Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rose Grows from Concrete: the Quiet Lion Kenneth Chenault

CEO and Chairman of American Express, Kenneth Chenault always knew he wanted to be a leader but working in “business was the farthest thing on my mind.” Instead the Long Island native wanted to pursue a career in politics through law. Attending Bowdoin College during the Civil Rights movement, Chenault acted as a negotiator for the African American student body at his school to the school administration. “The Civil Rights Movement was in full flourish…there is no way you could stay apart from the issues…you cannot remove yourself from societies interest. I felt that I had to be involved…I felt you could make a major difference in the mainstream but you didn’t have to compromise your values.”

Kenneth Chenault grew up in an affluent suburban neighborhood of Hempstead, LI. His father was a dentist and his mother a dentist hygienist. From an early age, Kenneth was always encouraged to achieve academic excellence. He attended the prestigious Waldorf private school and went on to Bowdoin College before receiving his juris doctor at Harvard Law School.

After graduating from Harvard, Chenault took the expected path and joined New York corporate law firm, Rogers & Wells. Not long after working there, Kenneth decided to take a job at a Boston based firm Rogers & Wells where he worked on business contractual deals and consulting. During that time, he was responsible for the research and design of business strategies for Fortune 500 companies in the US. His experience at Rogers & Wells taught Kenneth all aspects of the business world while acquiring valuable contacts with important business executives. It was during this time that Chenault decided that he was more interested in running a corporation than practicing law. In 1981, he was offered a position in the merchandise service division of American Express. Within less than three years, he was the vice president of marketing for that division.

Kenneth Chenault credits his tremendous work ethnic to his father “the one quote from my father that stands out is to focus on the things that you can control and the only thing that you can control is your performance.” Throughout the 80s and 90s, Chenault made a quick climb through the upper management at American Express. As the general manager of merchandise services and senior vice-president of American Express Travel-Related Services Company, sales in the division jumped 20 to 25 percent under his leadership. Chenault held many executive officer positions at Amex including vice chairman, president and COO. By 2001, when than CEO Harvey Golub, who had a close trusting relationship with Kenneth, stepped down, there was no surprise with the announcement of Chenault as the new CEO for the company.

When Kenneth took over as CEO, the company was experiencing a downturn and were preparing for thousands of layoffs by the end of the third quarter. No one could have foreseen the tragic events that took place on September 11. Amex headquarters was located across the street from the World Trade Center. Chenault’s first concern after the attack was the safety of his employees and customer service. The company helped stranded cardholders get home by chartering planes and busses. The company also donated one million dollars to the families of American Express employees who died during the tragedy.

Kenneth Chenault has received numerous awards and recognition including Third Lantern Award for public services in November 2010 as well as being listed by Ebony as one of 50 "living pioneers" in the African-American community.

“To be successful in any endeavor you got to have a combination of humanity…(and) a level of confidence; there’s no substitution for confidence” ~Kenneth Chenault

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