an MBA from Bellarmine University.
In 1981, Cameron got her job in the industry as a sales representative for Brown Williamson. The next year, she received a promotion to district sales manager. In 1990 Cameron moved to London, where she served as a brand director for British American Tobacco, which the parent company for Brown and Williamson. She became Director of Marketing in China in 1994 and was based in Hong Kong. In 1996, Cameron moved back to England and served as the Head of International Brands.
Upon returning to the United States, Cameron joined the executive committee of Brown and Williamson’s and served as senior vice president of marketing. In 2001, Cameron became the president and CEO of Brown Williamson, which made her the first woman CEO of a major cigarette company.
10. George Clooney – Actor and philanthropist
Today, George Clooney is known as a rich actor and philanthropist, but he grew up with meager means.
Clooney went from door to door selling insurance and worked at a liquor store at night.
He bought clothes that were too big and cut part of the fabric to make ties to match his suit. He understands what it is like to not have insurance.
Now that he can help others, he is a philanthropist for causes from human rights to poverty relief.
11. Doug Conant – CEO, Campbell Soup Co.
Conant’s first job was that of an entry-level marketing assistant. He learned about teamwork and helping others. Since he has never worked in an office, he had to learn how to adapt to the corporate environment. He discovered how competitive it was, but also learned if he built a network of good people, no one could beat them.
Conant worked hard to get promoted based on how well his team performed. He was tough on standards but tenderhearted with the people. Conant became known for dropping handwritten notes to his employees, telling them how much they are appreciated. He would write sometime as much as 10 to 20 notes a day. Conant’s advice to others is to celebrate what people are doing right. They will perform at their best for you.
12. Michael Corbat – CEO Citigroup
In 1983, Corbat graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Since graduation, he has spent his entire career affiliated with Citigroup, the world’s global bank. If he wasn’t working directly for Citigroup, he was working for one of the companies’ subsidiaries. Corbat’s first position was working in the sales department at Salomon Brothers. Later, Salomon Brothers merged with Citigroup.
After working his way up in the company, Corbat is currently the CEO of Citigroup. According to CEOWORLD magazine, Corbat is ranked number 67 of the world’s best CEOs in 2019.
After the resignation of Vikram Pandit in October 2012, Michael L. Corbat was appointed CEO of Citigroup.
Citigroup has approximately 200 million customer accounts and conducts business in over 160 countries and jurisdictions.
13. David Cote – CEO, Honeywell
Cote began working at the General Electric jet engine plant as an hourly employee at the age of 21.
He understood how important it was for leaders to be supportive of the people who work for them. While working as a middle-level corporate financial planner, members of his staff wanted him to make an internal request for return on investment that involved projections from another business unit. Cote did not agree with the request, but he made it on behalf of his team.
As expected, his CEO rejected the proposal. A few months later, the CEO learned Cole had made the request because his team wanted, although Cote himself didn’t agree with it. Cote’s CEO was so impressed with the way Cote supported his team, he promoted Cote to the CFO role in an aircraft engine production unit.
In 2002, Cote became CEO, president, and a member of the board of directors. He was made Board Chairman in July 2002. Cote served as CEO at Honeywell until March 2017.
14. Ronald E. Daly – CEO, Océ-USA Holding
When Daly was seventeen years old, he started working at Océ-USA Holding as a proofreader. His starting salary was $1.92 an hour.
It took Daly 38 years at RR Donnelley to go from apprentice proofreader to president of the company’s largest unit, Print Solutions.
Daly was the company’s first African American to work as a production coordinator. He had less competition because most of the company’s managers were craftsmen, without a college degree.
In college, Daly learned how to conduct root cause analysis. Applying that knowledge, he was able to turn a unit that was losing money into one that was profitable.
Although he felt his chances were slim, Daly applied for a position as a general manager at one of the Pennsylvania plants. He impressed the senior VP in the interview and got the job. Daly is a risk-taker who doesn’t mind tough assignments.
Daly’s advice to anyone who wants to succeed is you must market yourself and do things to sets you apart from everyone else. What differentiated Daly was his education. He earned an associate degree, an undergrad degree in business, and an MBA.
15. Michael Dubyak – CEO, WEX Inc.
At age 23, Dubyak began his career at Pennzoil working as an Allocation coordinator.
