Harvey Golub, the chairman of American Express Co., has named 45-year-old Kenneth Chenault as president and chief operating officer of the $16 billion company. The appointment makes Chenault, who holds a law degree from Harvard, one of the top black business executives in the country. The 58-year-old Golub also called Chenault the "primary internal candidate" to succeed him, even though he isn't scheduled to retire for at least seven years. Insiders say Golub may have moved to anoint his heir apparent because Chenault, a longtime AmEx executive, had recently received several outside offers. NEWSWEEK'S Richard Ernsberger Jr. spoke with Chenault in New York. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Were you surprised to be named Mr. Golub's heir apparent?
CHENAULT: I've always been a person who is very focused on my job, so I don't come into a situation with a lot of expectations. The announcement itself wasn't a surprise, but being selected for the position was.
You are now the highest ranking African-American executive in the country, What does that mean to you?
I think about that issue in the following way: there were a number of capable African-American business people before me, and there will be a number of capable people after me. I try to focus on my performance and deliver results.
Do you consider yourself a role model for black Americans?
I believe that people at any level, at any organization, whether it's their personal or business life, need to be role models. I have viewed myself this way throughout my career, and that won't change. You make strong statements by action-namely, that you will respect all people, give them an opportunity to succeed, and judge them fairly.
Does it bother you that there are not more African-American executives at major corporations?
I am bothered that more African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and women are not in the top ranks of corporate America. Race has not been a factor one way or another for me at American Express. Race is a major problem in America, however, and I have experienced discrimination in society at large. Under Harvey's leadership we have made a major commitment to drawing the best and the brightest from groups throughout our society. But I've also said American Express is not per-feet. This is a long journey.
What else should be done?
People need opportunity and an environment in which they will be judged on merit. There is not a lot of magic in doing that and establishing measures to judge performance fairly. What's important to understand is that corporate America is not yet a meritocracy. If more companies operated that way, you would quickly see changes in the demographics of top management. We need to be focused on [building] meritocracies.
You've acknowledged that AmEx was hurt by its corporate attitude. What did you mean?
We've said in the past that the company was arrogant and not realistic about the competitive environment. Over the last four years we've become very externally focused. We have launched more new products in the last 18 months than we did in the last decade. And we've gotten results. We are not in a turnaround situation; some of our businesses have enjoyed substantial growth.