Rising Stars

1 September 2006

Steve Coomber contrasts the youthful boardrooms of China with the 'greyer' C-suites of Japan and the West.

Every executive knows the story of Jack Welch. A management icon of the 20th century, he is one of the most celebrated CEOs of all time. Now retired, Welch may have his detractors, but it is hard to argue with his track record.

Under Welch's stewardship General Electric posted a 600% increase in profits and 100 consecutive quarters of increased earnings. His was not an overnight success, however.

Unlike most CEOs, Welch rose to the top at an early age. At the age of 33 he became the youngest general manager in the company's history, and at 44 CEO.

So where are the great CEOs of the 21st century? Who are the CEOs young enough and talented enough to make their mark on the global business world like Welch did? This, the first CEO ranking of up-and-coming CEOs under the age of 45, is a chance to find out.


If China is going to be the next economic superpower, it makes sense that there should be a cadre of great leaders driving the Dragon economy. Eight of the top ten CEOs in the ranking and 14 of the top 20 companies listed in China.

Besides illustrating the strong growth of China's economy, the ranking shows that age is no barrier to executive advancement in China. Nearly half (23) of the top 50 CEOs under the age of 45 are from China. The youngest is 33, and 12 are age 40 or younger.

Maybe the West could learn something here. In 1995, a Booz Allen Hamilton survey of the 2,500 largest publicly traded corporations revealed the average starting age of a CEO as just over 50. In 2004, the average starting age for S&P 500 CEOs was 55.

The Chinese CEOs head up some of the global corporate giants of the future. The top-ranked CEO on the list, Bin Zhao (34) runs Shanghai Aero Auto Electromechanical (SAAE). The company gets over 80% of its revenue from auto parts and is also involved in satellite development. Turnover for 2005 was Y1.8bn ($225.7m), while net profit guidance for the first half of 2006 was up 300% on 2005's Y13,235,803 ($1.6m).

"In the meritocratic US, it's surprising that the average CEO age is 55."

CEOs of specialist mining and metals companies fill spots two to five, with three of the companies listed in China: Yunnan Chihong Zinc ($146.7m turnover), Baoji Titanium Industry ($145.4m turnover) and Zhongjin Gold ($558m turnover).

Sixth on the list is Weishun Lu, CEO of retail business the Dashang Group.

Dashang is the third biggest of China's domestic retailers. Based in the port city of Dalian, in Northeast China's Liaoning province, it has over 120 stores in 26 cities. In 2005, revenues were Y8.5bn ($1.07bn) up from 2004's Y500m ($61m).

The number of foreign retailers in China has grown in only two years from just over 300 to more than 1,000, with the likes of Wal-Mart, Carrefour and B&Q making inroads into the market. Dashang is holding its own against the best the West can offer.


European CEOs don't appear in the ranking until the UK's Andy Haste, 44, at insurer Royal Sun Alliance (#19). Average ages of CEOs of companies listed on France's CAC40 index (57), the German DAX (56) and the UK's FTSE100 (52), suggest that either there is a dearth of young executive talent at CEO level, or, more likely, that major companies are still unwilling to appoint younger CEOs.

Haste was appointed group chief executive of the UK's second largest non-life insurer Royal Sun Alliance in April 2003. Since then he has acted quickly to turn the organisation's fortunes around, selling assets in the US and limiting its risk exposure there, shedding jobs, tightening up underwriting, and initially shifting the focus of operations to its UK, Scandinavian and Canadian business. The result was a return to profit in 2006 after several years of losses, with operating profit up 24% to £409m.

"Australia, the lucky country, is one to watch with a blend of old and new industries represented."

Haste's is not the only turnaround story among the European CEOs. At Sainsbury's, Justin King, 44, ranked 35 in the top 50 list, is restoring the faded glory of the UK's former number one retailer.

When King joined Sainsbury's in 2004 the company had slipped behind both Tesco and Asda. In 2005 it made a loss of £238m despite sales of £16.4bn. King arrived with an exceptional track record in the retail industry, learning his trade at companies like Haagen-Dazs, Mars, Asda and M&S Food.

Catching Tesco is a target for the future; the UK's top retailer is double the size of Sainsbury. Asda is a more realistic target, and there is every prospect of King moving the company into the second spot. Early in 2006 Sainsbury's reported like-for-like sales growth ahead of Tesco's and must hope that this transforms into increased profits.


