Britain's Most Admired Companies 2021: The top bosses

AstraZeneca's CEO was voted the top boss by their peers.

Montage of Pascal Soriot, Lord Wolfson, Bernard Looney and Dame Emma Walmsley

1. Pascal Soriot, chief executive, AstraZeneca

It would take a particularly hard heart to begrudge AstraZeneca’s CEO the praise of his peers. After all, if Pascal Soriot didn’t quite save the world this year, he did deliver around two billion doses of coronavirus vaccine at cost price. It should make him a corporate superhero, but instead he’s had nothing but headaches: though many in the UK credit the AZ vaccine with turning its pandemic around, it was subject to threats of legal action and later shunned by much of the European Union – and has still not been approved for use in the US. And then there’s pay: Soriot once lamented his status as the “lowest paid CEO in the whole industry” but plans to award him up to 900% of his salary in bonuses and long-term share awards barely scraped through a shareholder vote. In his ninth year with the company, however, the philosophical Frenchman still appears to be flying high. The travails of coronavirus have not deterred it from entering the vaccine business on a permanent basis and it concluded a takeover of specialist US drugmaker Alexion Pharmaceuticals for $39bn. Oh, and it also became the UK’s largest company by market cap during 2021. It’s a good job Soriot is on the record as not needing much sleep.

2. Lord Wolfson, chief executive, Next

It’s 20 not out for Lord Wolfson, who enters his third decade in the Next hot seat as the longest-serving CEO in the FTSE 100 – and retains the admiration of his peers despite a calamitous year for high-street retail in general. Next has, typically, stayed above the fray thanks to its slick ecommerce operation, and reported third quarter 2021 sales that were 17% up on pre-pandemic times. To some, there is a danger of stagnation in such a stable executive team but recent innovations tell a different story: Next is growing its overseas business faster than ever and has invested in a platform that allows third-party retailers access to its marketing heft. Wolfson has even said it may invest in smaller rivals, acting “like a venture capitalist” – hardly the actions of a backward-looking business.

3. Bernard Looney, chief executive, BP

Just as some parents birthed pandemic babies, so some businesses can boast pandemic CEOs. Bernard Looney is a BP careerist but only ascended to the top job as the world was plunged into chaos in February 2020. Despite that, he’s already made a significant impression by embracing the green agenda, promising to cut the business’s oil and gas production by 40% by 2030, become emissions-free by 2050 and massively increase returns from renewables. Cynics call it greenwashing designed to fend off activist shareholders, but it has helped BP look less toxic than its rivals, and in the meantime the Irishman – who was raised on a rural dairy farm – has overseen revenues that have massively outperformed expectations this year, having made 10,000 staff redundant in 2020. The oil price helps (Looney describes it as “literally a cash machine” at present) but the markets seem confident he is on to something.

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