By Geoffrey Colvin; Devin Leonard; Andy Serwer; Adam Lashinsky; Patricia Sellers; Marc Gunther; Stephanie N. Mehta; David Rynecki; David Kirkpatrick; Katrina Brooker; John Simons; Nelson D. Schwartz; Fred Vogelstein; Oliver Ryan; Ellen Florian; Julia Boorstin; Christine Y. Chen

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Rain was pouring from the night sky at a rate that would have alarmed Noah, and Ted Turner and Steve Case were standing in a massive doorway at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, unable to move. It was 1999, and hundreds of major CEOs had just finished a ceremonial dinner organized in part by Time Warner (FORTUNE's parent). Now they were waiting for buses back to their hotels, and the buses weren't ready.

Case was still months from proposing that his AOL buy Time Warner, of which Turner was then the largest individual shareholder. He just wanted to needle Turner. "What's wrong, Ted--you own 10% of the company and you can't even get a ride?"

To which Turner shot back, with his gap-toothed grin, "Hey, all your billions aren't gettin' you on the bus any faster!"

As the minutes passed, Turner's wife at the time, Jane Fonda, wanted back in the Great Hall to visit the ladies' room, but the guards wouldn't let her in. They didn't really care who she was or to whom she was married. So, trapped between Chinese guards and drenching rain, two of the world's most powerful billionaires and their wives cooled their heels and waited for a bus.

That's power for you. In many years of hanging around the most powerful people in business, I've observed that no matter how much you've got, you've never got it all. The gradations are important. Maybe you're powerful in your office, but are you powerful down the hall? How about in another town? Another country? Ted Turner and Steve Case would certainly have made our Power list in 1999 if we'd published it then. Yet they had bupkis in Beijing.

And while they would have made our list in 1999, neither is on it today. That's another thing about power: Nothing's forever (just ask Dave Pottruck, freshly booted from his CEO gig at Charles Schwab). A few of the powerful businesspeople I've dealt with are now in prison, and a bunch more may be headed there.

But hey, why worry about that now? When you've got it, you've got it, and there's nothing like it. The people on our list of the 25 most powerful people in business have it. They're all in business--we considered only private-sector panjandrums--and they're all in the U.S. We ranked them on the breadth and depth of their influence. Those are judgment calls, so we tell you why we made them.

Could any of them pass what we might now dub the Steve and Ted Test of True Global Business Power? Suppose you ran a company that last year, all by itself, bought $15 billion of China's exports, more than 4% of the total, making you--you!--the biggest customer of the biggest nation on earth. I'm guessing here, but if you were that person, somebody would have gotten you onto a bus pretty quickly. Hell, he might even have found you a taxi.

There really is a person who holds that kind of power: Lee Scott of Wal-Mart. Meet him and America's 24 other most powerful businesspeople on these pages.

1 LEE SCOTT Wal-Mart Stores

Age 55 The most powerful businessperson in the U.S. is not exactly a household name. Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, is not a modern-day prophet (think Warren Buffett) who moves markets when he speaks. Nor does he sit atop the list of the world's richest men (think Bill Gates).

No, Scott derives his power solely from his job description: running the No. 1 company on the FORTUNE 500--$256 billion in revenues and profits of $9 billion in 2003. As the nation's largest seller of groceries, toys, guns, diamonds, DVDs, CDs, and apparel, to name just a few categories, Wal-Mart dictates pricing and product design for entire industries. In fact, the company is such a force that its CEO feels compelled to downplay its power. He doesn't like it when people suggest that Wal-Mart dominates industries. He prefers to say it merely "participates" in them.

Scott, a skillful 25-year Wal-Mart veteran who worked closely with the late Sam Walton, was a natural choice to succeed David Glass as CEO in 2000. He wields his power in subtle but unmistakable ways. Employees address him as Lee, and he loves visiting company stores and mingling as if he were another clerk. He's just as personable when he presides over Wal-Mart's Saturday-morning strategy and sales conference calls with his management team. But, of course, Scott and his deputies sometimes make billion-dollar decisions at those meetings.

