The Most Powerful Black Executives in America Meet 50 black business men and women who wield unprecedented clout.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Sometimes the tale of black power in America can be told in images. Back in 1969, power was political, epitomized by a Newsweek cover with a young black man named Tom Jones brandishing a rifle and a raised fist after leading a militant rebellion at Cornell University. These days the image that resonates is corporate, of that same man in his corner office suite at Citigroup. Cuff links displaying the Travelers umbrella peek out from Jones' conservative dark-blue power suit. Another red Travelers umbrella shines from his lapel, and the company logo covers his tie too. In other words, he's armed with all the accoutrements befitting his current role: chairman of Citigroup's asset-management, global-investment, and private-banking operations.
Sometimes the tale is better told in numbers. Jones, 53, now oversees four business units, 12,000 employees, and almost $700 billion in assets. Though something of a long shot, he is reportedly one of five contenders to replace his mentor Sandy Weill as CEO of Citigroup.
And sometimes all you need is words. While Jones still boasts that he proved he could "lead an armed revolution," he says turning to corporate America was the logical next step after college: "One of the new frontiers for African Americans would be business. Clearly if America was going to be a more open society, then one of the testing grounds would have to be where the dollar was made--where significant wealth and resources were at stake."
This list is testament to the fact that a whole lot of wealth and resources are now controlled by black men--and some women--in corner offices. Since 1999, three black men have ascended to become CEOs of FORTUNE 50 companies, and the No. 1 man on our list, Merrill Lynch President Stanley O'Neal, will probably join them soon. The Executive Leadership Council, a networking organization for senior black executives in FORTUNE 500 companies who are no more than three steps away from the CEO, today boasts 275 members; it was founded in 1986 with 19 members.
For all their great wealth and enormous resources, black business leaders have largely been less visible than more celebrated black leaders such as media celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson or powerful political appointees like National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, and Roger Ferguson, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. The sea change captured by this list of the 50 most powerful black executives is the depth of black power in mainstream U.S. business. Sure, the four top-ranked men have already been hailed as major players at American icons--O'Neal at Merrill Lynch, Ken Chenault at AmEx, Dick Parsons at AOL Time Warner (this magazine's publisher), and Franklin Raines at Fannie Mae. But read further down the list, and at every stop you'll find an executive with real sway: There's No. 5 Jones at Citigroup; No. 8 Cal Darden, the head of operations at UPS and a candidate for the top job; No. 12 John Thompson, CEO of Silicon Valley stalwart Symantec; No. 34 Cathy Hughes, founder of Radio One and the first black woman to head a publicly traded company; No. 43 Charles Tribbett of headhunter Russell Reynolds, who has led corporate board searches for almost all of the FORTUNE 500; and all the way down at No. 50, Cecil Pickett, who runs the R&D operations of $10-billion-a-year drugmaker Schering-Plough. That's not just a list of powerful black execs but a list of powerful executives, period.
So how did we define power? It wasn't just a question of whose company has the highest market cap, revenues, or profits, or which executive oversees the most employees or has the fanciest title. We were looking for people who are wielding power, putting it to active use. And that's why, after a long debate, we decided that Stanley O'Neal, COO of Merrill Lynch, had to top the list.
How could we choose someone who isn't a CEO? Well, there's simply no question that O'Neal is the man in charge at a company that, despite its recent troubles, remains the nation's largest brokerage firm. Last summer O'Neal won a brutal power struggle to succeed CEO David Komansky. He's not slated to take over until 2004, but O'Neal's aggressive maneuvering over the past year--demoting rivals and replacing the heads of every major unit from investment banking to asset management and research--has given him a solid power base and convinced most of Wall Street that his ascension will probably come sooner than planned.
A former GM executive, O'Neal rose to prominence at Merrill by turning around its junk bond business in the early '90s. That helped him move into the CFO job. But what clinched his position as CEO-in-waiting was his recent leadership of the firm's brokerage house. Although never a broker himself, O'Neal made a strategic decision to concentrate on customers with $1 million or more in assets, which helped reduce operating costs while raising revenue per client. And he did so while quelling hostility from the firm's skeptical army of 15,000 brokers. Now O'Neal is trying to scale back the firm's sprawling empire and focus on the bottom line, helping to protect it against any potential takeover bids. Komansky has stepped back into the limelight recently to manage the various nightmares--the Henry Blodget e-mails that Eliot Spitzer uncovered, the Martha Stewart mess, and so on--that occurred under his watch. But O'Neal is the man who will have to clean up after the scandals are over, and his record so far indicates that he will be unafraid to do whatever it takes.
