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It’s a warm evening in May, and once again Ken Chenault is being honored. The event, a scholarship fund-raiser held by the Spelman-Morehouse Alumni Association, has brought out a veritable who’s who of politicians, entertainers and Wall Street financiers. Throughout the evening, the rich and powerful make their way to the head banquet table to pay tribute to one of corporate America’s favorite sons. There’s Robert Holland, the former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., the ice cream company, and now head of the Holland Group L.L.C. (No. 29 on the be industrial/service 100 list); Calvin O. Butts, pastor of one of the city’s largest black churches; and actor Samuel E. Jackson and his wife, actress LaTonya Richardson, who hold court as the event’s hosts. Also in attendance are investment bankers from Williams Capital Group (No. 3 on the be investment bank list), J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, as well as top execs from IBM, Xerox, Travelers Corp., Chase Manhattan Bank and the National Basketball Association.
In one evening, Chenault has helped raise about $100,000 for his father’s alma mater. In typical Chenault fashion, he has lent his presence and credibility to bring together a diverse group of individuals to achieve a common goal. It has been his trademark quality since his days at the Waldorf School, the elite prep school in Garden City, New York. Reserved yet outgoing in nature, the Harvard-trained lawyer has always been a team builder with a knack for drawing out the best in others-whether it be on a football field, at a fund-raiser or in the boardroom.
And his unwavering self-confidence has enabled him to tackle the tough corporate assignments that make or break executives.
Chenault has risen to the top through performance, excellence and finesse. He has successfully maneuvered through the executive labyrinth to attain his current position as president and chief operating officer of American Express Co., a $19.1 billion financial services colossus. And by 2001, he will assume the highest rung in his 18-year career with the company: CEO.
“When I look at the challenges he’s undertaken at AmEx, certainly he’s been aware of the additional pressure of the microscope on him against his peers. But he rises to the challenge and tries to do an even more spectacular job,” says Ira Hall, vice president of alliance management at Texaco and vice president-elect of the Executive Leadership Council, a network of senior-level black corporate executives of which Chenault is a member. “The drive is internal. It is a pursuit of excellence. Once you get to a very senior level, everyone is competent. But those who excel, even among those who are competent, are those who are well trusted, liked and respected. Ken is all those things to a wide variety of people.”
It has been Chenault’s string of successes that ultimately led Chairman and CEO Harvey Golub to name the trim, polished 48-year-old executive CEO-designate at a meeting of the American Express board of directors this past April.
Since joining the company in 1981, Chenault