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New batch of financial movers and shakers emerged in 2000s

Another decade is behind us, meaning a new crop of newsmakers has burst onto the scene, from the boardrooms of corporate America to the hearing rooms of Washington. • What follows is a look at five of the most significant forces in the financial world of the past 10 years. It's actually eight people in all — three individuals, one duo and a trio — all with one thing in common: They managed to keep their heads above water, for the most part, during a difficult decade and remain major financial newsmakers. Some even thrived under tough circumstances. • An independent-minded analyst is sandwiched between two groups of leaders in technology and two high-powered figures in industry and government who inherited difficult circumstances. Will their prominence last? A lot can happen in 10 minutes, not to mention 10 years. • By the time 2020 rolls around, we may be wondering what happened to these current stars.

The Twitter guys

Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Isaac "Biz" Stone were all 20-somethings a decade ago, trying to find their paths to fame and fortune. Now they're all 30-somethings and have found their path to fame, though it has yet to produce a fortune.

Ten years ago, Dorsey was perfecting online dispatches for taxis, couriers and emergency vehicles. Stone was involved in a journaling service called Xanga. Williams was writing computer code.

Now, the trio collectively is the driving force behind Twitter, the phenomenally popular social-networking tool that the world uses 140 characters at a time. When this decade began, who knew that we wanted to tell the world what we're having for dinner or when we take out the trash? These guys did.

Twitter was born in 2006 from Dorsey and Stone's desire to make something more out of instant messaging while the two were working at a clearinghouse for podcasts. Williams, who had sold off a couple of his own ventures to Google Inc., helped fund the venture.

All three had their hands in the blogging world at one point or another throughout the decade. Some of what they did proved to be lucrative. Twitter, however, has just begun to make money. It's ending 2009 on a high note, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported, with $25 million in deals that make its content searchable by Google and Microsoft. And that put Twitter, at last, in the black.

The Google guys

Ten years ago, Sergey Brin and Larry Page were doing pretty much what they're doing now, only they weren't very well known. That all changed in a hurry.

Since 2000, the creators and founders of Google have become two of the most influential people in business as their company has reached the stock market's top 10 in market cap, now worth more than $185 billion.

Google, of course, isn't just a leading company with a blue-chip stock. Like Xerox and Kleenex before it, the name became part of the vernacular, synonymous with online searches.

In the Internet boom's infancy in 1996, Page started a research project at Stanford known as "BackRub" and later was joined by Brin, a Russian immigrant. It ate up too much bandwidth on the university's servers, so they went looking for investors.

Google outgrew a Menlo Park garage within a few months. By 2000, then-industry leader Yahoo Inc. started hearing footsteps.

Meredith Whitney

Like Brin and Page, Meredith Whitney toiled in obscurity a decade ago.

Starting the decade as a financial analyst at Wachovia Securities, she rose to prominence even before the subprime-mortgage crisis came to light. Whitney's star took off in 2006 with her early warning of the contagion that would bring down Wall Street's banks.

Whitney won kudos for bucking the system and for getting it right. When she predicted Citigroup's downfall in 2007, she not only ruffled the feathers of the nation's largest bank, but also went against conventional wisdom in the business. And she even received some death threats along the way.

In August 2008, several weeks before Lehman Bros. became the flash point for the financial crisis, Whitney told Fortune magazine, "It feels like I'm at the epicenter of the biggest financial crisis in history; however, even a broken clock is right twice a day."

Whitney started her career with Oppenheimer in 1993 and left for Wachovia in 1998. She came back to Oppenheimer in 2004. Earlier this year, she broke away to start her own firm, Meredith Whitney Advisory Group, and remains bearish on banks. And Whitney is making news again with a forecast that 2010 could be just as painful as the downfall in the markets over the past 15 months.

Jeffrey Immelt

Jeffrey Immelt was about to ascend to the throne at of one of the world's most prominent companies 10 years ago, but few knew it at the time.

The chairman and chief executive of General Electric Co., Immelt was a top executive under the legendary Jack Welch when the decade began. He emerged from out of Welch's shadow when the boss handpicked him in November 2000 as his successor. When Immelt took over the next year, he soon discovered that his tenure at the helm wouldn't be easy.

Just four days after he assumed control, terrorists attacked on 9/11 and two GE employees were among the dead. GE's business took a hit on several fronts, notably its insurance business as well as its engines and leasing operations for aircraft.

After thriving under Welch, the blue-chip stock has floundered in the Immelt era, falling from near $60 when he was picked to the mid teens today.

One of Immelt's more questioned moves was to add the Universal Studios operations on to the stable of NBC properties that GE already owned, in 2004. Since then the new company, NBC Universal, has struggled and Immelt finally threw in the towel last week when he announced a sale of majority control to Comcast Corp.

Investors remain restless and Immelt may be in for a challenge if he hopes to match Welch's 20-year tenure in the job. But the chief seems to think he can overcome investor unease, beginning with the NBC Universal sale, a move he says should help GE make headway in future investments.

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke's reign as one of the nation's top decisionmakers may be short-lived if critics like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Jim Bunning have their way. Even so, it seems the chairman is bound to make it to another term as the nation's central banker.

Bernanke probably couldn't have envisioned his career taking the path it has when the decade began. Ten years ago, he was a tenured economics professor at Princeton, where he was known for his research on the Great Depression.

In 2002, the academic made his first foray into public service, taking a leave to become a Federal Reserve Board governor.

President George W. Bush appointed him to his council of economic advisers in 2005 and then selected him as the successor to Alan Greenspan in February 2006.

To his supporters, including President Obama, Bernanke inherited a difficult situation and performed admirably in guiding the nation through its worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. Critics on Capitol Hill such as Sanders and Bunning are out to strip the Fed of much of its power and independence, and often link the chairman to the loose policies that led to financial chaos.

Either way, history will remember Bernanke as the Fed chief who navigated troubled waters with a series of unprecedented programs to flood the markets with money. Whether his efforts get the economy out of trouble — or bring about rampant inflation — is still up in the air.

One thing is clear: Bernanke could remain a Fed official throughout the next decade, even if he doesn't last that long as chairman. While he faces quadrennial reviews of his performance in the top spot, he gets to keep his seat on its board of governors until Jan. 31, 2020.

New batch of financial movers and shakers emerged in 2000s 12/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 25, 2009 5:48pm]
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