Home » Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express at View From The Top Talk (Transcript)

Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express at View From The Top Talk (Transcript)

And I think partially because of the times that we were in with 9/11 but also the leadership in the way that was done, we received the highest employees survey scores that we had in years. So that was very much a turning point for the company. And then frankly one of the most exciting things for me was over the last five to ten years is in fact to see some of those employees come back to the company because of the growth of the company and what was happening.

The financial crisis was very different. On one level, it didn’t have the emotion of the loss of human life. But you really felt that you were falling off the cliff. And in a crisis what I think is very very important and where it really hit me was when Congress voted against TARP. And I vividly remember my son is now a junior in college, calling me and saying, dad, everyone says that the company is going down and you’re going to be fired. And I said, Kevin, it’s not going to be that bad. Don’t worry about it. But the reality is that represented the fear. Because to me when messages permeate the playground, you know this is really serious that there are real problems. And for us where we were impacted is we were very reliant on the wholesale funding model. So we did not take deposits and so literally over a weekend and this goes to the power of a brand, I said we’ve got to get into the deposit business and both inside and outside the company, people said, given what’s going on with financial services companies in the environment, there was no way you’re going to get this up and running. The only way we could do it was in fact to work with third parties. So we, in fact, worked with other financial services companies to see to basically sell our deposit products.

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And I then put together a mantra for the company. Because we wanted to have all 60,000 plus employees focused on what we needed to do and it was really simple: Stay liquid. Stay profitable and in the hope for it was selectively invest in growth. So even in the most challenging times, I wanted to reinforce that we were not going to take our eye off the ball of really being focused on growth. But staying liquid was critical.

And fortunately within around 30 days we’d raised around 8 billion in deposits. We now have over 40 billion in deposits. That gave me a lot of hope and gave the organization and the company a lot of hope. Because I said why would people be putting money in with us if they thought we were going out of business, number one. Number two, we were able to stay profitable. And that was critical. Third, was what I also looked at as far as customer health was how many customers traded down from our more expensive products to less priced products. And the reality is almost zero. And we had hardly anyone who left the franchise. That gave me a lot of confidence.

Then the third thing that we were able to do, back to the mantra, is we were very clear to people in the company where we were investing. And that allowed us to come out of the crisis frankly really roaring. So the momentum of the company was very very strong. And my experience frankly over thirty years is what you see with companies is it really is what happens during a crisis is how the companies act, how balanced they are. The majority of companies, in fact, hunker in the bunker — don’t really have a broader perspective, don’t focus on growth. And then generally two to three years after a crisis you start to see this demarcation that’s caused and that’s exactly what happened for us. Fortunately we were on the positive side of that.

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Andrew Baldwin: And speaking on a lighter note, over those 30 years and even maybe more specifically over the last 12 as CEO, is there one day that you look to and you’re like, man, that is the day why — that’s the reason why I do this. This is a great day, this is kind of what gets me excited and just passionate about the business. Is there one day you’ll look back to?

Ken Chenault: I would say literally there are fortunately hundreds of days. Because my view in business is, if you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it. But I’ll give you one example that again was a tragedy but gave me a lot of pride is, I think everyone certainly remembers the tsunami. And you’ve got the problem — and the reality was that our employees around the world with literally no instructions from top management did incredible things to serve people. And that just gave me incredible pride because when people feel empowered to make a difference and literally make up policies on their own. But it was because they really believed in the service mission and the service ethic of the company. That’s where I felt great but fortunately I have literally hundreds of examples like that that make me feel great about being in the company.

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