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How do we define a business pioneer? This was the first question the six judges— three Financial Times columnists and three outside specialists — had to settle, before we began sifting the suggestions from FT readers and journalists.
Were inventors and discoverers business pioneers? Should we regard Alexander Fleming as a pioneer because his discovery of penicillin led to the development of the worldwide business of antibiotics? What of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web?
What about reforming Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping? As one of our China correspondents said: “He was not a business person himself, but there wouldn’t be any Chinese business people without him.”
And what about business school professors who changed the way top executives think about business? Should Michael Porter of Harvard Business School be on the list?
The judges said “no” to all three questions. Business pioneers, we felt, should have created a business. That led to some quick decisions. Thomas Edison, a prolific inventor whose company grew into General Electric, clearly belonged on the list.
Others followed. John D Rockefeller was a central figure in the creation of the oil business. Cecil Rhodes was a creator of the South African mining industry. John Pierpont Morgan was clearly a banking pioneer. Mayer Rothschild, whose sons spread out across Europe, was a pioneer of international banking. Thomas Cook created the modern tourism industry.
The judges had little difficulty selecting more recent business leaders who had upended old ways of operating and created new businesses. Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch were in that category. So was Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Sir Richard Branson got the nod because of the way he had stamped his personal brand on a series of businesses, from music to airlines to financial services.
After that, our discussion became more complex. What were we to do about pioneers who worked in collaboration? Should they occupy two places on the list or share one? They should share one, the judges concluded. So Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, share a place. So do Eiji Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno, co-creators of the “Toyota Way”, with its elimination of waste and use of just-in-time production methods.
Thomas Watson Sr and Lou Gerstner presented a different problem. They led IBM in different eras: Watson built the company in the first half of the 20th century; Gerstner turned it around in the 1990s. Surely each was entitled to his own place? No, the judges said. They were both IBM pioneers and should be linked in our list. None of the judges contested Walt Disney’s right to be considered a leading business pioneer, but some argued strongly that Roy, Walt’s older brother, was the financial manager who made Walt’s creative genius possible. They, too, share a place.
The judges were aware we might end up with an overwhelmingly male, white, American-European list. People in this group have, historically, dominated business leadership, as John Gapper, the FT’s chief business commentator and one of the judges, discusses. But there were and are business pioneers elsewhere too. While the judges were determined every person on the list should deserve his or her place, we would look as widely as possible for candidates.
Mo Ibrahim won unanimous support from the judges for his role in using mobile communications to connect Africans who had long been poorly served by fixed-line telephony. Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel Prize winner and founder of Grameen Bank, the microcredit provider, occasioned more discussion, with some feeling others had been pioneers of the sector too. But Yunus got the nod, as did Ratan Tata, for turning his family’s Indian business into a worldwide conglomerate.
Estée Lauder was a unanimous choice for helping create today’s vast beauty and cosmetics industry. From the same sector, Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, won a place for her understanding of how consumers would respond to a company’s ethical credentials. The judges saw Roddick as a central figure in promoting the idea of responsible and environmentally friendly business.
There was a strong feeling sovereign wealth funds should be recognised in the list, but the judges failed to agree on an outstanding pioneer.
Every reader will come up with his or her own variations, so please join the debate at ft.com/50pioneers and take part in a twitter chat at 12.00 GMT on Tuesday.
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