14 High-Profile CEOs Who Stepped Down From Their Companies
Some of the most powerful CEOs in the world are people you've never heard of. Others are household names who are synonymous with the companies they built. Either way, when the guard changes at a major corporation — often because of a public misstep that sends the value of a hot company tumbling — the world takes notice.
After little more than year in the top job at the iconic company, the board said it was lights out for CEO John Flannery. 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.
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 is estimated to be worth $100 billion, but tensions with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly led to the pair's decision to resign Sept. 24.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
When Howard 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 — a household name with tens of thousands of locations worldwide. He stepped down in 2016 and became chairman of the board but recently abdicated that post as well as he reportedly mulls running for president — of the country, not Starbucks.
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.
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.
In a contrite yet playful letter of resignation, Andrew Mason in 2013 announced to his employees 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.
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 remains a board member of the company, but has sold most of his Microsoft stock and focused on his lofty philanthropic efforts.
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