When Karen Hoguet graduated from Harvard Business School in 1980, she didn’t aspire to be a chief financial officer.

But for the past 17 years she has led the finance team at Macy’s Inc. through major acquisitions, an online retail revolution, the Great Recession and an uneven economic recovery.

Ms. Hoguet has helped drive the department-store chain’s performance past those of its rivals in the S&P 500 index with a focused approach to risk taking and revenue generation.

“When companies argue that they need to be less profitable in order to grow, it’s a very slippery slope,” she said.

Execution on strategy is one reason Ms. Hoguet leads CFO Journal’s Top 20 ranking of finance chiefs this year.

Over the past three years, Macy’s improved its return on invested capital by more than 38%, paid out some $5.3 billion to shareholders in dividends and buybacks, and beat competitors on other financial benchmarks.

Finance chiefs who executed with similar precision and improved returns also placed near the top of the ranking.

Of course, these executives are just part of the reason for their company’s success. Much of a CFO’s job involves fulfilling the chief executive’s vision and answering to the board.

Still, few major companies could flourish without in-house expertise in areas like fundraising, deploying cash and managing financial risks.

To compile its ranking, CFO Journal examined the performance of companies in the S&P 500 index, concentrating on nine financial metrics over the 36 months ended June 30, 2014. Another four measures were used as tiebreakers.

Companies got points for scoring above the median in their sectors on indicators such as return on invested capital, operating margins, capital spending and total returns. Some surprising names didn’t make the list, such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc., which posted declines in invested capital.

Nipping at Ms. Hoguet’s heels were Union Pacific Corp. ’s Robert Knight and Comcast Corp. ’s Michael Angelakis, who had comparable base scores. Constellation Brands Inc., a wine, beer and spirits maker and distributor, fortified its growth with a strategic acquisition.

Mr. Knight helped increase Union Pacific’s return on invested capital by 34% and gave back more than two times its free cash flow to investors.

“With financial success comes opportunity,” said Mr. Knight, adding that Union Pacific plans to increase capital spending and its share-buyback program. “If all goes well, we can have it all.”

But Ms. Hoguet clinched the top spot as she drove Macy’s revenue growth against a field full of aggressive competitors, as well as fickle consumers with more choices than ever and less disposable income.

The competition Union Pacific faced wasn’t nearly as fierce. “Each geographic region, by and large, has two major railroads and this puts railroads in a good competitive position because shippers have few alternatives,” said Keith Schoonmaker, head of industrial research at Morningstar Inc.

That makes Ms. Hoguet’s achievements all the more impressive, he said.

Comcast sought to position itself in light of increasing competition in the broadband and pay-TV industry. Under Mr. Angelakis’s financial leadership, the company bought the remaining assets of NBCUniversal during the ranking period. (It also agreed to buy Time Warner Cable Inc., a deal that is still pending.)

The media company more than doubled its return on invested capital and channeled more than half its free cash to shareholders. Comcast ranked third because of its burgeoning portfolio of assets.

“Michael is extremely professional in recognizing that the future [of media] is not in providing the pipe, but content,” said Anthony Catanach, associate professor of accounting and information systems at Villanova University School of Business. “It’s a wonderfully aggressive approach to risk management.”

Mr. Angelakis declined to comment.

Constellation Brands’ acquisition of the U.S. rights to Corona Extra, Modelo Especial and Pacifico beers drove the company’s growth above its peers in the consumer-staples sector and to fourth place in the rankings.

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