Following O'Neal are the CEOs. Ken Chenault comes in at No. 2 on our list. Since he took over in January 2001, Chenault has been fighting an uphill battle to regain momentum for American Express. In his 21 years at the company, he gained a reputation for turning dead-end posts into star vehicles. One troubled division he turned around in the 1980s was the equivalent of corporate Siberia--merchandise services. Then barely profitable, the low-profile unit hawked luggage tags and gifts to cardholders. In just three years Chenault pushed annual sales from $100 million to $700 million. He has yet to work that kind of magic on the company as a whole: With business travel still lagging and the stock market skidding, AmEx stock is off 31% under Chenault. It remains to be seen if he is the leader who can steady this ship.
There's even more that remains to be seen about Richard Parsons, who took control of the world's largest media company in May. With AOL Time Warner's revenues about equal to those of Merrill and its market cap twice as large, it could be argued that Parsons deserves the top spot. Maybe next time--for now he's No. 3. He has been in the job only for a couple of months, the stock has plummeted, the internal politics are nasty, and it's unclear whether what has been described as the "mother of all mergers" is genius or a hairball. Parsons, an attorney and former aide to Nelson Rockefeller, wins high praise for his diplomacy; he'll need all that and more to turn this behemoth around.
The man we ranked No. 4, however, has been proving for years that he has what it takes. When Franklin Raines, the Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar and former White House budget chief, took over as CEO of Fannie Mae in 1999, he became the first African American to lead a FORTUNE 500 company. Since then he's grabbed market share from competitors, overseen double-digit profit growth, and last year cranked out a record $5.9 billion in earnings on revenues of $50.8 billion. He's also successfully fended off critics who accuse Fannie of everything from being too big to having an unfair advantage, in part because its quasi-governmental status lets it raise long-term money at better rates than its competitors. So why isn't he No. 1? Because for all of Fannie's influence over the mortgage market, it's simply not the same kind of corporate global powerhouse as Merrill, AmEx, or AOL.
So much for the high-level beauty contest. Like everyone in the world, we knew all about those four guys when we started researching this list back in March. But it is the depth of black corporate power that has been overlooked. To identify leaders who not only control huge numbers in terms of revenues and employees but also wield power within a company and its industry, we combed through hundreds of executive bios and resumes and talked to industry experts, analysts, and executive recruiters. We also looked at what could be called the arc of an executive's career: How fast has the person risen, and how much further is he or she likely to go? As with our four-year-old survey of America's most powerful women, we limited our search to the private sector, which eliminated influential African Americans like Powell, Ferguson (see box), and Lloyd Ward, the former CEO of Maytag, who now runs the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Our effort was not embraced by all. Some candidates did not want to be included, fearing the attention would cause more harm than good to careers so carefully built. "What are you trying to do to me?" snapped one senior executive, wishing to have his name removed from the list. (He's still there.) Stanley O'Neal refused to speak to us for this story. Others who have fought a lifetime to break down walls could not applaud the singling out of black executives. All of them look forward to the day when a list of top black executives will seem as ridiculous as a list of the top 50 white men in business.
"I don't wake up in the morning and think of myself as a 'black' executive," says Thompson, the 52-year-old CEO of software and Internet security company Symantec. "I think of myself as a CEO of a tech firm who, like all CEOs, has to serve shareholders well. The fact that I am black is undeniable--but it is not what motivates me." Thompson arrived at Symantec in the spring of 1999, coincidentally just a few days after Jesse Jackson descended upon Silicon Valley to criticize the tech bastion for its lack of diversity. Before Symantec, Thompson spent 28 years at IBM where, as one of the company's most senior executives, he led IBM Americas, a $37 billion business unit with 45,000 employees. Despite his accomplishments at Big Blue, though, he instantly became known as the "black CEO in Silicon Valley."
The truth is that today's boardrooms and executive suites are not filled with African Americans, which means that being black at this level does draw attention. Just five days after assuming the CEO post of AOL Time Warner, Parsons, who does not make a point of emphasizing race when he tells his own corporate story, could not deny the added pressure that comes with being a black CEO. "It's an annoyance," he says defensively. "Of course your priority is the shareholders and 90,000 employees. But there are also countless numbers of people outside who, for whatever reason--race being the biggest--are rooting for you. And not."
Another worry of the people we interviewed was that a list of the black corporate elite might create the illusion that all barriers have crumbled. That is indeed an illusion. In the past five years, as many black executives were making strides, the FORTUNE 500 also lost two black CEOs. Ward, who rose through the ranks of P&G, Ford, and PepsiCo, walked away from Maytag after battling with its board, while a merger forced Barry Rand out of a job at Avis. Both CEOs lasted less than 15 months. Pessimists argue that the big question is, Why are there only three sitting black CEOs of FORTUNE 500 companies? "Have things changed in the past five years?" asks William Lewis, head of global banking for Morgan Stanley and No. 13 on our list. "On Wall Street that is a short conversation. There is nothing close to black power on Wall Street. Period. Full stop."
