He kept the company together after the 9/11 terrorist attack
By Frederick H. Lowe
American Express Co. announced that Kenneth I. Chenault, chairman and CEO of the New York-based credit and charge card issuer, and one of the nation’s few top black executives, will retire February 1, 2018 after a challenging tenure that began in the very early days of his career in the company’s corner office.
Chenault’s first year in office was 2001, a difficult time for him, his senior management and the company because in September of that year, two passenger jets crashed into New York’s World Trade Center complex, where American Express is headquartered, instituting a new reality for the nation’s security and the business world that relied on the security.
Some analysts believed that American Express was doomed but under Chenault, the company survived and later thrived. The business on Wednesday reported a third-quarter net income of $1.4 billion on revenues of $8.4 billion.
“We’re starting a new chapter from a position of strength and this is the right time to make the leadership transition to someone who’s played a central role in all that we have accomplished,” said Chenault, who will be succeeded by Stephen J. Squeri, who board members on Wednesday elected CEO and board chairman.
Squeri has been American Express’s vice chairman and since 2015. Prior to that, he was Group President of the company’s Global Corporate Services Group.
Chenault earned a law degree from Harvard and an undergraduate degree in history from Bowdoin College. But what he faced during the first year of his tenure as CEO wasn’t a case study he could refer to in text books at the time.
On September 11, 2001, shortly after Chenault took over, two jets hijacked by Islamic militants crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, heavily damaging American Express’s world headquarters and killing 11 employees.
Chenault was working in Salt Lake City. He ordered his senior management to meet in his New York City apartment to determine a plan going forward.
“Spending on the travel business was in disarray and spending was dropping. Many people were writing us off. Still, the company had to lay off 15,000 workers. It tested us at the highest levels,” Chenault said.
Since American Express could not use its headquarters building, the company’s employees were dispersed to three separate locations in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. All the employees met in Madison Square Garden where Chenault spoke to them.
“I told my management team that it was our job to lead this organization,” Chenault said during a 2016 interview.
Warren Buffet, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, American Express’s largest shareholder, praised Chenault’s tenure. “He led the company through 9/11, the financial crisis and the challenges of the last couple of years. American Express always came out stronger. Ken never went for easy short-term answers, never let day-to-day challenges distract him from what was right for the moderate and long term.”
Chenault, 66, joined American Express in September 1981 as Director of Strategic Planning. In 1989, he was named president of the Consumer Card Group and 1993 he became president of Travel Related Services, which included all of Amex’s worldwide card and travel business in the United States. He was named president and chief operating office in February 1997.