Steve Easterbrook
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Kevin Johnson, Jack Dorsey, and Other High-Profile CEOs Who Left Their Companies

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Executive Decisions

Some of the most powerful CEOs in the world are people you've probably never heard of, like Kevin Johnson, the CEO of Starbucks who recently announced his resignation. Others, like Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who stepped down in 2021, are household names synonymous with the companies they built. Either way, when the guard changes at a major corporation — sometimes because a public misstep sends its value tumbling — the world takes notice. Here are some of the most notable changes at the top of major firms.

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Kevin Johnson
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Kevin Johnson | Starbucks

After five years in the CEO spot at Starbucks, Kevin Johnson is stepping down, but it's not a sudden departure. “A year ago, I signaled to the Board that as the global pandemic neared an end, I would be considering retirement from Starbucks," Johnson said in a statement. Starbucks won't be adrift following Johnson's resignation. While the search is on for a permanent replacement, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz will serve as an interim CEO, taking the chief executive position for a third time. In fact, when Schultz joined Starbucks in 1982, the chain had only four stores. He bought the company in 1987 and grew it into one of the world's most iconic brands. He's a cheap hire, too: the company said his salary as interim chief executive will be $1.

Related: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Starbucks

John Foley
John Foley by TechCrunch (CC BY)

John Foley | Peloton

It was John Foley who pitched the idea of an interactive exercise bike in 2011, but now he's stepping down as CEO of Peloton. It's been a tumultuous time for the on-demand exercise company: Business rose dramatically at the start of the pandemic, but it has waned since vaccines came out and gyms reopened. Thanks to the downturn, the company is laying off 2,800 employees, including 20% of its corporate workforce. Wall Street analysts view Foley's resignation as a pivotal moment that makes it more likely that the company might be sold in the future. Amazon, Apple, and Nike are among the big names that have been floated as potential buyers. 

Related20 Companies That Have Actually Benefited From the Pandemic

Steve Easterbrook
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Steve Easterbrook | McDonald's

Steve Easterbrook was fired as CEO of McDonald's in 2019, but new details came out recently about what led to the shakeup, thanks to a lawsuit settlement. At the time of his departure, Easterbrook had admitted to having a consensual sexual relationship with an employee, and the board determined he violated company policy. But according to a lawsuit filed by McDonald's against Easterbrook, he lied to the company about the extent of his relationships with employees, and proof of many more relationships has been found. McDonald's settled the lawsuit, forcing Easterbrook to pay back more than $100 million, the amount of his severance package. 

Related21 Surprising Things You Didn't Know About McDonald's

Jack Dorsey testifying before Senate
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Jack Dorsey | Twitter

Dorsey announced he was leaving social media platform Twitter in November, with the company's chief technology officer, Parag Agrawal, taking over immediately. It was Dorsey's second time leaving the company, as he was forced out in 2008 and returned in 2015 after Dick Costolo left the company. His return wasn't without hiccups, either. Investment firm Elliott Management requested that he step down in 2020, as he was acting as CEO for both Twitter and Square and there was concern he wouldn't focus enough attention on the company. A deal including a $2 billion stock buyback was made to keep Dorsey, but he didn't stick around for long.

Related: Companies That Have Changed the Way We Live Over the Past Decade

Jeff Bezos
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Jeff Bezos | Amazon

Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, then a humble online bookseller, in 1994, and oversaw its growth into a tech and e-commerce giant. He stepped down in July as CEO, passing the baton to Andy Jassy, leader of Amazon Web Services. Bezos didn't exactly retire, however. He has stayed on as executive chairman and is devoting more time to projects like Blue Origin, his SpaceX competitor, as well as the Bezos Earth Fund and The Washington Post, which he owns.  

Related: 23 Companies That Have Actually Benefited From the Pandemic

 John Flannery, GE CEO
John Flannery, GE CEO by Stagophile (CC BY-SA)

John Flannery | GE

After little more than year in the top job at the iconic company, the board said it was lights out for CEO John Flannery in late 2018. The company has been struggling with disappointing earnings and the current quarter would be no different, missing projections again. A 30-year GE veteran, Flannery was immediately replaced by board member and outsider Larry Culp. The company's stock has performed better under Culp, but like many of its competitors, GE has struggled from the impact of COVID-19.

Related: 24 Successful Businesses Launched During Economic Downturns

Kevin Systrom
Kevin Systrom by Christopher Michel (CC BY)

Kevin Systrom | Instagram

CEO Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger started the photo-sharing app Instagram in 2010, and it was subsequently bought by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, one of the social media giant's most successful acquisitions. The service has about 1 billion users every month and was estimated to be worth $100 billion in 2018, but tensions with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly led the pair to resign in September of that year. 

