The CEOs who became powerful celebrities

They were once remarkable for their rarity, but the emergence of reality TV and social media has helped turn a slew of accomplished businesspeople into powerful celebrities.

Canny self promotion has seen some of these charismatic captains of industry become even better known than the companies and brands they stand behind – or in front of.

What makes successful bizoids seek out the public gaze? And does becoming a business celebrity help or harm their cause in the boardroom and business sphere?

The effect has been all positive for Pipe Networks co-founder and BRW Rich Lister Steve Baxter, who joined the celebrity ranks this year after becoming a 'shark' on Channel 10's reality TV show Shark Tank.

Budding entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of self-made millionaires and venture capitalists, who can buy into anything that grabs their fancy.

It is much easier now for me to get a meeting than it had been in the past.

Steve Baxter

Baxter says putting his hand up for the role was a conscious move to raise his profile and add weight to his long-running campaign to gain greater support for technology start-ups. Not for the "freaky" experience of seeing his dial on billboards and the backs of buses.

Think tank

"I do substantial lobbying in Queensland in order to get policy makers and others to recognise the importance of supporting and understanding high-growth global businesses," Baxter says.

"I had an incident with the previous government where I had to argue my credentials and wasted the best part of a high-powered meeting doing so, despite the previous success I had in business. I knew I could not squander opportunities like that – I needed people to know that I had credibility in the entrepreneurship space."

Being known to the general public, as well as annual report aficionados, does indeed open doors, Baxter confirms.


"A very positive aspect to the increased profile is the ability it gives you to start a serious conversation with somebody," he says.

"It is much easier now for me to get a meeting than it had been in the past. My job, after I have invested in my companies, is to demolish roadblocks for the people I invest in – being able to get them meetings at higher levels is a very important part of this."

The social network

Along with reality TV, we can thank social media and its relentless sharing culture for the push to turn once anonymous business bosses into public personalities, marketing commentator Adam Ferrier says.

"It's opening up the inner workings of what were previously faceless corporations," says Ferrier, who has himself become known via regular panel appearances on the ABC's The Gruen Transfer.

"People are interested in who are the people that drive the brands in their lives and what indeed drives them."

It also provides leaders with a platform to connect directly with consumers and the mass media whenever they choose. CEOs are keen to do this for a couple of reasons, Ferrier believes.

"Firstly, because a large number of them are vainglorious egomaniacs, but also it builds value into them and the organisations they are working for," he says.

"Consumers value transparency and the more transparent the CEO, the more an organisation can be trusted and therefore valued by its customers."

Star qualities

Businesspeople who manage to vault into the celebrity ranks have similar traits and behaviours, according to public relations specialist Catriona Pollard.

Typically they're mainstream and social media enthusiasts, happy to do personal interviews and share their views on a variety of topics, and old stagers on the conference and corporate speaking circuits.

"The main thing is, they're very deliberate in building their celebrity – it didn't just happen," Pollard says.

"They use tactics and strategies similar to how [businesses] build a well-known brand."

The social media/public speaking combination has proved a winning formula for Baxter's fellow Shark Tank star, Naomi Simson, founder of the online experience gift retailer Red Balloon.

The success of a business blog Simson began over a decade ago led to a coveted gig as a LinkedIn Influencer in 2012; a designation given to around 500 business leaders who blog regularly on the business networking platform.

Building credibility 

Simson says she pushed herself out there initially to build credibility for the Red Balloon brand, back in the early 2000s when buying something online represented a leap of faith.

"One customer called and said, 'how do I know you're real?'" Simson says. "The only way I could build trust was if people knew me…I stood behind my brand."

She says she has embraced her subsequent celebrity not for ego's sake, but to enable her to present a positive role model for young women; one whose success hasn't come courtesy of sharing selfies of her physical assets with the world.

Does all the online exposure and now being known as 'the red lady from television', as she's been dubbed by fans in the street, mean she's seen as more show pony than serious businesswoman?

Who knows, the oversubscribed Simson says.

"I don't know what I miss out on, what I don't get considered for … it doesn't really bother me," she says.

"I have a very full and rich life … I get lots and lots of requests to do all sorts of things."