In a time when the world seems full of corporate greed, it’s a pleasure to write about someone who gets it right, indeed.
Ken Chenault is one of America’s most respected CEOs. He was the former boss of the corporate giant American Express. When he was interview by CBS News Special Correspondent James Brown, thousands showed up at the World Headquarters to bid him goodbye. He was considered a Rock star to the Green card AmEx faithful and the cool and calm leaders to the employees worldwide.
Ken Chenault was the just the fourth African American to run a Fortune 500 Company. He said that someone once said, that they couldn’t conceive of an African American ever running a major division at American Express. Ken’s reply, “Then you haven’t met many African Americans, because there are many qualified people who can do the job”. The Brown vs the Board of Education case provided opportunities for people like him to enter the field and the Harvard Law school just expanded his world view.
Warren Buffett, one of the largest shareholders in American Express called Ken Chenault “A class act. The kind of person that you would want to be the trustee of your will or to be your next-door neighbor. Warren Buffett has been Ken’s friend for 20 years.
In 1981 Chenault was recruited by American Express where he faced a big challenge. The merchandise services unit was losing money and he pulled together a team that went from generating $100 million in sales to $700 million in sales. That propelled him into the fast lane; President and COO in 1997 and CEO in 2001.
He was tested again when the American Express Corporate Headquarters suffered major damage during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in which the company loss 11 employees. The next test came during the Great Recession of 2008. He kept his head while others were losing theirs.
Chenault was interviewed by the Associated Press about the new tax law, being a Black CEO and the effect of competition.
- You are leaving AmEx but if you were staying, how would you use the benefits from the tax bill?
- I think a lower corporate tax rate will spur the economy in the long run…We wanted to create some long-term benefits for our employees. That’s why we did this one-time incremental benefit in profit sharing. We also going to put $200 million into incremental investment places where the company can grow and expand.
- Your departure reduces the number of African American CEOs at Fortune 500 Companies to three. What legacy would you talk about tied to that role you play in society and business?
- That’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing because there are thousands of people who are just as qualified or more qualified but haven’t been given the opportunity. What’s needed is a pipeline where quality people are coming in and the need to create an environment where people are embraced and engaged rather that just tolerated. Diversity and inclusion should be a core priority not just the flavor of the month.
- What will American Express look like once plastic cards go away?
- People see the services and the service is the brand. In 2017 Forbes named American Express as the 23rd most valuable brand in the world. In 2018 Fortune ranked American Express as the 14th most admired company worldwide and the 23rd Best Company to work for.
Maybe that’s the reason why the advertising program so effective, “Don’t leave home without them.”