David Nelms may never escape his underdog status. But he's gotten adept at using it to his advantage.

The longtime chief executive of Discover Financial Services, the credit card company mixing the blue-collar heritage of Sears Financial Services with the blue blood of Morgan Stanley, has spent the last two years in a relatively enviable position. Losses on soured credit card loans have subsided after the financial crisis, while Discover's profits, loan portfolio and share price are all growing.

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