Once content to keep a low profile, Wal-Mart's CEO has become more visible as he defends the company against charges that it doesn't treat its more than 1.4 million workers fairly. In June a federal judge awarded class-action status to a lawsuit accusing Wal-Mart of systematic discrimination against as many as 1.6 million current and former female employees.

It clearly irks Scott to be playing defense at a time when he might otherwise be discussing Wal-Mart's spectacular financial results. He insists that Wal-Mart is a great place to work. He also says it has raised the standard of living of many Americans simply by offering Every Day Low Prices, which sounds self-serving, though Scott isn't the only one to make that case. Economists say Wal-Mart has helped stave off inflation by saving U.S. customers $20 billion annually. Now that's power. --Devin Leonard

Rank last year: 3

2 WARREN BUFFETT Berkshire Hathaway

Age 73 Stepping into the role of consigliere to Arnold Schwarzenegger was perhaps the most surprising move from Warren Buffett this year, but the Governator is just the latest addition to a long roster of power players who come to Buffett seeking counsel. In addition to serving as a sounding board to captains of industry, Buffett continues to rail against companies for not expensing stock options and against Congress for threatening to pass laws legalizing that behavior. As for Berkshire's stock, a year ago a share of BRK A sold for about $73,000; today it's around $90,000. That's a 23% climb, well above the overall market despite a bit of a dropoff over the past couple of months. (Berkshire's disappointing first-quarter earnings report sent the stock down 4.4% in one day.) Berkshire also managed a huge jump from 28 to 14 on the FORTUNE 500 this year, thanks in large part to revenue-pumping buys like the acquisition of distributor McLane Co. from Wal-Mart. That business added $13.7 billion in revenue to the Berkshire pot in 2003, an increase of more than a third. --Andy Serwer

Rank last year: 1

3 BILL GATES Microsoft

Age 48 It's the rare executive who gives up his job and retains almost all his power. Gates, now chairman and chief software architect, handed the CEO title to Steve Ballmer to free himself for deep technological thoughts. Still, when Gates decides to focus on, say, search technology, Google investors quiver. And just as Gates is showing geeks how to mature gracefully, Microsoft is showing tech companies how to deal with middle age. The company's elimination of stock options for employees and last week's granting of $32 billion in special dividends are certain to be mimicked. Gates' influence reaches into philanthropy too: When he decides--through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, at $27 billion in assets and growing--that AIDS should become as distant a memory as Netscape, researchers the world over pay attention. --Adam Lashinsky

Rank last year: 2

4 JEFF IMMELT General Electric

Age 48 His timing was awful--he replaced a legend on Sept. 10, 2001--but revamping GE for more challenging times has toned Jeff Immelt's muscle. Buying Vivendi Universal for $14 billion, to bulk up in entertainment, and Britain's Amersham for $10 billion, to expand in health care, Immelt has positioned GE (2003 revenues: $134.2 billion) for faster profit growth. Sales growth is robust too: Last quarter GE had its biggest revenue gain in four years, from sales of jet engines, power-plant turbines, and credit cards --all markets in which it holds the No. 1 position. "If anyone called me a professional manager ... it makes my skin crawl," says Immelt, whose job, he adds, is to "grow things and free up capital." Affable, with a take-charge style, he is proving he's no Jack Welch--who would have thought that would be a good thing? He's more strategic and less from-the-gut than Welch, even when it comes to pay. By replacing stock options for himself with restricted shares linked to performance, Immelt has made GE, the world's most valuable company, a model of CEO compensation reform. --Patricia Sellers

