Corporate 100
Who’s the Boss?
Sorting the presidents from the CEOs
By Scott Rhode

ompanies in the Alaska Business Corporate 100 declare their top officer, the person who serves as the figurehead and the public face of the organization. These individuals hold a variety of titles, and some of them hold more than one title at a time.

On the 2024 list, the top officer for 21 percent of companies is a CEO. For 18 percent, it’s a president. One-quarter of the listings have some other title: vice president, senior vice president, executive vice president, general manager, district manager, operations manager, director of operations, owner, or some combination.

The most common single title, though, is a double title: president-slash-CEO, almost always in that order. Of the Corporate 100, 28 percent of companies have a top officer with this dual honorific.

The joint title is even more common among the Top 49ers, mainly because that list is restricted to Alaska-based companies only, with the highest gross revenue. The total number of president/CEOs among top officers is about the same as the Corporate 100, but that amounts to about half of the companies listed.

What does the job of president/CEO entail? Clearly, each title refers to different responsibilities because many organizations have one of each. Yet the jobs overlap so much that giving both titles to a single person is very common.

And what about the board of directors? Since the board hires and fires the CEO, and the board is led by a chairperson, then is the chair the real power player? Who’s in charge?

The CEO Is in Charge
Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition defines “CEO” as “chief executive officer.” That settles it, then. The chief of all the officers who execute company business must be at the top of the heap. Just like the commander-in-chief of the executive branch of the United States: the… president.

Government analogies are unhelpful, says Gwen Kennedy, owner of Kennedy & Associates consulting firm in Anchorage. In her experience, the exact title is less important than delineating authority and responsibility within the organization.

“There are definitely nuances between a president and a CEO,” she says. “I find that the size of organization makes a difference. I also find that your legal structure will make a difference, articles of incorporation and that sort of thing.”

Kennedy is a seasoned consultant, having worked with a significant number of corporate boards in Alaska. She also teaches at Alaska Pacific University’s Alaska Native Executive Leadership Program.

“The class that I teach is on working effectively with boards,” says Kennedy. “Many of the people in the Alaska Native Executive Leadership Program are coming in as staff, typically. Some of them actually do serve on boards themselves, so understanding that relationship between the board and the CEO is really what I focus on teaching.”

That relationship is fairly straightforward. Kennedy explains, “The board really needs to be more strategic. What is the vision for the organization, the strategic direction? The implementation of that is the responsibility of the CEO and the staff.”

Board members hire the CEO to execute their chosen strategy and mission and to help inform the board’s decision making. To accomplish that, the CEO hires a team, which could include the rest of the chiefs in the C-suite. The CEO is therefore the unique nexus between what the organization does day to day and the highest level of direction.

“The big distinction between board and CEO is that the board does not go below the CEO and should not be meddling with the staff,” Kennedy says.

Macro Versus Micro
Another name for CEO, more common in British parlance, is “managing director.” One of the most prominent bearers of that moniker in Alaska is Dave Karp of Saltchuk, a Seattle-based family of transportation and distribution companies. Karp’s team includes the top officers of Carlile Transportation, Northern Air Cargo, Ryan Air, and TOTE Maritime Alaska, among many others.

Carlile has its own Anchorage-based CEO. Northern Air Cargo’s boss goes by “Vice President/General Manager.” Ryan Air, started as a family-owned company in Unalakleet, has its own president. TOTE Maritime also has a president in charge of its Alaska division.

Presidents (or equivalent) run a company’s business units and report to the CEO. That enables the CEO to take a broader view. “The CEO is definitely the vision setter,” says Rob Gillam of McKinley Management. “Macro is CEO, micro is president.”

In the example of Saltchuk, in addition to his macro responsibilities, Karp is also president of Naniq Global Logistics, exercising direct micro-level oversight of that business unit.

Another example is Bruce Dingeman, whose title at Santos is “President Alaska.” For all the Australian oil company’s operations in the state, he’s the top man. In the grander scheme, Dingeman is EVP, or executive vice president, reporting to Santos CEO Kevin Gallagher.

The difference, Dingeman explains, is that one title points upward in the organization chart while the other points downward. “EVP is a corporate title. That means that I’m part of the executive group of the corporation,” he says. “President Alaska means that I’m the senior leader in this business unit.”

When a CEO is also president, the unit is the overall company, in essence. Gillam, for instance, is both CEO and president, and the presidents of smaller units within McKinley Management report to him.

The macro view of the CEO, as Gillam sees it, includes setting the vision. He says, “I always tell people that my primary job is the keeper of culture: where are we going, what are we doing, and how are we going to get there?”