A friend who worked in the human resource department shared with Dubyak how to determine his career path by prioritizing his values. When Dubyak was presented with career advancement opportunities, he utilized the method taught to him by his friend. In doing so, Dubyak determined that his priorities involved the creation and involvement in a team and having ownership in an organization.
Five years after Dubyak joined WEX, the company began to lose money. Along with those monetary loses, the company lost its CEO. Because of the situation in the company, Dubyak considered leaving to go work for a different company. The other company offered him the opportunity to make twice his current salary but having ownership in that company was not possible. Not wanting to leave WEX any more vulnerable, or at risk of failing altogether, Dubyak decided to remain. Years later, Dubyak was promoted.
Dubyak has served as Wright Express’ president and chief executive officer since August 1998.
16. Greg C. Garland – CEO Phillips 66
In 1980, Greg C. Garland became employed by Phillips 66 as a project engineer. Later, he became a sales manager, a business service manager, a sales engineer, and a business development director at the company. Twenty-two years later, Garland became the CEO and chairman of Phillips 66.
Garland was the first person in his family to attend college. His father was a union man, who worked at Union Car by Texas City. His father worked his way up to a supervisor position.
According to Garland, his father stressed that he did not care what he did for a living as long as it wasn’t an engineer. To show his father that he honored his wishes, Garland said he sent him a business card, which read CEO.
17. Hans Gieskes – CEO, Cision
When he was twenty-two years old, Gieskes started out as a production coordinator. Within a few months, he learned that the company was in poor financial shape. So, he took a position in sales at another company.
While running global sales for Elsevier, a science publishing company, he was mentored by his boss’s boss—Elsevier’s chairman. He taught him to ask more questions instead of making statements.
Gieskes took his mentor’s advice and discovered that asking questions was an effective way to get people to do better work and accept changes to the organization.
Some of the advice Gieskes gives young people is to find out who their boss will be, if possible. Find out whether they think that person is honest. If they can respect their new boss, they will be able to learn from them.
In 2013, Gieskes stepped down as President and CEO of Cision.
18. Ilene Gordon – CEO, Ingredion
Gordon began working at the Boston Consulting Group when she was twenty-three years old.
The company sent her to the London office to work. During this time, it was not popular for women to hold such a position. Her British male colleagues were dismissive towards her. She was forced to constantly defend her position concerning advice given to her clients.
A mentor, Gordon an opportunity to work in the profit and loss section. Her mentor advised her to take advantage of the opportunity by learning all she could from the men she worked with by figuring out what motivated them.
Gordon prides herself on the fact that she stayed true to herself. The career choices that she made were consistent with her goals. She realized early in her career that she wanted both the corner office and a family. When offered opportunities that conflicted with her family values, she declined them.
In May 2009, Gordon became CEO, president, and chairman of Ingredion. She retired from the position in 2017.
19. Alex Gorsky – CEO Johnsons & Johnson
In 1988, Alex Gorsky began his career as a sales representative at Janssen Pharmaceutica, which is a Johnson & Johnson company. Today, he is the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Johnson & Johnson. Gorsky ranks number 8 out of 121 of the best CEOs in the world for 2019.
Gorsky gained experience by working in many positions at Johnson & Johnson. In April 2012, he was named CEO and Chairman of the Board on December 28, 2012. Alex is also a U.S. military veteran. He served as a U.S. Army Ranger. When he completed his military career, he held the rank of captain. Gorsky is an avid supporter of the armed forces.
20. Tricia Griffith – CEO and president of Progressive
Griffith went to Illinois State University where she earned an undergraduate degree. Then she attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she participated in the advanced management program at the Wharton School of Business.
Griffith’s career in the insurance industry began when she joined Progressive in 1988. She worked as a claim’s representative in Indianapolis. After holding several management positions, Griffin became the Chief Human Resources Officer in 2002. She served as the Group’s President in 2008.
As Chief Human Resources Officer, Griffith created a diversity and inclusion program. In 2007, she established the Progressive African American Network and LGBT Plus. When Griffin returned to claims in 2008, she was serving as the group’s President.
Later, Griffin was named President of Customer Operations and Chief Operating Officer of Progressive’s personal lines branch. She was appointed CEO of Progressive’s first female CEO on July 1, 2016.