We are still at the stage historically where almost everyone on this list has been "the first" or "the only" African American at some point in his career. Lloyd Trotter (No. 11) became GE's first black business head when he was named CEO of $6 billion Industrial Systems in 1992. Charles Tribbett is the only African American to sit on the global executive committee of search firm Russell Reynolds. "You may think that these are personal accomplishments, but deep down you know that your achievements represent large numbers of other people," says Eula Adams (No. 16), head of card operations for First Data--and, way back in 1983, the first African-American partner at Touche, the accounting firm that has since become Deloitte & Touche. When 52-year-old Adams graduated from Morris Brown College in 1972 and went to work at Touche Ross, as it was then called, the firm had about 800 partners; none were African American. Adams estimates that there were probably only about ten black partners in the entire profession. "The loneliness, especially in the early days, was the hardest," he says of his career. "I lived in two worlds. I'd leave work and go home to one world, and then wake up and go back to work in that other world." Today Deloitte & Touche has just 25 black partners.
Although everyone on this list has overcome adversity, the individual tales of success differ widely. Consider the stories of Cal Darden of UPS, Arnold Donald, CEO of Merisant (No. 17), and Brenda Gaines, president of Diners Club (No 20). Darden, 52, began his career at UPS in 1971. A senior in college and a newlywed eager for cash, he took a part-time job delivering packages for $3 an hour. The $36 he made each week served as the couple's grocery money. After graduation he started working at UPS full-time. Over the next 20 years, as he climbed the management ladder, Darden moved his family seven times, zigzagging from Buffalo to California. In Nashville, by increasing training and boosting morale, he turned a suffering operation that was making its deliveries only 60% of the time into one that was 100% efficient two years later. In 1995 UPS asked Darden to examine service quality issues for the entire company. He introduced customer service techniques that are UPS staples now, such as giving drivers more time to make deliveries so they could build relationships with clients. And he launched new technology that allowed deliveries to be made to private homes rather than central drop-off spots. Named senior VP of U.S. operations in 2000, Darden now oversees all of the company's $30 billion in revenues and 340,000 employees. Last year he was nominated to the UPS board of directors. These days the voicemail of the former part-timer is clogged with messages from headhunters offering COO and CEO posts at smaller companies, but insiders say that he'll get the top job at UPS one day. "The door is wide open," says Darden of corporate America. "Anyone can come in, roll up their sleeves, and make a difference."
Arnold Donald, 47, CEO of Merisant, decided on his career goal--to be a "general manager of a science-based" FORTUNE 500 company--as a high school junior. He was convinced that science was the future, and he wanted to be a general manager because as a black teenager in the segregated New Orleans of the 1960s he could hope for no higher position. His ambition was fueled three times a day at the all-black Catholic school he attended; that's how often the nuns would get on the loudspeaker to tell the student body, "Gentlemen, one day you are going to run the world. Prepare yourselves." Such reinforcement was unheard of at the time. Donald remembers the day a classmate accused a white priest of picking on him just because he was black. The priest quickly shot back, "Yes," then challenged the class with, "Now what?"
"Growing up poor and African American was a blessing," Donald now says. "It toughened me up early. I learned I couldn't let other people's problems be my problems. There is no better preparation for business."
Donald went on to get a BA at Carleton College, a BS in mechanical engineering at Washington University, and an MBA at the University of Chicago. He joined Monsanto, the agribusiness giant, in 1977 as a salesman in its industrial chemical division. "At first people assumed that I didn't know what I was doing--they assumed I was a token." But by 1995 he was leading the company's $4 billion agriculture business, a star black executive in a lily-white industry. He was considered the leading contender to run the company. But he took a different route when Monsanto decided to unload its Equal artificial sweetener business. With financial backing from Pegasus Capital and Michael Dell's MSD Capital, Donald bought Equal and founded Merisant. Now Merisant dominates its industry, with 19 artificial sweetener brands around the world.
For Brenda Gaines, 52, the route to prominence in the business world was a bit more circuitous. Gaines served as deputy chief of staff under Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, after holding posts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and heading the Chicago Housing Authority. When Washington died unexpectedly in 1987, Gaines decided that it was time for her career in public service to end too. Citibank wasted no time, immediately recruiting the well-connected government official to be in charge of its government and community relations. Relying on her background in housing, she quickly moved up to senior VP in charge of residential lending. In 1992 she moved to Citigroup subsidiary Diners Club, thus completing her transformation from government bureaucrat to corporate exec. She now leads the day-to-day operations for the $30 billion card company. "Clearly more and more companies recognize the importance of diversity," she says. "But the fact remains that African-American women have greater responsibility faster in government."