Bill Gates
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Bill Gates | Microsoft

Few individuals have had a greater impact on human civilization than Bill Gates, who in 2000 stepped down as CEO of Microsoft, the company he created with Paul Allen in 1975. In the 25 years between, Microsoft became the biggest company in the world and Gates became the richest person on Earth, although both those titles have been trumped in recent years. Gates remained a board member of the company until early 2020, but sold most of his Microsoft stock and focused on his lofty philanthropic efforts. The company has been doing just fine: Its stock hovered just around $50 when he resigned the CEO role; today, it's well over $200.&

Related: The Most Expensive Celebrity Divorces of All Time

John Schnatter
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John Schnatter | Papa John's

John Schnatter launched Papa John's in 1984 and built it into an empire that muscled into direct competition with giants such as Dominoes and Pizza Hut. He joined a tiny group of bosses — including Col. Harland Sanders and Dave Thomas — who was also the face of the business in ads. In 2017, however, he ignited a firestorm when he inserted the company into a controversy surrounding political protests by players in the NFL, the league for which Papa John's served as an official sponsor. A year later, Schnatter resigned as chairman of the company, which immediately distanced itself from its founder after Schnatter was heard using a racial slur during a conference call. Since his departure, he has roundly criticized the company even as it has made some smart moves in the pandemic

Related: 21 Times Companies Messed With Their Iconic Logos

Steve Ells
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Steve Ells | Chipotle

In 1993, a chef named Steve Ells intended to open a fine-dining restaurant. He wound up building his small burrito shop, however, into Chipotle, one of the biggest restaurant chains in the world. Already under fire for his massive compensation package, Ells' tenure was dealt a mortal blow in 2017 when dozens of people were sickened by viral outbreaks just a few weeks apart — first E. coli and then norovirus — traced to food served at Chipotle. When Ells left his role as chairman of the board in March of 2020, Chipotle stock was at $710. Today it is over $1,300.

Travis Kalanick
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Travis Kalanick | Uber

When Travis Kalanick stepped down as CEO of Uber in 2017, it was the culmination of a hellish year for the pioneering rideshare company. Uber was fined $20 million for dishonest recruiting tactics, protesters chained themselves to the doors of the company's offices, high-ranking executives fled, the company was the target of several lawsuits, a driver caught Kalanick on video making arguably insensitive and defensive remarks about the company, and, perhaps most damningly, an employee publicly detailed a culture of sexism and harassment that she claimed was widespread throughout the company. Kalanick also stepped down from the company's board of directors in late 2019 and sold almost all of his shares in the company, which may have been a little premature: Its stock rose steadily, meaning he left some $1.2 billion on the table.

Ursula Burns
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Ursula Burns | Xerox

Raised in public housing projects in New York City, Ursula Burns started with Xerox as an intern in 1980. A little less than three decades later, she became the first Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company when she took over as CEO. She stepped down in 2017 when the company divided successfully into two businesses.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix speaking in November 2017.
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix speaking in November 2017. by Web Summit - SAM_7454 (CC BY)

Alexander Nix and Alexander Taylor| Cambridge Analytica

In 2018, the name Cambridge Analytica became synonymous with the misuse of private data to improperly influence elections. A sting caught top executives openly discussing much of what the company had been accused of doing, and CEO Alexander Nix was suspended in the wake. Chief Data Officer Alexander Taylor was named his interim replacement — and stepped down just one month later.

Karen Katz, President & CEO, Neiman Marcus
Karen Katz, President & CEO, Neiman Marcus by World Travel & Tourism Council (CC BY)

Karen Katz | Neiman Marcus

Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus built its brand on high-end clothing and personal shopping, trends largely shunned by younger shoppers. That, along with other changes in shopping that have rattled retailers across the board, forced the company to take on $4.4 billion in long-term debt. In early 2018, the company decided it was time for a change in leadership, and Karen Katz stepped down as CEO. In 2020, the company filed for Chapter 11 protection in early May and stayed open during reorganization, emerging from bankruptcy in September with a debt load reduced by a whopping $4 billion. 

Related: These Companies That Filed for Bankruptcy Also Awarded Their CEOs Huge Bonuses

Dov Charney
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Dov Charney | American Apparel

Dov Charney founded the iconic brand American Apparel, but his leadership was clouded by a continual stream of sexual misconduct allegations, and he has admitted to multiple trysts with employees. By 2014, the pressure proved too great, and Charney was fired. The next year, American Apparel filed for bankruptcy, and in 2017, it was acquired by Gildan Activewear. All of its stores shut down shortly after the buyout. 


Suzanne Greco | Subway

Suzanne Greco joined Subway in 1973 as a sandwich stuffer and rose all the way to CEO in 2015, the same year the co-founder and former CEO died of cancer. That co-founder happened to be her brother; though no one claimed her ascent was due to nepotism, franchisees revolted as the company's position deteriorated rapidly during her tenure, closing 900 U.S. stores with 500 more set to close by the end of 2018. She stepped down in May of that year, and was permanently replaced by Burger King veteran John Chidsey in 2019. It's still rough going at the sandwich chain, which has continued to shut down restaurants at a rapid clip

Meg Whitman speaks at the Tech Museum in San Jose
Meg Whitman speaks at the Tech Museum in San Jose by Max Morse (CC BY)

Meg Whitman | Hewlett-Packard

During her six-year tenure at Hewlett-Packard, Meg Whitman was one of the most powerful women in business, a candidate for governor of California, and the CEO who oversaw one of history's biggest corporate breakups. Before she stepped down in 2013, Whitman had cost tens of thousands of jobs and jettisoned a huge number of HP assets. She continued on as leader of Hewlett Packard Enterprise through 2017, and became CEO of Quibi, a short-form streaming platform that shut down after just six months after its April 2020 launch.

Andrew Mason
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Andrew Mason | Groupon

In a contrite yet playful letter of resignation, Andrew Mason announced to his employees in 2013 that he'd been fired as CEO of Groupon. The company was a rising star in the industry and a must-have tech stock — until its value dropped to one-quarter of its listing price. His departure came after two straight quarters of the company missing its own posted expectations. The company has been on uncertain footing in recent years, and its stock is hovering around $48, a far cry from a high of over $520 in 2011.

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