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Greenberg: And the Worst CEO of 2013 Is...?

By: Herb Greenberg | 12/19/13 - 02:47 PM EST

United's Jeff Smisek

Judging by the numbers, Jeff Smisek of United Continental Holdings (UAL) should not be on this list. United's shares are up around 60% this year, almost triple the S&P 500, and its revenue growth appears to be in a propeller-driven DC-3 like ascent (which is better than none at all.)

Yet, in the years I've been doing this list I've never had a write-in campaign quite like this one -- pleading that Smisek be named the year's worst CEO.

After reading the hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of emails from employees and customers, and talking with airline executives, analysts and industry watchers, it's very clear something is very wrong at United.

Customers complain about an inferior product, such as little in the way of wi-fi on most planes; inconsistency of in-flight TV, even on new planes; crowded and outdated lounges; surly employees and a devaluation of frequent-flier miles. Employees and customers from both legacy United and Continental, gripe about poor morale.

And they all point fingers at the same person: Smisek, formerly of Continental, who is widely regarded as the pilot of what has become among the industry's most turbulent mergers.

Airline mergers historically have gone poorly, but that changed with Delta's (DAL) acquisition of Northwest, which by all standards is considered the new gold standard of success.

The difference, those in the industry say, boils down to leadership. Delta CEO Richard Anderson, as the story goes, made it clear from the start that Northwest would merge into Delta.

Smisek, an attorney, tried to please both sides. The result, for United, has been confusion and chaos.

Even three years after the deal was completed, the company is trying to work out contracts and other kinks associated with the merger.

Here's what I know: I should not be hearing from that many employees and customers. I have a baseline and this is way off it. And while that's an intangible, if your employees and customers aren't happy, no matter what the industry, your numbers are at risk.

Investors, in large part, are looking at it differently -- assuming as a laggard it can do nothing but improve. And maybe it can, but as bearish analyst Jamie Baker of J.P. Morgan recently wrote in a report: We're all for trying harder and agree that prior underperformance can lead to pretty easy future comps. But execution about-faces are comparatively rare, which is why we remain surprised by the market's warm embrace despite heavy lifting ahead.

With that as a backdrop, Smisek would certainly rank among the least popular CEOs. And despite the company's financial performance, it still lags the group, which would make him among if not the worst airline CEOs this year.

But in the broader corporate world, as long as United's stock and other metrics are going in the right direction, I can't name him among the worst of all CEOs. Whatever happens this year could be the tipping point.

P.S.: As a longtime United frequent flier, bouncing between San Diego and Newark every month, I don't really see any difference pre-or-post merger in the friendliness of cabin or gate personnel. Some are friendly, some aren't. It has always been that way. The real question I have is whether Smisek has ever eaten what passes for eggs and sausage in domestic first class. My guess, he hasn't. (I usually opt for the Honey Nut Cheerios. Honey Nut Cheerios? Yep, pretty much says it all.)

Runners Up:

Herb Greenberg, editor of Herb Greenberg's Reality Check, is a contributor to CNBC. He does not own shares, short or trade shares in an individual corporate security.

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