From stocking merchandise in a small, family-owned grocery store at age 12 to becoming chairman and CEO of American Express, Ken Chenault credits his success to a combination of well-rounded business understanding and a willingness to take risks. In Q-and-A with Dean Tom Gilligan on Nov. 2, as part of the Undergraduate Business Council’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Chenault spoke to more than 450 students about his experiences and what led to his success.
Chenault joined American Express as director of strategic planning in 1981. In 1989, he was named president of the company’s consumer card group, and became president of travel-related services in 1993. He became the vice chairman in 1995, the chief operating officer and president in 1997 and was named CEO and chairman in 2001. He says that it is this experience in several aspects of business that has supported his success as CEO.
“What I tried to do was learn a lot about all aspects of running a company,” Chenault said. “What was critical was that I sought after a range of experiences and a range of skills.”
In addition to well-rounded business experiences, Chenault believes that a willingness to take risks is necessary, albeit difficult, for a successful business venture.
“I think what set me apart is that I believed to be successful in business, you always have to be willing to take a little bit of risk,” Chenault said. “I believe that the enemy of success is the status quo. The most dangerous part of being successful is getting comfortable. That’s a big problem in business. You always have to focus on innovation.”
Under Chenault’s guidance, American Express has remained profitable despite the state of the national and global economy, reporting a 1.2 percent increase in profits over the past year. According to Chenault, one reason that American Express was able to survive and even thrive in the midst of an economic collapse is an all-encompassing understanding of the brand.
“When I joined the company, we were right at the start of becoming a financial supermarket,” Chenault said. “We were an incredibly large financial services company, and we had a number of businesses that didn’t support our brand. If we had owned those business in 2008, let me assure you, I would not be sitting here because we would have been out of business.”
Among the divested businesses was major investment banking company Lehman Brothers, which declared bankruptcy in 2008. Although business is unpredictable and impossible to entirely control, Chenault advised students to remember that they alone control their individual performance.
“You can make a difference, or you can come up with a lot of excuses or reasons why you can’t do something,” Chenault said. “The reality, particularly for our young people, is that they actually do have more control than they may think, and that control is to be focused on performance, whatever they do.”