Rank last year: 7


Age 73 "What does Rupert really want?" an associate of his was once asked. "Total world domination," came the reply. The Australian mogul has yet to get there, but he's closer than ever. His brash, right-of-center Fox News Channel drives liberals crazy and crushes CNN in the ratings. The Fox broadcast network pioneered the reality TV phenomenon, and DirecTV looms as a threat to the cable industry. The Weekly Standard is read in the White House, and the New York Post gets the attention, if not the respect, of Wall Street and Madison Avenue. (The Post ran that notorious front-page headline saying John Kerry had picked Dick Gephardt as his running mate. As Fox employee Homer Simpson would say, "Doh!") Outside the U.S., Murdoch's media empire matters even more. He is the king of Fleet Street. BSkyB dominates pay TV in Britain. And in India his Star Plus TV channel aired 60 of the top 100 shows. His control over News Corp. is so absolute that the only question about his succession is which of his sons, Lachlan or James, will take over. --Marc Gunther

Rank last year: 5

6 MICHAEL DELL Dell Computer

Age 39 Dell (will this guy ever turn 40?) recently stepped down as CEO, but he's no less a force in the world of computing now that he's merely chairman of the $41 billion company. Dell and CEO Kevin Rollins still share an office, and they still conspire on company strategy, namely selling a growing array of products directly and cheaply to consumers and businesses. The "Dell Direct" model continues to spawn copycats and bring herds of worshipful executives from other industries to tour the operations. Having conquered PCs, Dell is pushing into PDAs, printers, and flat-panel televisions. His stated goal is as deceptively simple as his margin-busting business model: to become a $60 billion company. In order to get there, he's tweaking his company's culture to become more open. To wit, his direct reports now get to evaluate him. --Stephanie N. Mehta

Rank last year: 8

7 CHUCK PRINCE Citigroup

Age 54 Stepping into Sandy Weill's shoes couldn't have been an easy job, but Chuck Prince has shown great skill running the world's largest financial services company. The former legal counsel and longtime Citi insider has managed to spread Weill's entrepreneurial flair throughout multiple layers inside the company. He has told division heads to look for fresh ways to grow revenues--from organic improvements to smaller acquisitions in retail banking and global operations. Citi is now so big that it's unlikely to undergo yet another huge transformational merger. So, unlike Weill, the iconic dealmaker, Prince has concentrated his efforts on building a solid management team. Also unlike Weill, Prince is publicity-shy and is rarely seen on the Manhattan social circuit. Under Prince, the Citi never--okay, hardly ever--sleeps: He is known for working late into the night and shooting off e-mails at 5:30 A.M. --David Rynecki

Not ranked last year


Ages 74 and 42 As family businesses go, Fidelity isn't just any father-daughter shop. With Ned as chairman and Abby as head of the asset-management unit, the firm recently reported that it controls more than $1 trillion in assets. That has given the Johnsons a whole lot of influence over the investment habits of tens of millions of investors with retirement savings in Fidelity's nearly 300 mutual funds. Fidelity has also been throwing its weight around on Wall Street, pressuring for changes at the New York Stock Exchange and demanding reforms by the SEC. This comes at a time when Ned is ceding more control to Abby, who is officially No. 3 at the firm. (Their power is so intertwined, we're counting them as one person on our list.) Though famously shy outside Fidelity, Abby has been preparing to take over the firm, and by all accounts has the intellectual and analytical skills to guide Fidelity as it expands into new businesses, such as annuities. --D.R.

Not ranked last year


Age 53 After two years as CEO, Palmisano isn't just delivering impressive financial results for IBM, the world's largest information technology company. He's pushing together the company's hardware and software operations with its newly dominant services arm to create an industry-transformation engine. He aims to remake customers' systems, business processes, and entire companies. When he decided to support the open-source Linux operating system, it changed the software landscape and created Microsoft's biggest headache. He tends not to be a command-and-control kind of guy like his predecessor Lou Gerstner. But that doesn't stop him from reading every single e-mail message sent to him by IBM employees, aides say, or from calling midlevel managers just to ask them what they think. --David Kirkpatrick

