Leadership Has Its Rewards

Ken Chenault's low-key yet competitive style has pushed him up the executive ladder and to the CEO's chair

has served in a variety of positions, from director of strategic planning in the Merchandise Services division to president of the Consumer Card division, building his rep by restructuring the company’s bread-and-butter line of cards. He further displayed bold leadership during the tempestuous ’90s by persuading merchants-from airline companies to restaurants-not to leave the AmEx fold while quelling internal feuds at the company. He was the executive who was handpicked by Golub, then head of the Travel Related Services division, to reduce costs by $1 billion. Undaunted, Chenault took the challenge, streamlining the staffs of four divisions and creating one tight, productive business unit. Savings to the company: a whopping $3 billion in operating costs. Says Golub: “There are qualities in leadership that can only be observed over time-how an individual deals with others, how he deals with adversity and complex issues, how he organizes his time and efforts, and deals with external constituencies. And Ken has demonstrated amply over the years his abilities. He’s more than capable.”

When he takes the helm as CEO, Chenault will not be the first African American to assume the top spot at a Fortune 500 company. Franklin Raines’ appointment as CEO of Fannie Mae became effective last January. And, in August, Lloyd Ward began his tenure as chief executive of Maytag Corp. But no other African American has controlled a financial services monolith that operates on such a global scale, responsible for millions of transactions on a daily basis. In short, he has bulldozed a once-impenetrable wall for black executives.

Kenneth Irvine Chenault has consistently proven his mettle as a master marketer, innovative thinker and corporate strategist. Because of his outstanding career achievements, he is saluted as the 1999

Chenault has been named CEO-designate during a period of transition for AmEx. The once-wounded giant is facing a new competitive landscape. Analysts such as Steven Singleton, senior vice president and director of research for Robert Van Securities in Oakland, California, maintain that AmEx’s card business will continue to face major competitive challenges from the likes of First USA, Providian and Advanta, the largest issuers of Visa and MasterCard. And the Internet is waiting to raise the stakes still higher.

Golub and Chenault have developed their three-prong growth strategy for the future. The plan calls for expanding the company’s card network through banks and financial institutions; casting a wider net with its financial and investment services apparatus; and increasing market share in specialty segments, including small businesses and overseas markets. The connective tissue for the grand scheme will be technology, either through the Web or with what the industry calls “smart cards.”

Chenault has crafted the new corporate agenda and intensified his laser-beam focus to make AmEx bigger, stronger, more ubiquitous. “Leaders must focus an organization on facing reality,” he says. “Then they give them the confidence and support to inspire them to change that reality.”

It is a sentiment shared by those who have worked for and with him on past corporate campaigns. “He has been

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