There's a fittingly playful nature at the offices of children's clothier Gymboree. A lot of that has to do with the tone set by 33-year-old Matthew McCauley, the youngest CEO ever to head the $700 million outfit in its 30-year history. A graduate of Brigham Young University who got his start handling distribution at Payless Shoes and The Gap, McCauley suspects his youth keeps him open to new perspectives.
"I love to riff and bounce ideas off of people. Regardless of what their function is, [Gymboree's employees] are all talented, bright people," says McCauley, who routinely solicits feedback from staffers throughout the company and in different departments. That open strategy seems to be working: Gymboree's first-quarter sales reached $189 million in April, up 16 percent compared with the same quarter last year.
But being young and in charge isn't a typical scenario for the top brass of publicly traded companies. Of the companies on Wall Street's Russell 2000 Index, there are just eight chiefs age 35 or under. Among the small group, McCauley, who began with Gymboree in 2001 heading inventory allocations, is the lone CEO to race up the corporate ladder. Three of the chiefs take the reins of their family firms, and the remaining four founded their own companies. Each recognized quite early a desire to take a leadership role.
There are no women represented on the list of young chiefs. "No matter how you slice it and dice it, there are very few women CEOs on any index. And it's not because they don't want to be there," says Sheila Wellington, who teaches a class on women executives at New York University's Stern School for Business. "The majority of women business leaders say they want that corner office." So why are women unrepresented? One reason is that women tend to start businesses later in life, meaning initial public offerings for women-run firms come later too.
Michael Rubin took to making money at an early age. An enterprising 13 year old with a love for skiing, Rubin transformed his parent's Philadelphia home into a shop for tuning skis. Soon he was selling gear out of the basement on a consignment basis for retailers trying to unload last season's merchandise.
Eventually he rented out his own retail space at the local mall and, by the time the Internet boom hit, he was ready with a business model. Starting a venture as a teen, Rubin learned that his youth alone could fetch media attention that did wonders for publicity, and he milked it.
He started GSI Commerce to build Web stores for brick-and-mortar retailers, and in 1999 raised $175 million through the likes of Softbank, QVC and cable firm Comcast. Last year, two public offerings raised another $85 million.
Now at 33, Rubin's basement startup has morphed into $470 million Nasdaq-listed firm that builds and runs online stores for heavyweight brands including The Sports Authority, Adidas, RadioShack , Burberry, Kate Spade and HBO. It has also sliced business away from Amazon's Web-service arm that handles e-commerce for traditionally brick-and-mortar companies.
After Toys 'R' Us won its lawsuit against Amazon.com over exclusivity rights in March, the toymaker chose Rubin's GSI Commerce for its e-commerce technology, customer care and interactive marketing. GSI also beat out Foot Locker to run the NFL's Web store, nflshop.com.
Not bad for a kid who dropped out of Villanova after a matter of weeks.
Going to school, on the other hand, was what prompted the businesses of two CEOs on our list. Michael Chasen, CEO and co-founder of Blackboard, a developer and marketer of educational software, started his firm with just 12 employees in the basement of his Washington, D.C., brownstone after getting an M.B.A. from Georgetown University.
He met his partner and co-founder while they were undergraduates at American University. Together, they managed to raise seed money for his company from high-tech investors including Microsoft.
Under Armor founder Kevin Plank's company beginnings also starts with a college tale. As a football player with the University of Maryland, Plank grew weary of always having to change out the sweat-soaked T-shirts he wore under his jersey, so he developed a type of moisture-wicking fabric for athletic performance and turned the idea into a sports apparel brand 11 years ago. Today, it's a $281 million company.
Hailing from one of Kansas City, Missouri's, legacy families, Mariner Kemper was raised on the culture of banking. Five generations ago, his family bought ownership into the predecessor bank to UMB Financial, a $440 million multibank holding company with 141 branches throughout the Midwest.
Kemper first made the company payroll at age 16 with a job verifying employment for credit card applications. A graduate of the University of Puget Sound, he worked his way up to president of UMB Bank in Colorado in 1997. Three years later, he became chief executive of that bank, then took over as UMB Financial head in 2004.
Like McCauley, Kemper believes his youthfulness brings a fresh perspective and a willingness to take calculated risks. "People will say, 'Well, the problem with a young person is that he doesn't know what he doesn't know,' " says McCauley, who became chief in January 2006. But then again, McCauley says, "I avoid the 'been there, done that' syndrome."