Rank last year: 13


Age 79 The fiercely competitive and combative CEO of AIG has spent the past 37 years fighting to build one of the world's great business empires. His company is now one of the world's largest insurers, with $678 billion in assets and $81 billion in revenues. Over the years he's won his bellicose reputation by clashing with everyone from industry rivals to regulators. Lately he's been attacking trial lawyers, pushing Congress to pass a class-action tort-reform bill. The big question now is, who will take over when he's gone? His 49-year-old son, Evan, was once thought to be in the running, but he left AIG in 2001 and now heads the rival insurer ACE. His other son, Jeffrey, 53, runs insurance broker Marsh & McLennan. Currently two other candidates are reportedly up for the job, AIG's co-COOs, Donald Kanak and Martin Sullivan. The old chief himself has been cagey about who'll take over after he's gone and has made it clear he still has a lot more fight in him. Indeed, he shows no signs of slowing down. He retains a Jack La Lanne physique by working out six days a week--he even keeps a StairMaster in the corporate jet for workouts on the go. --Katrina Brooker

Rank last year: 9

11 A.G. LAFLEY Procter & Gamble

Age 57 When GE CEO Jeff Immelt was asked at a recent management meeting what he liked in business today, he gave a surprising answer: "A.G. Lafley. I like watching the way he works --making P&G more innovative, more global. He does it in a great, understated way, never putting himself in front, just letting his actions speak." Labeled the "un-CEO" in a FORTUNE profile, the P&G chief (and GE director) may be low-key, but he drives relentlessly for innovation at the once stodgy packaged-goods giant. As a result, volume growth is around 10% annually--outside of acquisitions. Since taking charge in 2000, Lafley has doubled the stock. And he's pushed $50-billion-a-year P&G, long a laggard abroad, into developing markets and high-margin global beauty (Olay, Clairol, Wella) and health care (Prilosec, Crest SpinBrush). --P.S.

Rank last year: 15


Age 61 As chairman and CEO, McKinnell oversees the largest drug company and the most extensive pharmaceutical research unit in the world ($52 billion in revenue projected in 2004, $8 billion a year in R&D). But he's no autocrat. Within Pfizer, McKinnell uses all the managing principles du jour--consensus building, delegating, etc. Outside the company, McKinnell is well connected: He's chairman emeritus of PhRMA, the industry's influential lobbying group; is on President Bush's advisory council on HIV/AIDS; and serves on the boards of Exxon Mobil and Moody's. His clout in D.C. is being tested as consumers demand cheaper drugs. He'll face a tougher challenge in Beijing as he tries to persuade the Chinese to overturn a recent decision that nullified Viagra's patent in China. The outcome is likely to set a precedent for U.S.-China intellectual-property law. --John Simons

Rank last year: 11

13 LEE RAYMOND Exxon Mobil

Age 65 Raymond isn't warm and cuddly. And as CEO of Exxon Mobil, which earned nearly $22 billion in 2003--more than any other company last year--he doesn't have to be. The gruff South Dakotan has run the energy giant for more than a decade, and despite his age, he's mum about retirement plans. "Don't call me, I'll call you," he told reporters who asked him about it recently. While Raymond could retire as early as next year, investors would like him to stay forever--Exxon's stock has outperformed that of rivals like BP and ChevronTexaco over the past five years. (President Rex Tillerson is widely regarded as the top contender for the CEO job.) Raymond has never gone for the kind of green PR embraced by rival John Browne of BP. He's dubious about alternative energy and has little patience for protesters. The biggest challenge for Raymond and his successor is pumping more oil--the key to future earnings growth. Production has been stagnant, and BP says it will overtake the Texas giant sometime next year, but Raymond's not worried. He's too busy keeping his eye on the bottom line--and ignoring the critics. --Nelson D. Schwartz

Rank last year: 6

14 KEN LEWIS Bank of America

Age 57 In the spring, as Bank of America's CEO, the soft-spoken Southerner completed one of the biggest deals in banking history: merging the third-largest bank in the country with Fleet Financial--the seventh largest--in a deal valued at $47 billion. He's no stranger to bank mergers: In 1998 he executed NationsBank's $60 billion acquisition of BofA (the Nations name was dropped after the deal). Now, with the Fleet merger, he has to make this newly soldered behemoth work. Skeptics say he overpaid for the Boston-based bank--and indeed, BofA's share price dropped 10% after the merger was announced. To assuage Wall Street, Lewis must prove that he can deliver the $1.3 billion cost savings he promised as part of the deal--then again, iron will and discipline are hallmarks of his style. But more than cutting costs, Lewis needs to show his bank can play with the big boys, like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan/Bank One. --K.B.