In the meritocratic US, it comes as a surprise to find that the average age of S&P500 CEOs is 55. There are just 26 CEOs aged 45 or under, the youngest aged 40.

You would expect to find some of Silicon Valley's young guns in a 'high-flyers' ranking, and sure enough, first among the CEOs of North American companies is #14, Jen-Hsun Huang, 43, founder and CEO of Nvidia.

Huang is a survivor. He co-founded the graphics chip company in 1993. The idea was to make computer graphics mainstream, and not just for Silicon graphics supercomputer users. Nvidia was far from the only player in town, though. When Huang started out there were over 50 companies in the sector. Now there are just a handful, with ATI as Nvidia's principle competitor.

More recently Huang has moved Nvidia into other multimedia markets, supplying graphic chips for the first Xbox and now for Sony Playstation 3, for example. The company continues to grow, and employs over 3,500 people. Revenue for the fiscal year 2005 was $2.01bn, up from $1.82bn for 2004.

"The ranking shows that age is no barrier to executive advancement in China."

Next highest ranked in North America is Bruce Flatt, 40 (#20). Flatt is CEO of asset management corporation Brookfield Asset Management, based in Toronto, Canada, which focuses on three sectors: commercial real estate, power generation and finance.

Flatt became CEO in 2002, before which he was president, CEO and COO of Brookfield Properties, part of the BAM empire.

At Brookfield Properties Flatt is credited with streamlining the property portfolio, moving out of industrial and retail premises, and into offices. The company owned a number of properties close to Ground Zero in Manhattan, including One Liberty Plaza. Flatt visited these properties soon after 9/11 to assess the condition of the buildings and was praised by Mayor Giuliani for being one of the first landlords in the area to get repairs underway.


CEOs of companies listed on the Australian ASX200 index do well in the CEO high-flyers ranking, with three CEOs in the top 20, two in the top ten. The average age for CEOs on the ASX is 51. Seventeen were under the age of 45, five aged between 35 and 39, and the youngest just 29.

At the top of the ASX list of CEOs is Stuart Murray, 44 (#5). Although listed in Australia, the core of Aquarius' business is in South Africa. Mining may have had a good 12 months, but the performance of Aquarius under Murray's guidance has been stellar, with profits rising to an astonishing $85m in the 12 months ending June 2006, against $20m in the same period the year before. The leap in profits was driven not just by high metals prices, but also by a significant increase in production.

Another interesting story from the ASX is that of the #12 CEO Paul Bassat, 37, at internet-based recruitment business Seek. Formerly a lawyer, Bassat jumped on the dotcom bandwagon in 1997 when he figured the internet was a good way to find real estate.

Bassat survived the dot bomb, ditching real-estate location and focusing on recruitment. The business floated on the ASX in April 2005, and is now the biggest online recruitment website in Australia and New Zealand.


"There will, inevitably, be more great CEOs as the century progresses, some of them in this ranking."

The CEO high-flyers ranking is not an exhaustive list of young CEO talent across the globe. Because of the methodology, there are some brilliant young CEOs of private companies, as well as CEOs of public sector organisations, particularly those running state-owned enterprises in China, who are not listed here.

What this ranking does represent, however, is a good guide to some of the executive stars of tomorrow.

It also provides a fascinating insight into the promotion policies of different regions. There may be a war for talent out there, as so many corporations complain. But corporations in some countries are clearly fighting that war harder than others.

If Chinese corporations can promote executives to CEO positions in their late thirties and forties, putting young talented people in charge of billion-dollar businesses, why can't companies in the US and Europe do the same?

By next year some of these CEOs will have slipped from the rankings. The mining companies, for example, may perform less well should commodity prices slip. Other stars will emerge, and some of those already in the ranking will continue to shine.

Regardless of how hard the media may search, there can only be one Jack Welch, but there will, inevitably, be more great CEOs as the century progresses, some of them in this ranking.

Research conducted by Neil Beasley as part of his MBA, completed after many years spent working in the broadcast industry. His recent research includes projects on the software market in Eastern Europe, UK investment opportunities and forecasting commodity prices.

To view the full report please click here

China's young entrepreneurs go against a long tradition of promotion by seniority.
An older age profile is visible on the Hang Seng index.
The technology sector and online businesses dominate the young American CEO rankings.
The UK stands out in Europe, claiming four of the top five young CEOs.
Australia can claim the youngest CEO in our survey – Sahba Abedian of Sunland Group is just 29.
Age is revered in Japan, which perhaps explains why it has the oldest age profile of our survey.