THE OTHER SIDE OF KEN CHENAULT
As a child, Ken Chenault dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. It was not until age 13 or 14 that a grander ambition kicked in, inspiring him to apply himself to his studies for the first time. ''I started to think in terms of wanting to make a difference, of bringing about change in society,'' Chenault says. He certainly changed American Express Co., helping to create billions of dollars of wealth and thousands of new jobs. That is social impact of a high order, but what young Chenault had in mind was something else: righting the wrongs of race discrimination--or at least helping to blunt its effects.
While attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., Chenault made frequent trips to New York City to help organize the American Council for Drug Education, which eventually was merged into Phoenix House. Even so, some of Chenault's activist friends wondered whether someone so obviously destined for high-level professional success would retain his idealism. ''The question we left open regarding Ken was if and when he got to where he wanted to be, would he still care about the kind of people we work with here?'' says former Bowdoin classmate Geoffrey Canada of Rheedlen Centers for Children & Families, which combats truancy among minority schoolchildren in Manhattan.
This question was answered to Canada's satisfaction long ago. Chenault ranks among Rheedlen's largest donors--as does American Express--and is one of Canada's most valued advisers. ''I try to be respectful of his time,'' Canada says. ''But when I do call to bat around an idea, I always get to talk to Ken.'' Chenault also is active on the board of Columbia University's drug research center, the National Center on Addiction & Substance Abuse, and makes frequent inspirational speeches at black colleges, high schools, and grade schools. Even so, he feels he has fallen short of his youthful aspirations. ''On a social basis, I have not been as front and center involved as on the business side,'' he says. ''I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to do more over time.''
Time has been the problem. About 8 o'clock one night during AmEx' crisis year of 1992, CEO Harvey Golub dropped by Chenault's office to suggest that he should spend more time relaxing. ''A lot of us were working very hard,'' Golub says, ''but Ken was working the hardest.'' Ignoring the boss's advice, Chenault continued to work most every evening and weekend until mid-1996, when he took advantage of AmEx' much-improved performance to spend more time with his family. He and his wife, Kathryn, a former Wall Street lawyer who once worked for the United Negro College Fund, live outside New York City in suburban New Rochelle. They have two sons, Kenneth Jr., 9, and Kevin, 7.
At the same time, Chenault has taken up golf--one of the few sports he did not master as a boy. He started a couple years back, when Golub invited him along on a golf trip to Florida. ''I didn't play much over the next six months,'' Chenault says, ''but then it finally hit me.'' Many lessons later, he's got his handicap down to 19 and is part of a foursome that regularly golfs at such exclusive Long Island clubs as Shinnecock Hills and the National Golf Links. ''If you'd asked me two years ago, I would have said it will take Ken 10 years to improve his game to where it is now,'' says friend and foursome member John Utendahl. ''But when Ken commits, he really commits.'' No kidding.
Updated Dec. 10, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.