The CEO represents the board’s strategic perspective to everyone downstream on the organization chart, and in turn the CEO reports back up to the board.

The Trifecta
Sometimes, though, the board doesn’t need someone else to interface with the staff. For example, Joe Schierhorn is both the chairman and CEO of Northrim Bank.

However, when it comes to the bank’s holding company, Northrim Bancorp, Schierhorn completes the trifecta: he’s the chairman, CEO, and president. Oh, and chief operating officer, too.

Financial regulations dictate a specific role for a corporate president, according to Betsy Lawer of First National Bank Alaska. “It says that a bank shall have a president, and the president shall sit on the board,” she says. Even though a CEO leads day-to-day operations, the rule mandates that a bank must have a president.

Kennedy explains, “There may be a legal responsibility for the president to sign a document. They do that. But when they are integrated, the CEO takes responsibility for everything. It just becomes a flatter organization.”

Lawer reclaimed the responsibility of First National’s president in 2022 when Doug Longacre retired. By that point, Lawer was the bank’s CEO, and she had already served as president from 2013 to 2018. Her father and grandfather previously led the bank, and she joined the board in 1982, rising to become chair in 2015. Today she is the only person listed in the Corporate 100 as chair, CEO, and president.

Three titles but, as she sees it, two jobs. “It seems pretty normal to me. I clearly distinguish what my day-to-day responsibilities are for keeping the bank running smoothly,” Lawer says, knocking on the wooden table, “and my more strategic goal as chair of the board.”

“The big distinction between board and CEO is that the board does not go below the CEO and should not be meddling with the staff.”
Gwen Kennedy
Kennedy & Associates
Subject-Matter Experts
A further distinction between the strategic and operational “hats” that a president/CEO swaps during the day is the matter of skills. A CEO’s specialty is business management, whereas other senior leaders might ascend via different pathways: accounting, sales, communications, design, engineering, technology, security, or other fields.

Josh Norum ascended through every level of Sourdough Express, the transportation company that’s been under his family’s leadership for 100 years. His expertise is logistics, so he carries the title of “president.” Sourdough Express doesn’t have a CEO.

“We’ve never used the term CEO,” says Norum. “To me, it sounds very cold and distant. Sounds like a guy in an executive office that comes down to see their people once a year to tell ‘em they get a pizza party for lunch.” By contrast, he feels “president” conveys the warmth of a leader who knows the names of every employee.

Dingeman likewise started as a subject-matter expert, trained in petroleum geology, before honing his skills at MBA school. “My roles have been a mix of technical, commercial, and leadership,” he says. “As I advanced in my career, I needed to have a better understanding of things that affect the balance sheet.”

At McKinley Management, Gillam retains the title of Chief Investment Officer (CIO), which he held prior to becoming CEO, the position held by the founder of the company, the late Bob Gillam.

He recalls, “When my father passed away, I didn’t want to manage the business. I only wanted to manage the investments. I had a whole plan to let somebody else manage the business. As we pivoted and focused on other business types—like lending, research, and private investment—that changed a bit, and it became very clear that the vision I was articulating could only be managed by me as the articulator.”

Of course, the financial industry is somewhat peculiar; subject-matter expertise in a bank or investment firm overlaps with the MBA skillset. “Investment companies are kind of a special character,” Gillam says, noting that he was able to ease into senior management. “As my dad got older, I became the president and CIO, so I had some operational oversight.”

Transferable Skills
In other industries—airlines, utilities, manufacturing, media—the skills of a CEO apply generally. For instance, last year Alaska Communications hired a new president/CEO, Matt McConnell, who was previously CEO of media streaming and software companies.

“CEO’s will go from one industry to another, so that’s transferable skills,” says Kennedy. The team the CEO manages should have industry-specific knowledge.

Yet in smaller companies, the industry expert is the owner-operator. As the company grows, that key person might step into the visionary CEO role or might keep hands-on responsibility while bringing aboard a management specialist as CEO.

“You’ll see that sort of single contributor that is the expert that you don’t want to lose,” Kennedy says, “but in terms of supervising others, they may not have that skill set. But you can elevate them to a senior role reporting to a CEO.”

The bottom line is that the delineation of duties for a CEO and president depends on the size of the company, and it can vary by industry. Generally, though, a CEO outranks a president, and when one person holds both titles, “president” is more of a figurehead.

When Gillam’s father was CEO, “master and commander was what he liked to call himself,” he recalls. Another dual title, and another mess of confusion. On merchant vessels, “master” is the highest ranked mariner, but a “master” in the US Navy is a junior lieutenant.

But untangling naval jargon is a separate discussion.