Rank last year: 16


Age 54 What makes John Chambers a powerful guy? If you work in a big company, there's a three out of four chance that Cisco's gear makes your e-mail and Internet access possible. That kind of dominance has transformed it from a startup 20 years ago into one of Silicon Valley's most profitable giants. Cisco now makes roughly $5 billion a year, on $22 billion in revenue. But if you think Chambers is a big shot now, wait a few more years, he says. (Chambers has never been one for modesty or self-effacement.) He's set in motion a plan to control not just the world's corporate networks but also their phone systems, along with all the phone and networking gear everyone uses at home. That's right, someday soon your phone at home or in the office may say CISCO SYSTEMS on it, just as it used to say AT&T a generation ago. Of course, there are some other companies Chambers is going to have to push aside to make all that happen--like, for instance, pretty much the entire telecommunications industry. --Fred Vogelstein

Rank last year: 21

16 CARLY FIORINA Hewlett-Packard

Age 49 "Every process in the world," Fiorina likes to say, "will be transformed from physical and static and analog, to digital, mobile, virtual, and ultimately personal." Those words--digital, mobile, virtual, personal--capture Fiorina. She pushes the vision of HP's becoming all technological things to all people, from digital cameras and PCs to servers and printers. Her strategy has drawbacks: Nearly all of HP's businesses are commodities, and Dell is targeting the most lucrative of them, printers. She's got star power; she may become a superstar if she can unstick HP's stock price. That would free up this Republican for the career those around her assume she'll pursue next: politics. --A.L.

Rank last year: 19


Age 64 The fourth CEO in Intel's 36-year history, Barrett has presided over a trying time. Intel's stock price isn't far above its level in 1998 when he became CEO. If he wants to spiff up his record, he'd better hurry--Intel's mandatory retirement policy forces him to hang up his cleats next year. So why is Barrett on the list? Because Intel still calls the shots for the chip industry, and Barrett calls the shots at Intel. When he decided Wi-Fi was ready for takeoff, Intel's $300 million Centrino marketing push helped drag the industry along with it. Watch for Barrett to become chairman when he retires, as Grove did before him. --A.L.

Rank last year: 14


Age 81 "Viacom is me," Redstone wrote in his autobiography. The chairman and CEO hammered home the point this spring by making life so uncomfortable for Mel Karmazin, his COO and heir apparent, that Karmazin quit. No one argued--Redstone controls the company's voting shares. But he did say he'd retire as CEO of the sprawling $27 billion media empire--which includes CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, Infinity Radio, and, next spring, Logo, a gay cable channel--in 2007. Until then Redstone will focus on what he likes best: selling Viacom to investors, representing the company all over the world, and watching the movie studio's box-office receipts. --M.G.

Rank last year: 17


Age 57 Verizon's CEO avoids star treatment. At a recent electronics convention Seidenberg rebuffed offers to be chauffeured around the hall via golf cart, opting to hoof it for a full day of meetings. He's had to hustle a lot lately: He's trying to transform his $68 billion telco into a full-service provider of video, Internet, wireless, and other services. To do that he'll spend $2 billion over the next 18 months to build fiber-optic lines to some three million of the company's 27 million residential customers, with plans to reach the rest in the coming years. That would make Verizon one of the largest distributors of online games and movies. Verizon? Hollywood colossus? If he's lucky, Seidenberg won't be able to avoid star treatment for long. --S.N.M.

