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The worst of the financial crisis may be over and the recovery, weak as it has been, still on track. But corporate executives continue to find themselves in an ominous setting.

Uncertainties abound both in the U.S. and abroad over everything from consumer demand to government regulation and policy. This makes for a landscape that is both less stark than that of 2008 and 2009 and more ambiguous. In crunch mode executives did well to hunker down, focus on the short-term and work on controlling costs. Managements now, however, must engage in longer-term strategizing—a tall order when the outlook holds so many what-ifs.

Conference Board CEO Jonathan Spector believes today’s conditions may present even larger and more difficult challenges than the financial crisis did.

“During the crisis the decision-­making framework needed to operate was somewhat clearer, given the incredible sense of urgency,” Spector says. “Now the environment is more complicated because we have the prospect of a very sustained period that’s not quite a crisis. It’s less clear what the obvious path is.”

Gregory Hayes, chief financial officer at Hartford, ­Connecticut–based conglomerate United Technologies Corp., is one top executive who has found that to be true.

“I never want to live through 2009 again,” says Hayes, whose company makes products ranging from elevators and refrigeration units to airplane engines and fire-­protection systems. “But when you have this sluggish growth, this uncertain environment, it’s hard to know where you should invest, or how much you should invest. It’s certainly more challenging now.”

Hayes is one of the U.S. corporate leaders who are handling that difficulty best, according to the buy- and sell-side analysts who voted for Institutional Investor’s 2012 All-­America Executive Team, our exclusive ranking of the nation’s best CEOs, CFOs, and investor relations professionals and teams.

Spector says that what distinguishes the best companies in today’s climate is that they’re not so spooked by the unknown that they hesitate to grab good opportunities when they see them. The executives recognized in the 2012 ranking are quick not only to distinguish good prospects from bad but to capitalize on the first and abandon the second. Hayes and his fellow All-­Americans are making significant acquisitions or other investments even as they continue to rationalize their product lines, supply chains, manufacturing operations and balance sheets. These executives are undaunted by uncertainty. Instead, they are managing their companies more intelligently in the face of it, with nuance and flexibility unseen in a long while. “The best companies are adjusting,” Spector says. “They’re not sitting on their hands.”

A good example is Enterprise Products Partners, the largest publicly traded energy partnership in the U.S. Given the cloudy macro picture, Enterprise could easily coast on the growth the energy industry is enjoying. “The U.S. petrochemicals industry is bursting at the seams,” says Michael Creel, CEO of Enterprise, who is rated tops in the Natural Gas & Master Limited Partnerships sector by both buy- and sell-side analysts. “The industry’s good fortune has turned into our good fortune,” Creel acknowledges.

The Houston-based company reported record net income of $480 million for the third quarter, ended September 30, up 38 percent from the $348 million it reported a year earlier. Net income for the first nine months of the year was $1.36 billion, up 25 percent from $1.09 billion for the same period in 2010.

Yet Enterprise isn’t just riding the industry’s coattails. Instead, Creel and CFO, W. Randall Fowler—also the best executive among his peers, according to both the buy and sell sides—are positioning the company for further growth. (Enterprise also boasts the sector’s best IR, say sell-side analysts, and Randy Burkhalter is both sides’ pick for top IR professional.)

“Enterprise’s executives are some of the most astute value creators in the energy space,” says Morgan Stanley researcher Stephen Maresca.

A “midstream operator” that stores, processes and transports oil and natural gas, Enterprise has come a long way since 1968, when ­Texas-born oilman Dan Duncan founded the company near a big East Texas oil field at Mont Belvieu (Duncan was still Enterprise’s chairman and majority shareholder when he died in 2010 at age 77 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.) The company went public in 1998, and soon after began a series of mergers and acquisitions that expanded its network of pipelines. By 2009, Enterprise had become one of the largest midstream operators in the U.S., with a network of pipelines transporting crude oil, refined products, natural gas and ­natural-gas liquids that reached as far west as Wyoming and as far east as New York.

Enterprise plans to exploit the latest discovery of shale, from which natural gas can be extracted, at the so-called Marcellus site in the Appalachian Basin of the Northeastern U.S. by establishing a 1,230-mile pipeline from the site to the nation’s Gulf Coast petrochemicals hub. (Only about half of the pipeline would be new, as it would interconnect with an existing one.) The network would be the first to move liquefied ethane, a feedstock in the production of ethylene, which is used in manufacturing certain plastics, from the Northeast to Enterprise’s storage facilities in Mont Belvieu. In early November Enterprise announced that it had locked in a major customer for the pipeline — Oklahoma City–based oil and ­natural-gas drilling company Chesapeake Energy Corp. — a huge boon for the project, since Chesapeake’s business would account for 60 percent of the proposed pipeline’s initial capacity of 125,000 barrels a day. The pipeline’s operation is slated to begin in early 2014.

Enterprise has also simplified the company’s structure. In November 2010, Enterprise Products Partners bought Enterprise GP Holdings for roughly $9 billion. Less than a year later, it merged with Duncan Energy Partners. At that point Enterprise had gathered what had been four different publicly traded but related entities into just one.

“Today our balance sheet is about as simple as you can get,” says Creel. “It’s much easier for investors to understand.”

Investors earlier cheered management’s decision in the fourth quarter of 2010 to eliminate the incentive distribution rights that went to the company’s general partner—which was controlled by the Duncan Family Trust. Typically, partnerships like Enterprise provide their general partners with increasingly large cash distributions, which siphons cash flows that would otherwise be going to common unitholders and bondholders. But Creel explains that the Duncan family gave up those rights for no consideration—a rare move—partly because the family together with management holds the largest equity stake in Enterprise, 39 percent.

“That large insider ownership means we’re directly aligned with our public unitholders,” Creel says.

Not everything at the company has been going smoothly. A fire at Mont Belvieu in February 2011 killed one worker and halted operations for several days. IR chief ­Burkhalter and his team responded quickly with a press release laying out all the facts they had in hand, which limited the fallout. “If you want to earn credibility when things go well,” he says, “you have to be accessible when something bad happens.”

Enterprise’s IR team acted similarly when ­Duncan died. “We got a press release out quickly, and then I took calls,” Burkhalter explains. “The message on the calls was, ‘Yes, it was unexpected, but he put his management team in place. He was the strategic leader, but we have a deep bench and we’re going to carry on his legacy.’ And we have. That’s the way we run our business.”

Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, is another company that could have hunkered down in the face of uncertainty. In January 2010, six months before CEO Douglas Oberhelman took the reins, the Peoria, ­Illinois–based company posted 2009 revenue and profit results that were its bleakest since the 1940s, as construction in the U.S. and abroad all but halted in the midst of the economic meltdown.

And that followed concerns that the financial crisis would take a toll on its big finance subsidiary, which though unjustified posed a huge investor relations headache, says Michael DeWalt, head of IR for Caterpillar. “You just had to, in some ways, overcommunicate,” says DeWalt, whom buy-side analysts rate the top IR professional in the Machinery sector. “We talked more about the finance company, I took herds of investors down to Nashville to talk to our people down there. I took the CFO of our finance company on road shows. You just have to communicate more when you’re in those situations.”

Caterpillar not only allayed investor concerns about Cat Financial but also bounced back strongly in terms of results. For 2011, Oberhelman’s first full fiscal year in the corner office, revenues and profits look to break records at the top end. After a ­stronger-­than-ever third quarter, the company said it expects sales for the year to be $58 billion. Profits for the first three quarters already total $3.42 billion, nearly overtaking full-year profits in 2008 of $3.56 billion—the most in company history.

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