11 Veterans Who Became CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies

Former Petty Officer 1st Class James Skinner left the military and got a job at McDonald's. Tell your retention officer. (Courtesy of McDonald's)

Every year, Fortune publishes the Fortune 500, its list of the top 500 industrial companies. Leading those companies are the powerhouses of the business world, who oversee billions in investments, strategies and growth. They hold the trust of the American economy and millions of civilian employees

It sounds like a big job (and it is), but any member of this list will readily tell you their military service prepared them for leading America's biggest brands.

1. Frederick W. Smith, FedEx

Smith was a "get it done" kind of Marine, who attended Yale as an undergraduate but didn't shirk service in Vietnam. He did two tours of duty during the war, first in the infantry and then as an OV-10 Bronco forward air controller.

Recipient of a Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, Smith founded what began as a used jet aircraft company into Federal Express, the first-ever expedited delivery service in America.

2. Mark Clouse, Campbell Soup

Clouse is an Ohio native and graduate of West Point who served as a helicopter pilot for six years after being commissioned in 1990. After leaving the military, he went into the industrial food business almost immediately.

Clouse started with Kraft, where he led the company's growth strategy. He then used his growth experience to spark his CEO career at Pinnacle Foods in 2016. He was so successful in growing Pinnacle's market share that Campbell Soup hired him as its CEO in 2018.

3. Robert J. Stevens, Lockheed Martin

While a lot of powerful CEOs on this list tend to be officers and/or service academy graduates, Robert J. Stevens, "The Savior of Lockheed Martin," was an enlisted Marine.

Stevens joined the Corps at age 18, worked his way up in the defense industry before coming to the top of Lockheed in 2004. He navigated the company through the defense industry's turn-of-the century consolidation and the 2008 global financial crisis before stepping down in 2012.

4. Lowell McAdam, Verizon

McAdam has a number of notable accomplishments, not just working his way up in the telecom industry, eventually becoming CEO of Verizon Communications, a position he held between 2011 and 2018. "Top Gun" fans would be interested to know that, while McAdam was a leader of Seabees during his U.S. Navy career, his unit helped build sets for the film.

"The things you learn in the military stay with you for life, and the bonds developed among service members are also lifelong and serve you well in a business career," McAdam said in a 2012 interview.

5. Sumner Redstone, Viacom

Redstone on "Charlie Rose." (PBS Television)

Sumner Redstone, a 64-year-old antitrust lawyer at the time, started a company and a legacy that became responsible for nearly all the media Gen Xers and elder millennials grew up watching, from Paramount Pictures' films to Nickelodeon and MTV.

Redstone started his adult life at Harvard, where he decrypted coded Japanese messages during World War II. When he graduated, he did the same work, moving to a new office in the Military Intelligence Division in Washington. Upon his 2020 death, Redstone was worth an estimated $2.6 billion.

6. Robert S. Morrison, Quaker Oats

Morrison had been another longtime packaged food executive, starting his career with Procter & Gamble before joining Kraft Foods in 1983. After a long career at Kraft, he left to become Quaker Oats' CEO in 1997 as it struggled with debt. By the time he left, it was a profitable purchase for PepsiCo.

His time in the military prepared him for tough situations, as the Marine Corps officer led men in the jungles of Vietnam. He left the war with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart before attending business school in 1969.

7. Alex Gorsky, Johnson & Johnson

Gorsky was nominated to West Point in 1977, then went to Ranger School before earning his Army commission in 1982. He became an artillery officer for six years, serving in both Europe and Panama.

After the Army, Gorsky became a pharmaceutical executive. He first joined Johnson & Johnson in 1988, then left for Novartis, where he'd eventually become CEO. He returned to J&J in 2008, but wouldn't be named CEO until 2012. His tenure saw the value of the company's stock triple before he stepped down in 2022.

8. Robert McDonald, Procter & Gamble

McDonald may be well-known for his service as secretary of Veterans Affairs under President Barack Obama, but before that he was working his way up at manufacturer Procter & Gamble. McDonald tried to attend West Point at age 11, but was forced to wait.

He graduated in 1975, served in the Army and joined P&G's marketing division right after leaving the military in 1980. By 2009, he was the company's chief executive officer.

9. James Skinner, McDonald's

If someone told you that a college dropout and McDonald's management trainee would one day become chief executive of the entire McDonald's corporation, you might ask for proof. That proof is James Skinner.

Another prior-enlisted CEO, Skinner was a U.S. Navy fire control technician between 1962 and 1971, with two tours of duty in Vietnam under his belt. He went to work for McDonald's the year he left the Navy. Becoming CEO in 2004, he had to revive the company's falling profits, which he did before retiring in 2012.

10. Ken Hicks, Foot Locker

Former Foot Locker CEO Ken Hicks. (Foot Locker)

Gen. David Petraeus once told Forbes, "Ken is, as they say, an energy source, not an oxygen thief."

Hicks became CEO of Foot Locker in 2009, after 27 years in the industry. He would stay in that position until 2014. The son of a World War II veteran, Hicks attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point while the United States was engaged in Vietnam. He became an artillery officer upon graduating.

He led Foot Locker to 19 consecutive quarters of sales growth in his time as CEO. When he took office, the stock price was around $11. By the time he stepped down, it was trading at around $55.

11. Daniel Akerson, General Motors

Unlike some of the other CEOs on this list, Akerson wasn't appointed to head General Motors in 2009 by a corporate board of directors. He took the helm of GM at the behest of the White House, after the company's majority shareholder suddenly became the U.S. Treasury.

Akerson, a 1970 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, shepherded the company back to health, leading it to a record-setting profit during his first year as CEO. He stepped down in 2014, after the Treasury recouped its investment in the company.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

Want to Know More About Veteran Jobs?

Be sure to get the latest news about post-military careers, as well as critical info about veteran jobs and all the benefits of service. Subscribe to Military.com and receive customized updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Story Continues