21. Ed Heffernan – CEO, Alliance Data Systems
Upon earning an MBA in 1986, Heffernan began his career at First Boston as a management trainee. He was twenty-three years old.
The crash of 1987 occurred the following year, which made him more appreciative of the job he had. He learned to be more disciplined and conservative. Although he was conservative, Heffernan was not afraid to go where the opportunities for advancement were.
In 1998, Heffernan was in California working at First Data doing mergers and acquisitions. He had been Silicon Valley for about four years and was enjoying the location. However, there were opportunities at Alliance Data in Texas. Heffernan left the sea breezes of California to go to the rolling hills in the plains of Texas. He never forgot that it was 105 degrees when he arrived.
Heffernan was appointed President and CEO in March 2009. He left that position in June 2019.
22. Robert Herjavec – “Shark Tank” star, investor and CEO of Herjavec Group
When he only eight years old, Herjavec’s family moved to Canada from Croatia to escape communism. They arrived in Canada with nothing by a suitcase and $20. The family had to stay in the basement of the house of a family friend. Herjavec’s father eventually got a job working in a factory for $76.00 per week. Herjavec realized that time that his family was destitute.
Herjavec delivered newspapers to help pay the bills. He also had a job as a waiter. Finally, he got a job working in the technology sector because he agreed to work for free. Utilizing the experience he gained from working for free, he started his own IT company out of his basement. Later, he sold that company to AT&T Canada for over thirty million dollars.
23. Bob Iger – CEO of Walt Disney
In 1974, Bob Iger began his career working as a weatherman at a local ABC news station. He was performing small labor tasks for $150.00 per week. Today, he is the Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company.
In 1989, Iger was named head of ABC Entertainment. He served as president of the ABC Network Television Group from January 1993 to 1994. In March 1993, Iger was appointed as Capital Cities/ABC senior vice president and executive vice president in July 1993.
In 1994, Iger was named the president and chief operating officer of ABC’s corporate parent, Capital Cities/ABC.
Bob Iger ranks number 103 in the CEOWORLD magazine’s ranking of the most influential CEOs in the world 2019.
24. Jeff Jackson – CEO, PGT Innovations
At the age of twenty-four, Jackson began working as a staff accountant at KPMG.
His job included fixing the fax machine when it jammed and going to get lunch for the firm’s partners. Because his mentor told him to do whatever needed to be done, he spent Christmas and New Year’s counting inventories.
When Jackson was thirty-two years old, he landed his first role as an executive. He became the CFO of Mrs. Smith’s Bakeries, which is owned by Flowers Foods. However, he was reminded that he wasn’t receiving the respect he deserved when the CEO called him one day to fix the stopped up toilet in the men’s bathroom.
In November 2005, Jackson became employed at PGT as CFO. Within his first few months of employment, he got the company ready for its initial public offering. In 2006, Jackson helped lead the PGTs IPO. He was later named Executive Vice President. In June 2014, Jackson became President and Chief Operating Officer. In 2016, Mr. Jackson was appointed to the Board of Directors.
25. Aaron Jagdfeld – CEO, Generac
Jagdfeld began working as a staff accountant at Deloitte when he was twenty-one years old.
The following year he joined Generac’s finance department. Generac was a Deloitte client. Although it involved a pay cut, Jagdfeld saw the position as an opportunity to work closely with the company’s founder to learn how the company was run. At that time, the company was a small family business, and an employee could be more visible.
By shadowing his managers, Jagdfeld gained the confidence he needed to do his job. If someone asked him a question, he imagined how he would answer it. When people asked his manager a question, Jagdfeld would imagine how he would answer that question. Sometimes, he would ask his manager later why he answered a question a certain way. Jagdfeld reached the point to where most of his answers matched his manager’s answers.
Jagdfeld has served as President and CEO of Generac since September 2008.
26. Abigail Johnson – CEO Fidelity
In 1985, Johnson became a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting firm. The following year, she finished her Master of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. Upon graduation, she began her employment at Fidelity Investment, as a stock analyst.
Johnson had to climb her way up the ranks. She has been an inspiration for women who aspire to have a career in finance.
Eventually, Johnson became a portfolio manager. She received a promotion to an associate director position in 1994. A year later, her father divested his shares of Fidelity. There was speculation about her being groomed to be his successor.