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It is a common belief that no educational institution can teach the valuable skills of leadership, self-discipline and tenacity as quickly and effectively as the military. Veterans are the first to tell you that they learned their greatest life lessons in the military, including the value of good manners, not being afraid to try new things, accepting their failures and using them as stepping stones to success and greatness. It’s no wonder, then, that many successful businesspeople are ex-military, with many veterans being CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
In honor of Memorial Day, we’ve put together a list of CEOs from some of America’s most prominent and recognizable companies who have ever served in the military.
1. Daniel Akerson, General Motors
The former Chairman and CEO of General Motors earned a Bachelor of Science in Marine Engineering, as well as a Master of Science from the London School of Economics, and spent five years serving on a naval destroyer in the 1970s. Although he had no experience in the automotive industry, he became GM’s CEO for four years. Previously, he was CFO, President and COO of MCI Inc. and CEO of General Instrument, a position he succeeded Donald Rumsfeld.
2. James A. Skinner, Walgreens
Starting out as a management trainee at McDonald’s in 1971, James Skinner rose through the ranks to become the fast food chain’s CEO 33 years later, before being named executive chairman of drugstore mega chain Walgreens Boots. Alliance, Inc. Prior to working at McDonald’s, however, Skinner served in the United States Navy for nearly 10 years right out of high school, earning the rank of fire control technician. He was also deployed to Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
3. Alex Gorsky, Johnson & Johnson
The well-known Johnson & Johnson CEO started with the company as a sales representative in 1988 before moving through various roles to become the company’s group chairman in 2003 and CEO in 2012. Gorsky spent six years in the U.S. Army, earned his Bachelor of Science and came away with the rank of Captain. In the military, he served in Panama, Europe and the United States and also earned the Ranger Tab and Airbourne Wings.
4.Robert A. McDonald, Procter & Gamble
Bob McDonald enlisted in the military in 1975 after graduating in the top 2% of his class with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from West Point Military Academy. He served for five years in the 82nd Airborne Division and attained the rank of captain as well as the Meritorious Service Medal. McDonald started at Procter & Gamble after leaving the military in 1980 and became its CEO in 2010.
5.Frederick Smith, FedEx
FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith attributes the guiding principles that led to its success to the military. He noted the “principles of leadership I learned in the United States Marine Corps during my service in Vietnam,” in particular. Smith served in the United States Marine Corps from 1966 to 1969 as a platoon leader and forward air controller and served twice in Vietnam before being honorably discharged in 1969 as a captain. His awards include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts.
6. Sumner Redstone, Viacom/CBS
After a long and successful life and career as CEO of National Amusements, Inc. – a company founded by his father, Michael Redstone, but renowned for acquiring companies such as Viacom, CBS, Blockbuster and Paramount – billionaire Sumner Redstone died in 2020 at age 97. After graduating first of his class in high school, Redstone continued his studies at Harvard and received his law degree in 1947. During World War II, he served in the United States Army as a first lieutenant decoding Japanese messages with the Signals Intelligence Service.
7. Lowell McAdam, Verizon
A former CEO of leading internet and mobile network provider Verizon Communications, Lowell McAdam served in the US Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps for seven years in a special construction unit. It was there that he became a licensed professional engineer before heading many large companies, including Verizon.
8. Robert Myers, Casey’s General Store
After an impressive 22 years of service in the US Army from 1966 to 1988, Robert Myers retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after serving in countries including Germany, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. Starting as facilities manager at Casey’s in 1989, he rose through the ranks to president in 2004 and then CEO in 2007. The company now has more than 2,300 stores in 16 states and sales revenue of annual business of 9.35 billion dollars.
Image credit: Climate One