With that in mind, here are 11 executives who wield enormous power -- but who are largely unknown to the general public. Some are CEOs, many are not, but all of the people on this list have important jobs overseeing key products and strategies. Some are trying to navigate their companies through periods of high growth, while others are working to find new areas of expansion. All offer investors their own unique window on the economy.
The list, in no particular order:
Scott Fancher -- Boeing (BA)
Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, can't be feeling too secure these days. The aerospace company's often-delayed airplane of the future was postponed yet again in November -- after an electrical fire on a test flight. The The Dreamliner's roll-out may not take place until after the first quarter of 2011, if not later. Wall Street won't tolerate many more slip-ups from Fancher, or his boss, Boeing CEO James McNerney will start getting tarred.
Jane Mendillo -- Harvard Management Group
As the head of Harvard University's $35 billion endowment, Mendillo has the ear of many on Wall Street and in Corporate America. The fund manages money both through internal investment professionals, as well as relationships with third-party managers. HMC says returns on the endowment over the last 20 years have been 11.9% per year. In a note released earlier this year, Mendillo gave an upbeat assessment. "In comparison to one year ago, our portfolio and our organization are now significantly better positioned to continue to deliver strong long-term returns as well as actively manage our risks," she writes. "It has been a productive year."
Rob Kalin -- Etsy
Kalin founded Etsy, an Internet-based marketplace for handmade goods, in his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment. After leaving the CEO job to become chief creative officer, he assumed the top job again last December. Kalin told Bloomberg News that the job change isn't about returning to the corner office -- because there never was in a corner office. "It is literally a closet," he said. "I took the one unused room. It has no windows and it's about 90 degrees." Kalin has secured venture-capital funding, hired a former Google Inc. (GOOG) executive as chief operating officer and is making a profit. What he isn't planning to do is rush into a public offering. Bankers are hoping he will change his mind.
When Costolo replaced co-founder Evan Williams as Twitter's CEO in October (at Williams's suggestion), it was taken as a sign he microblogging site was in need of professional management. Costolo has been integral in Twitter's capital-raising. Earlier this month, Twitter received $200 million in new venture capital funding, which valued the social network at $3.7 billion. The site, which has 175 million users, now has to show it can be a real business. "2010 was one of the most meaningful years since Twitter, Inc. was founded in 2007," Costolo writes on his company's blog. "We operate on a principle that people are basically good -- when you give them a simple way to express this trait, they prove it to you every day. " Next year, people are hoping for even bigger things.
Don Thompson -- McDonald's (MCD)
Thompson was promoted from president of McDonald's USA to the restaurant chain's president and chief operating officer in January -- and is responsible for the company's 32,000 restaurants worldwide. It's a key job because McDonald's, like many U.S. businesses, has a faster rate of same-store sales increases overseas than in America. Black Enterprise named Thompson Corporate Executive of the Year in 2007.
Scott Boilen -- Allstar Products Group
Want to blame or praise someone for the Snuggie? Consider CEO Boilen, whose company was able to present an old product in a new way -- creating nothing short of a cultural phenomena. Even during the depths of the Great Recession, people have wanted their Snuggies. About 25 million have been sold since 2008, and they've reportedly done well this holiday season. Allstar has other products for sale on TV -- such as Topsy Turvy, the upside-down tomato planter, and the Perfect Brownie brownie maker.
Stephen Burke -- Comcast (CMCSA)
As chief operating officer at Comcast, Burke is tasked with making the cable giant's complex and controversial merger with NBC Universal work -- if regulators finally decide to approve it. Burke knows Hollywood well, having been head of the ABC TV network before joining Philadelphia-based Comcast in 1998. Credited with overseeing the integration of AT&T Broadband, Burke is due to replace Jeff Zucker as the head of NBC Universal. And other shoes are bound to drop as Burke tries to revive the moribund NBC TV network.
Doug Parks -- General Motors (GM)
In a recent video posted on the company's website, the auto industry executive used the word "super-happy" to describe the Chevrolet Volt, trend-setting hybrid electric vehicle that is his responsibility. He isn't alone. Bloomberg News columnist Jason Harper, who named the Volt Best Green and Best Car Overall of 2010, described the vehicle as part of a technological "velvet revolution" -- because it can run on both electricity and gasoline. "While the Volt won't be the absolute apotheosis of the technology, it is the first car that proves we just may be able to have it all, after all," he writes. But will it will it reach beyond the early adopters getting the first shipments now?
Dimitri Panayotopoulos -- Procter & Gamble (PG)
Panayotopoulos' s title of vice chairman of P&G's Global Household Care may not seem impressive to most consumers -- until they realize he oversees some of the biggest household brands on the planet, including Tide detergent, Dawn dish-washing soap and Pampers diapers. He's responsible for 35,000 people, about $38 billion in sales and around $5 billion in profit. Born in Tanzania to Greek parents, Panayotopoulos joined P&G in 1977. If consumers are starting to feel more confident about spending, Panayotopoulos will be among the first to know.
Eddy Cue -- Apple (AAPL)
As Apple's vice president for Internet strategy, Cue oversees iTunes and the App Store. iTunes generated $4.1 billion in revenue in the 2010 fiscal year, and some pundits expect that number to surge, thanks to iPad sales. Cue helped create iTunes in 2003 and the App Store -- which Apple says is running at slightly above break-even. The App Store, however, is one of the main selling points of the iPhone 4. In October, there were media reports that Cue was in talks with music industry officials to launch an iTunes subscription service. That would be quite a coup for Apple, which resolved its seemingly endless dispute with the Beatles and now sells the band's music on iTunes.
Austan Goolsbee - White House economic adviser
Goolsbee isn't an business executive at all, but he sure is important to his boss's fortunes. He's the chief economist for President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board and chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. But Goolsbee's role as the explainer-in-chief of Obama's economic policies where he's made a huge impact. Most Americans have gotten to know the University of Chicago professor, who's also an award-winning economics journalist, from his genial if ubiquitous appearances on cable news, whenever a major economics announcement is made. Goolsbee is no doubt aware that members of Congress will shoot first and ask questions later if the nation's fiscal fortunes don't improve dramatically -- and voters will fire his boss.
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