It's been a rough couple of years for many businesses. Staggered by a near-financial collapse and consumers buried in debt, the demand for many goods and services fell off a cliff in 2008. The road back has been slow and bumpy, and it has been fueled by rising levels of government debt that threaten the dollar and could result in excessive inflation.

In the midst of the crisis, several companies stood out for their ability to navigate treacherous waters and stay competitive in a tough economic environment. Here are just a few CEOs who made the right moves. (Find out what this winning manager did to grow one of the biggest companies in the world. To learn more, see Management Strategies From A Top CEO.)

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Steve Jobs
The comeback for Steve Jobs started back in 1996 when he rejoined the company that he founded with Steve Wozniak almost 20 years earlier. In the years since, he has transformed Apple into the most valuable technology company in the world, with a market capitalization of almost $300 billion. Once considered an irrelevant player in a market dominated by behemoths like Microsoft and IBM, today Apple is arguably the most consumer-savvy technology company in the world.

With his company given up for dead a little over a decade ago, Jobs has never been one to rest on his laurels. Overcoming liver transplant surgery during the middle of the recession in 2009, he returned to the company with renewed vigor, determination and exciting new products on his wish list. While other technology companies struggled, Apple surged ahead by dominating its market niches with its iPod, iPhone and later with the iPad.

Revenues in Apple's latest fiscal third quarter rose 61% and net income rose 78% above the same quarter last year. Shareholders have been richly rewarded as the stock soared 68% and outperformed the S&P 500 by 50% in just the past year.

Conan O'Brien
Coco isn't technically a CEO, but he runs his own television show and deserves a spot on this year's comeback list. It was six years ago that O'Brien signed a contract to take over "The Tonight Show" in June 2009, replacing Jay Leno as host. At the time, O'Brien was the host of "Late Night on NBC." The reason the contract was negotiated so far in advance was that NBC was concerned that O'Brien might leave the network to host his own show in direct competition with Leno. O'Brien agreed to stay with NBC for at least five more years in order to win the coveted job hosting "The Tonight Show."

O'Brien took over as scheduled, with Leno moving to a new hour-long show at 10 p.m. When ratings for both shows faltered, NBC decided to move Leno to 11:35 p.m. with the Tonight Show starting a half-hour later. O'Brien rejected that plan and NBC terminated his contract, which pocketed O'Brien millions of dollars in compensation. He signed a new deal with TBS to host "Conan" which competes with both Leno and David Letterman. His opening night viewer count of 4.1 million dropped by a third on night two, but the viewer median age of 30 is very attractive to the cable network's advertisers.

Alan Mulally
Mulally was an executive vice-president at Boeing before starting his career as CEO with Ford in 2006. Like other automakers, Ford was beginning to see signs of tapped-out consumers who had accumulated too much debt. When Mulally decided to mortgage Ford's assets to borrow $23.6 billion later that year, it seemed like a desperate move to keep the company afloat. In hindsight, it provided the needed financing to restructure the company and see it through the coming recession. This decision enabled Ford to survive during a period that saw rivals General Motors and Chrysler accept government bailouts. To this day, Ford has not requested or received any assistance from the U.S. government.

Mulally cut costs and engineered several asset sales to focus efforts on enhancing the Ford brand. Previously acquired companies including Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover and Volvo were sold at a loss, but these actions stabilized the balance sheet and put the company on the road to recovery. Ford managed to turn a profit for the first time in two years and the stock has tripled in the last three years. (We tell you where to find the telltale signs of corporate misdeeds. Check out Putting Management Under The Microscope.)

Joe Hogan
Hogan was appointed CEO of the ABB Group just months before the U.S. financial collapse that forced the liquidation, merger or takeover of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, Wachovia, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, American International Group, General Motors and Chrysler. The company is a premier supplier of power and automation technologies that improve the performance of utilities and other industries throughout the world.

Eight years ago, ABB was on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of leveraged acquisitions and the asbestos liability inherited from Combustion Engineering (CE). At that time, the estimated liability of expected claims exceeded CE's total asset value and ABB was considering various options including Chapter 11 protection. The stock cratered to a low of a dollar in late 2002, but then started a steady climb upward. Like most stocks, it took a hit in 2008 but has doubled since then.

Hogan reorganized and streamlined operations and concentrated his attention on the company's core businesses. ABB successfully resolved the asbestos liability issues and cut costs across the board. Hogan also worked to fully integrate the acquired companies into a more centralized operating structure.

Honorable Mentions
Two other CEOs who deserve accolades for keeping their companies ahead of the game and engineering turnarounds include Howard Schultz (Starbucks) and Robert Eckert (Mattel). Schultz acknowledged that a combination of company complacency and the deep recession contributed to slowing sales. In response, he closed 800 stores and slashed costs by $580 million in 2009, and returned the company to profitability.

Toymakers were hammered by the recession as discretionary income dried up and consumers focused on paying down debt. Yet in spite of two straight disappointing holiday seasons, Mattel posted a profit of $25 million in the first quarter of 2010 compared with a loss of over $50 million in the prior year quarter. Eckert cut costs and focused the company on its best-selling brands.

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The Bottom Line
While a fragile recovery seems to be underway, there's no doubt that businesses are being helped by massive deficit spending and the Federal Reserve's purchase of trillions in debt obligations. The economy is being flooded with cheap money that could ultimately result in inflation and higher interest rates that could choke off any further recovery.

While U.S. tax policy seems to be resolved for at least the next two years, CEOs have to plan capital spending and expansion far into the future. How they anticipate and adapt to changing conditions will be a significant factor influencing company performance over the long run. (For related reading, see CFA, MBA ... Or Both?)

For the latest financial news, see Water Cooler Finance: FBI Insider-Trading Bust.

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