Power in the Boardroom

Consider them the guardians of shareholder value. Charged with protecting trillions in assets, the #directors who serve on the boards of the nation’s largest corporations play the most critical role in business development. Collectively, they’ve deliberated and debated decisions on multibillion-dollar acquisitions that made enterprises globally competitive, on #divestitures that rescued moribund companies, on #restructurings that have downsized tens of thousands of employees, on technological advancements that transformed industries, and on dismissals of legions of underperforming CEOs. “I’ve seen it all, and it’s been incredibly fascinating,” says Vernon Jordan Jr., senior managing director of investment bank Lazard FrËres & Co. L.L.C. and a 35-year boardroom veteran who serves as a director of Xerox and American #Express. “It’s been a process where I have been able to grow, develop, and mature in terms of #understanding not only the system but how human #beings react to situations. I’ve seen grown men cry.”

Jordan-along with Time Warner Chairman Richard D. Parsons and former Ford Foundation President Franklin Thomas (pictured)-is a part of the corporate elite who oversee the Goliaths of the global economy. In fact, Parsons and Thomas, both directors of Citigroup, were among the board members selected to find a replacement for former CEO Charles Prince, who was forced out in November when the financial giant took a staggering $13.7 billion in write-offs tied to subprime mortgages.

The actions of board members can have major industry-shaking consequences. One director on our list, Jon E. Barfield, CEO of The Bartech Group Inc. (No. 23 on the be industrial/service 100 list with $203 #million in gross sales), attended more than 15 board meetings last year in his role as corporate director #during media baron Rupert Murdoch’s $5 billion takeover of Dow Jones & Co. “It was fascinating to be part of corporate history,” says Barfield, who #witnessed corporate intrigue involving the shrewd entrepreneur, the discordant owners, the Bancroft family, and a company in turmoil as ownership changed hands at The Wall Street Journal.

It’s a challenge for any professional to rise to this level. For blacks, it’s even more daunting. Although minority #representation has increased over the past four decades, blacks are still absent from most corporate boards. Why should this news be important to you? Even though African Americans make up a significant share of consumers and shareholders of these companies, they are woefully underrepresented when it comes to corporate governance.

Over the past several months, black enterprise #conducted its own research on the subject. Our editors interviewed scores of board members, corporate #governance experts, and representatives from the nation’s largest public #companies. (See our methodology sidebar.)

As a corporate watchdog, boards select their #members from a portfolio of heavyweights from #divergent business, legal, and financial backgrounds. “A high-tech company will want people with relative experience,” says Gerald Davis, professor of management at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “A company that does a lot of business with the #government will want to have a former senator or someone with