Everybody loves Warren Buffett.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. — the investment vehicle run by Buffett, the so-called sage of Omaha — topped a list of the best-regarded U.S. companies, although the public has a dim view of corporate America overall after a brutal economic downturn.
After a recession that prompted the U.S. government to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on corporate bailouts, 81 percent of Americans told Harris Interactive that business's reputation is "not good" or "terrible."
That marked a slight improvement from last year, when 88 percent took that view and was the second-worst rating since Harris began asking that question in 2002.
The best year was 2004, when 68 percent of respondents said corporate America's reputation was "not good" or "terrible."
Effective management drove public perception, evidenced by the rise of Ford Motor Co. — the one U.S. automaker to avoid bankruptcy and bailout — which rose to 37th among the 60 most visible U.S. companies, up from 51st a year earlier.
Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire's spot atop the list reflected public perception of Buffett as a chief executive who is both effective in running his company and not excessive in his pay or benefits.
"It's his humility and sense of accountability," said Robert Fronk, senior vice president at Harris. "You don't read about his excesses. Instead you read the opposite. He still has the same office. He's going to make his kids comfortable, but they're not going to be billionaires."
Johnson & Johnson, Google Inc., 3M Co. and privately held SC Johnson & Son Inc. rounded the list of the five companies with the best reputations.
The five companies with the worst reputations were Freddie Mac, American International Group Inc., Fannie Mae, Citigroup Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
Freddie Mac, a government-controlled entity that is the No. 2 U.S. provider of funds for home mortgages, had the worst reputation since Enron Corp., which infamously collapsed amid an accounting scandal.
Harris, which has conducted the survey annually since 1999, polled 29,963 people online from Dec. 29 to Feb. 15, while the prior 2008 rankings were based on a poll conducted from September 2008 through February 2009.
Respondents evaluated the companies on six attributes: leadership, financial performance, workplace environment, social responsibility, emotional appeal and the quality of their products and services. Harris said its findings show people are more likely to invest in and do business with companies they admire.
After the worst recession the United States has faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americans placed a higher emphasis on the accountability and effectiveness of management than they had in the past, when people were more focused on the quality and cost of a company's goods and services, Fronk said.
The best-regarded industries were technology, travel and retail, while the worst-regarded were financial services, tobacco and autos.
One of the factors holding back the reputation of the financial services industry was the lack of emotional appeal — people view bankers as focused solely on themselves, not on serving a higher purpose.
"They have a long way to go as an industry to understand how to regain a positive footing with the general public," Fronk added.
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