In years past, this determination would be a difficult task, because so many capable executives would be in contention. This year, not so much — not, at least, if individual success is measured by the success of the company.
As we’ve pointed out, 2016 will not be remembered for the performance of individual retail companies. The traditional barometers, sales and earnings, have not come easily. Comparisons to previous years found that 2016 fell short. New concepts, new formats, new approaches to the customer — these were in short supply.
So the standards of measurement have changed. Recognition this year must go to the senior people who have most successfully weathered the storm, who steered their companies through treacherous waters and emerged in sturdier shape than could have been imagined.
Against that background, here are our choices, in no particular order:
• Doug McMillon — Walmart’s chief executive faced a number of challenges this year that no previous executive in that position was forced to confront. Summed up, they translated into the undeniable fact that Walmart had lost its momentum and, subsequently, its ability to set the pace for U.S. retailing. McMillon, it must be said, has not yet returned the company to its former achievement levels. But he has stopped the slide, putting new programs in place and reestablishing old ones. Morale is returning to normal, and staffers are once again beginning to believe that Walmart is the retailer against which all others must be compared.
• Stefano Pessina — The task of integrating the most complex acquisition in the annals of chain drug retailing continues. And Pessina, arguably the most capable leader chain drug retailing has yet seen, grasps the difficulties. That is one of the reasons he’s viewed so formidably, even as Walgreens works to absorb the Alliance Boots company it acquired in 2014. Here again, the final results will not come soon — or easily. But that they will come no one who knows Pessina can doubt.
• Helena Foulkes — When she accepted the job of president of CVS Pharmacy two years ago, Foulkes stepped into a challenging environment for pharmacy profitability. And indeed these are difficult days for CVS Health, mainly on the PBM side of the business, but Foulkes’ actions have kept the pharmacy business on track as an industry leader.
• John Standley — Though overlooked amid the machinations swirling around the long-delayed acquisition of Rite Aid by Walgreens, Rite Aid’s chief executive must be credited with a remarkable performance, having returned his company to the ranks of viable drug chains. Forget the baggage or balance sheet Standley confronted on taking the No. 1 job at Rite Aid, the chain’s performance since his arrival has outshone the competition and set new standards for the drug chain and its industry.
These four executives come most readily to mind when performance is measured or discussed. But others remain who cannot be ignored. Grocery retailing executives have been kept off this list because they faced a different set of challenges this year. But several deserve recognition, most essentially the people running Kroger and Bob Miller, who orchestrated the melding of Albertsons and Safeway, arguably the retailing story of the year.
As well, no recognition of retailing achievements would be complete without mentioning Amazon and its remarkable success — and that of its chief executives — in bringing online retailing into the mainstream and forcing the entire retailing community to reckon with — and, in many instances, adopt — online programs in their quest for retailing excellence.
Others cry out for recognition — but, with retailing in a state of flux, they must wait their turn.