Smart Money’s 2009 Power 30: Industry

EDITOR?S NOTE: In Part Four of SmartMoney?s Power 30 series, the magazine lists the top players in U.S. industry. The key players in U.S. health care will follow in Power 30?s final installment next week.

A year ago, with the markets and the economy in meltdown, the SmartMoney Power 30 was full of the usual cast of government giants and Wall Street heavyweights: Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, Warren Buffett. But as the U.S. moves into a new phase, a time of slow but seemingly steady recovery, some of the biggest players might seem more on the fringe ? academics, advisers, even a lobbyist. What follows is a mix of the famous and not-so-famous, all trying to make sure in their own way that the Great Recession turns into the Great Recovery.

Chief Executive,

William Shatner, aka “The Negotiator,” may be the face of, but CEO Jeffery Boyd, 53, is the one charged with helping the online travel company negotiate the perils of today?s post-recession staycation nation. And with the company?s stock hitting a nearly nine-year high this year, he seems to be charting a solid course.

Priceline?s “Name Your Own Price” bidding system played well in a down economy, appealing to travelers looking for rock-bottom deals and hotels anxious to quietly unload cut-rate rooms. Boyd also extended the company?s reach into the less recession-struck European and Asian travel markets with what Lorraine Sileo, vice president at research firm PhoCusWright, calls “impeccable timing.”

The question now is where Priceline goes from here. As the U.S. economy improves, travelers may feel less pressed to haggle. And some of its signature moves ? it was the first to eliminate airline booking fees, for example ? have been adopted by the competition.

For his part, Boyd says Priceline will continue to focus on its international business and new technologies like ones that make it easier for customers to access its Web site while on the road. Surviving in today?s competitive travel industry means “innovating all the time,” he says. “We have to come up with new ideas and new ways to save our customers money.”

Chairman and CEO, American Express

Just as economic turmoil took its toll on the U.S.’s biggest credit card firm, a nascent recovery has the green giant showing signs of revival. When cardholder spending dropped and late payments surged last fall, AmEx was among the first credit card companies to slash credit limits.

Chenault, 58, also announced a “reengineering program” that included 11,000 job cuts and the elimination of pay raises for managers. “We established three clear priorities to navigate through the recession,” Chenault says. “Stay profitable, stay liquid and invest selectively for growth.”

So far, the plan seems to be working. While AmEx received $3.39 billion in federal bailout bucks, it repaid the government within six months ? “with a very attractive 26 percent return for U.S. taxpayers,” Chenault says. But the road to recovery stretches on. The nation?s high unemployment rate will remain a burden on consumers, he says, and he anticipates they?ll continue to be careful about spending their money.

Still, the company is focused on expanding its base of cardholders and continuing to build partnerships with banks that would issue cards on AmEx?s network. “While we continue to be cautious,” says Chenault, “we?re now talking about growth, not just managing through the crisis.”

CEO, Fiat and Chrysler Group

Italy makes some of the world?s most beautiful cars, but its auto industry isn?t known for bold acquisitions ? or profits. Marchionne is changing that image, though. Since becoming CEO of Fiat in 2004, he has rebuilt its car business, produced some award-winning popular models and swooped in to take over Chrysler, saving it from extinction.

A chain-smoking former lawyer and accountant, Marchionne, 57, aims to sell models like the tiny Fiat 500 in the U.S. It could be a tough sell, of course, but his moves have paid off: Fiat?s stock has surged more than 140 percent this year and is up sharply since he took charge. The question now is whether he can pull of the same magic for Chrysler.

CEO, Ford Motor

If happy days return to the U.S. auto industry, Alan Mulally is likely to get a chunk of the credit. Not bad for someone who wasn?t even a car guy when he shocked the business world by signing on to run Ford Motor in late 2006. An engineer by training, he?d spent 37 years at Boeing and led a turnaround in the aerospace giant?s commercial aviation business.Ford, on the other hand, was on track to lose $12.6 billion in 2006.

“People couldn?t see a plan for the future,” says Mulally, a Kansas native with an infectious high-energy style. Barely three years later, Ford boasts a rising stock price, improving market share and some promising new models that will hit the showrooms in coming months.

Deciding shortly after his arrival that Ford couldn?t survive without a big cash infusion, the 64-year-old executive literally mortgaged the company ? borrowing $23.6 billion against its assets. That gave Ford enough money to restructure and make it through the financial crisis without following Chrysler and General Motors into bankruptcy court.

Of course, Ford is still losing money this year, and analysts say its turnaround could be derailed by another dip in car sales. But Mulally is sticking to a forecast of full-year profits in 2011. “We have the right products at the right time,” he says, sounding like a Detroit veteran.

CEO, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide

Frits van Paasschen probably wouldn?t describe his two years at Starwood as a holiday. First, skeptics doubted his ability to run a stable of high-end hotel brands ? including Westin, Sheraton and W ? without a hospitality background. (Defenders say he was hired for his brand-management savvy, honed in stints at Coors, Nike and Disney.)

Then the hotel business fell off a recessionary cliff. And an aggressive 50 percent-off promotion so angered industry rivals that the CEO of Joie de Vivre hotels wondered in a blog post if Starwood had “lost its collective mind.”

Or maybe its Dutch-born chief is just crazy like a fox. While it?s too early to know how Aloft and Element, the company?s newest brands, will fare, some industry watchers applaud Starwood for continuing to take risks when many competitors are standing pat. As van Paasschen, 48, sharpens his strategic vision, Wall Street seems optimistic (the company?s stock is up this year).

That vision includes expanding overseas (70 percent of hotels in its development pipeline are outside the U.S.), courting loyalty customers and transitioning from owning properties to more economical “fee-based” (franchised or managed) relationships. All of it, says Jan deRoos, HVS professor of hotel finance and real estate at Cornell University, “brings a renewed focus on the value created by the brand.”

2009 Copyright The New York Times Syndicate