While black men have made remarkable strides in the past several years, black women still have a long way to go in corporate America. Although 11 women appear on this list, most are clustered toward the bottom. And rather than running big-ticket mainstream divisions or companies, they tend to drive more entrepreneurial businesses, often creating the opportunities themselves. No other woman was close to joining Oprah in the top ten. Asked to think of potential black female CEOs, countless recruiters, analysts, and diversity experts touted former Kraft executive Ann Fudge. That's curious, considering that she left her post as president of Maxwell House two years ago in hopes of landing a "bigger opportunity." Once viewed as the most powerful black woman in corporate America, she's still waiting. And she doesn't make our list.
"Black women have been made invisible," says Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and author of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. Bell half-jokingly calls FORTUNE's list of the most powerful women executives the "white women list"; she calls this one the "brothers list." "Sure, black women want to rejoice in the successes of a Dick Parsons, Ken Chenault, or Stanley O'Neal, but it puts them in an awkward position. Black women are not included in the discussion."
Perhaps as a result, the women who have made our list are fiercely competitive after years of digging to the surface of corporate America. They tend to be more openly ambitious than their male counterparts. "Of course I would love to be a CEO," says Myrtle Potter, the 43-year-old COO of Genentech and No. 18 on our list. "It is important to me not only as an African American or a woman but as an African-American woman."
When Potter arrived at the University of Chicago, the native of New Mexico was an outsider from day one--"rural, African American, and female," as she says. One of six children, she could afford a college education only after her father mortgaged the family home. She helped pay the bill by working in a local hospital as a lab technician. After her junior year she convinced the university's business school to allow her to apply for one of the company internships normally reserved for its MBA students. She landed one in the sales department of IBM, and it changed her life. She was convinced if she could marry medicine with business, it would be a perfect fit. After graduation she landed a sales job at Merck.
There she constantly pressed for greater responsibilities, even taking lateral moves to broaden her skills during her 14-year tenure. In the mid-'80s one manager told her that black women did not have the "intellectual ability" to do analytical work. He advised sticking with sales. "As an African-American woman I was really going against the grain," she says. In 1991, when Potter was put in charge of the Astra Merck joint venture, which required her to design a business plan for the new $4 billion company, the appointment was met with some skepticism inside Merck. When she took over the business, it seemed doomed to miss an internal deadline management had set as a precondition for spinning off the unit as an independent company. Potter dove right in, and in just eight weeks was able to recharge Astra Merck's brands, including Prilosec, which became the world's bestselling ulcer medicine. And she also beat that internal deadline, by four months. From Merck she went on to Bristol-Myers Squibb, where in 1998 she became the first black woman to head a major pharmaceuticals business when she took the helm of the $3 billion U.S. cardiovascular/metabolic division. Now she's at Genentech, and her dreams of becoming a CEO have not faded: "One day," she insists. In fact, experts say she does have a good shot.
As we got to know this powerful 50, it became clear that many saw the past two years--with the rise of O'Neal, Parsons, and Chenault--as an important milestone in black history. Many view this list as a celebration of what's been achieved by finally reaching the corner office--and as an acknowledgement of how far there is still left to go.
"The only reason I can be here is because of the civil rights movement," says No. 6 Bruce Gordon, 56, head of the $25 billion retail services division of Verizon. "Dr. King could never have been hired by a FORTUNE 500 company; not because he didn't have the talent, but because he never would have been given the chance. But he and others got me in the door. Now I have an obligation to use the power he put in my hand and make sure that door stays wide open."
Most of the people on this list are in their late 40s or in their 50s. The next generation of black business leaders, those in their mid-30s, take the possibility of corporate success as a given. This next generation already has the degrees, connections, experiences, and resumes that those breaking the color barrier could only have dreamed of. When this highly competitive group knocks on the door, they are often bearing better credentials than many of their white counterparts. "What that should translate into is a pipeline moving to CEO and senior exec jobs over the next five to ten years," says Harvard Business School professor David A. Thomas. "It will be a test of how open the system really is."
Given their expectations, the next generation is less patient then the one in power now. They are also likely to be much less tolerant if the system does shut them out--they will leave their large corporations to run smaller companies. Furthermore, these younger execs are also bolder about their desire to succeed as black executives, not simply as executives who happen to be black.
"My goal has always been the same. I went into business so I could bring power to the African-American community," says No. 45 Kim Crawford, 37, a VP at Dell. Crawford has a BA in political science, an MS in industrial engineering from Stanford, and an MBA from Harvard. She spent 11 years as a technology consultant at Bain & Co., where in 1998 she became the first African American at the firm to make partner. Two years ago she came to Dell to run new business development and convinced the computer company to enter the networking business, which she now leads. "The only way African Americans are going to be uplifted is if we make major strides in the business front. The keys to improving [the black] community are improvement in education and improvement in our participation in capitalism."
Tom Jones and his generation took control of student unions. Crawford and hers plan to storm the chief-executive suite. And that should make for an even more powerful image down the road.
REPORTER ASSOCIATE Martha Sutro