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,” he says. 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 liaison between his school’s African-American student body and the school administration.
“The Civil Rights Movement was in full flourish. There was no way you could stay apart from the issues. I felt that I had to be involved. I felt you could make a major difference in the mainstream without compromising your values.”
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, he 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, he decided to take a job at a Boston-based firm 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 U.S. His experience at Rogers & Wells taught him all aspects of the business world while acquiring valuable contacts with important business executives. It was during this time that Chenault decided 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.
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 80’s and 90’s, Chenault made a quick climb to upper management at American Express. As the general manager of merchandise services and senior vice-president of American Express Travel-Related Services Company, he increased sales 20 to 25 percent. Since then, he’s held many executive officer positions at Amex including vice chairman, president and COO. By 2001, when then CEO Harvey Golub, who had a close trusting relationship with Chenault, stepped down, it was no surprise when the announcement was made of Chenault as the new CEO for the company.
When Chenault took over as CEO, the company was experiencing a downturn and was 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 buses. The company also donated one million dollars to the families of American Express employees who died during the tragedy.
Chenault has received numerous awards and recognition including the Third Lantern Award for public service 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’ve got to have a combination of humanity and a level of confidence; there’s no substitution for confidence,” he says.