Company: ConAgra, RJR NabiscoCharles M. "Mike" Harper rescued ConAgra from near bankruptcy in the '70s and drove the stock up 177-fold in 18 years. The burly, charismatic CEO was so growth-hungry that he had "20% ROE" emblazoned on undershorts and handed them out to his executives.
His next CEO job was at RJR Nabisco in the mid-1990s. "I had been a very heavy smoker - 2 1/2 packs a day," says Harper, who quit after a 1985 heart attack. "That heart attack saved my life." While he was running RJR, his wife, Josie, also a smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died in 1999. A free-marketer through and through, Harper hasn't turned against tobacco: "I believe that the government shouldn't tell you what to do."
Last year Harper, now retired and living next to an Omaha golf course, dedicated the Josie Harper Campus at Nebraska Methodist College of Nursing. "I always wanted to make money," he says. "Now I'm in the business of giving money away."