2009 SUCCESS Achiever of the Year Nominees

UPDATED: January 31, 2023
PUBLISHED: December 3, 2009

In a year that was anything but memorable, SUCCESS has identified five people who achieved greatness. Nominated for the SUCCESS 2009 Achiever of the Year, these five have provided examples that have inspired us and challenged us to up our own game.

Tony Hsieh

Log on to the Zappos Web site, and you’ll find CEO Tony Hsieh listed under the “Meet Our Monkeys” header. What more do you need to know about the culture of the Nevada-based, online retail upstart? Pardon the pun, but there’s no monkey business in the company’s financial reports.

Hsieh made $850 million in July when he sold the company to Amazon.com. He reportedly made $214 million in the deal himself. Zappos will continue to operate on its founding principle—that it’s a “service company that just happens to sell shoes” (and these days handbags, clothing, cosmetics and eyewear, too).

Zappos’ focus on the customer experience not only benefited customers, but also helped keep customer service a hot topic among other business owners who were struggling to get an edge during difficult economic times.

In a letter to Zappos employees, Hsieh wrote that Amazon’s resources, technology and operational experience had the potential to greatly accelerate growth. But the customer focus and quirkiness is here to stay, he promised. “Our culture at Zappos is unique and always evolving and changing, because one of our core values is to embrace and drive change. What happens to our culture is up to us, which has always been true. Just like before, we are in control of our destiny and how our culture evolves.”

The company’s 10 core values include “Deliver WOW through service,” “embrace and create change,” and “create fun and a little weirdness.” The list culminates with “Be humble.”

The sale isn’t the only impressive financial headline of late. Zappos’ sales hit $1 billion in 2008, a mere nine years after its 1999 launch. In 2009, it was named “Etailer of the Year” by the World Retail Congress and landed on Fortune magazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list as the year’s highestranking newcomer.

Impressive—even for a CEO whose career already could be considered folkloric. Hsieh made his first $1 million by age 18. His business career had started as a Harvard undergraduate selling pizzas out of his dorm room. He sold LinkExchange, an advertising network he founded, to Microsoft for $265 million in 1998. He was 24 at the time.

Jeff Bezos

Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos changed the way consumers shop when he launched his literary shopping site in 1995.

Now, he’s looking to change the way booklovers read books with Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader. The company introduced the device’s second generation this year and is continuing to make news—and attract competition—with his company’s invention. Kindle allows readers to download books and other written materials and read them on this handheld device.

Bezos earned this magazine’s nomination for his electronic innovation—and for maintaining Amazon’s good health amid 2009’s retail turmoil. Second-quarter earnings results, announced in July 2009, showed operating cash flow was up, sales were up and the company was continuing to expand its workforce at a time when others were laying off. The year held other notable headlines—the purchase of Zappos.com in July 2009, the worldwide launch of Kindle in October 2009 (previously it had been available only in the United States), the debut of same-day shipping in select U.S. cities and the development of Kindle’s second generation.

“Kindle 2 is everything customers tell us they love about the original Kindle, only thinner, faster, crisper, with longer battery life, and capable of holding hundreds more books. If you want, Kindle 2 will even read to you—something new we added that a book could never do,” said Bezos in a press release. “While we’re excited about Kindle 2, we know that great hardware is useless without vast selection. That’s why the Kindle Store offers customers more than 230,000 books.”

Bezos started Amazon in his garage with a handful of employees. He sold his fi rst book online in July 1995. In his company’s fl edgling days, Bezos told his investors there was a 70 percent chance they would lose their entire investment. His parents, famously, signed on anyway, pledging $300,000—a sizable portion of their retirement funds—to their son’s startup. Today, they are billionaires.

Irene Rosenfeld

There’s nothing more American, or more ubiquitous, than Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. But in a shrinking economy and ever-competitive playing field, it takes a lot of macaroni—and Oreo cookies, Oscar Mayer hot dogs and Philadelphia cream cheese—to turn a decent profit.

Kraft Foods Inc. CEO Irene Rosenfeld, however, has done just that. Rosenfeld so far has steered the company successfully through the downturn, turning $42 billion in profits and beating second-quarter expectations last summer.

Rosenfeld took the helm at Kraft in 2006 and promptly announced a turnaround plan. She sold off failing brands and focused her energy on its best-known and most profitable lines, including the company’s cheeses and snack foods.

She’s not finished. Rosenfeld continues to make bold moves, in spite of the economy. In September 2009, Rosenfeld made an unsolicited bid to buy British candy maker Cadbury for $16.7 billion.

“We are now ready to look ahead and take the next step,” Rosenfeld said during an investment conference in Boston. “Cadbury would be a terrifi c next step.”

Cadbury’s executive rejected the bid. Some analysts predict Rosenfeld will continue to pursue her goal.

Rosenfeld in 2008 was placed sixth on The Wall Street Journal’s “50 Women to Watch” list and on Forbes’ 2009 list of the “100 Most Powerful Women.”

Leonard Abess Jr.

Among the most heartwarming stories of the year was a tale of a CEO’s compassion amid a mess of irresponsible home loans, executive compensation debates, federal bailouts and the Madoff scandal.

When Leonard Abess Jr., the CEO of Miami-based City National Bank, sold his majority stake to a Spanish bank in late 2008, he didn’t pocket the proceeds. Instead, he lined the pockets of 399 current and 72 former employees, divvying among them the $60 million he’d made in the sale.

The media learned of his generosity through a tip— Abess hadn’t sought publicity for the decision. When a reporter asked him about it, he simply said, “I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. I didn’t feel right getting the money myself.”

Abess attended President Obama’s February 2009 address to Congress at the Administration’s invitation.

“I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places, that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary,” Obama said.

Then he described Abess’s generosity.

Abess’s father, Leonard L. Abess, founded the company in 1946. The son started his career in the family business not in an executive suite, but in the bank’s print shop, working his way up to the top. The bank sold in the 1980s and later fell into bankruptcy. Abess Jr. purchased it and restored its profitability.

The bank did not take any federal bailout funds.

Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams

Tweet. Tweet. Anyone who can redefine that word and interject it into the common vernacular deserves attention, especially if they help change the way we communicate and disseminate information.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a social media site where users share and send out bursts of information, or “tweets.” In 140 characters or less, they answer the universal question, “What are you doing?” for their Twitter audience.

Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams, thirty-somethings from Silicon Valley, launched the site three years ago and have watched its popularity take off.

Twitter is opening new avenues for the mainstream media to connect with their audiences, for celebrities to grow their followings—singer Dave Matthews and cyclist Lance Armstrong are among the big-name users—and even for government agencies to keep the public informed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used Twitter to send information directly to the American people—no traditional media needed.

Ashton Kutcher, the actor, wrote in TIME magazine’s 100 World’s Most Influential People issue earlier in 2009 that the three men’s creation “is as significant and paradigm-shifting as the invention of Morse code, the telephone, radio, television or the personal computer.”

Industry watchers are asking whether Twitter will be profitable and whether it’s just a passing fad. But for now, it seems, Tweeting is all the rage.

Read who was named 2009 SUCCESS Achiever of the Year and find more nominees from past years on SUCCESS.com.