Rank last year: 18

20 STAN O'NEAL Merrill Lynch

Age 52 He's transformed the nation's largest brokerage and investment bank from a flabby, second-rate shop into the envy of Wall Street. Last year Merrill earned a record $4 billion, and it may do even better in 2004. Merrill profit margins are outstanding. And O'Neal appears to have finally quelled infighting that plagued his senior management. Contrary to his reputation, the unflappable CEO is proving he's much more than an accountant. He is, dare we say, a visionary. Where will that vision lead Merrill? What seems clear is that this turnaround artist has turned Merrill from an acquisition target into a cash-rich acquirer. True to form, O'Neal won't even hint at whom he wants to buy. "People have always underestimated me," he says. "I'm counting on that not to change." --D.R.

Rank last year: 20

21 HANK PAULSON Goldman Sachs

Age 58 Few Wall Street CEOs still see themselves as stewards of capitalism. The exception is Paulson. The Goldman Sachs chief travels the world meeting corporate leaders and heads of state to discuss how his firm can raise capital for emerging markets. He's also pushing to clean up Wall Street's reputation. He complained loudly about the exorbitant pay package awarded former New York Stock Exchange chairman Richard Grasso, and led the fight to oust Grasso and replace him with longtime Goldman exec John Thain. --D.R.

Rank last year: 22


Age 45 His bid to acquire Disney failed (for now) but Roberts emerged unscathed. With 23 million subscribers, Comcast is not merely the leading pay-TV company in the U.S.; it's nearly twice as big as its largest rival, Rupert Murdoch's DirecTV, and is the No. 1 provider of high-speed Net access as well. Roberts has more say than anyone else about how Americans watch TV. Already he's delivering video-on-demand to 30% of his customers, which has Madison Avenue extremely nervous. --M.G.

Rank last year: 23


Age 56 During Parsons's two-year tenure as CEO, Time Warner's famously factious business units have started working in concert: Turner's TBS is littered with shows (Sex and the City, Friends) created by Time Warner divisions, for example; and AOL content shows up on Time Warner Cable's Roadrunner service. Now Wall Street is watching to see what else Parsons tries to bring together: He's reportedly scoping out such possible acquisitions as MGM Studios and parts of Adelphia Cable. Of course, he'll first need to resolve a nearly two-year SEC investigation into accounting issues at Time Warner's AOL unit. --S.N.M.

Rank last year: 24

24 STEVE JOBS Apple, Pixar

Age 49 Why does everybody watch Steve Jobs? It's not because of Apple's market share, less than 2% of the global desktop computer market, or its revenues, $6 billion last year--less than a fifth of what flowed into Microsoft's treasury. It's the force of his ideas. No longer just a creator of trendsetting computers and software, Jobs is transforming the music and movie industries. He persuaded wary record companies to sell music on his iTunes Music Store, and a great many of the 100 million songs sold so far are playing on iPods. As CEO of Pixar, he's made a string of influential blockbusters like Finding Nemo, the highest-grossing animated film ever. (Pixar's next film, The Incredibles, is due to come out this fall.) Jobs showed his Hollywood power when he refused to extend Pixar's distribution contract with Disney, and he's now shopping around for a more lucrative deal. --D.L.

Not ranked last year


Age 48 With revenues of $2.2 billion, eBay is still tiny by the standards of the FORTUNE 500, but it looms large over the global economy. This friction-free, low-cost trading platform claims more transactions on an average day than Nasdaq. eBay users--105 million are registered--traded $24 billion in comic books and cars and whatnot on the site in 2003. Some 430,000 people in the U.S. make a full-time living off eBay. No, Whitman didn't invent this company. But the veteran marketer, who came in as CEO in 1998 when eBay had just 30 employees, deserves credit for leading so skillfully. Trained at Bain, P&G, and Walt Disney, Whitman has become Silicon Valley's model chief executive because she consistently delivers profits above Wall Street's expectations. Those profits totaled $441.8 million last year; investors, meanwhile, have bid up the stock to a $50 billion market valuation, more than twice that of General Motors. Whitman's major mistake so far is Japan, which she entered too late and let Yahoo dominate, but she's investing aggressively to rule China and India. She's known for being low-key, almost humble, but not so much so that she won't boast about how nine-year-old eBay is expanding at a faster rate than Wal-Mart and Microsoft did at comparable points in their development. --P.S.

Not ranked last year

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