September 11, 2003

Weill '55 Reflects on Career

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In a break from tradition, Sanford I. Weill ’55, chair and CEO of Citigroup, yesterday morning addressed journalists and other representatives from leading business schools at a New York City press conference. Speaking to a younger audience than usual, he talked about his involvement in philanthropic organizations, including the Cornell Weill Medical College, and his resignation as CEO of Citigroup.

He began by summarizing what has happened in the five years since the merger that formed Citigroup. In particular, he commented on the recent corporate scandals and their effect on the financial industry. “It’s not just the credit risks with the people, but right up at the top [of our concerns] is the reputation to be thought of,” he said.

Weill also described the positive financial state of Citigroup, and quoted a statistic describing a ten-billion-dollar increase in Citigroup’s net income from 1998 to 2003.

He then reflected on the variety of philanthropic work that he does both through Citigroup and independently. “We do things that are … helpful to the world we live in. I think we have been good global citizens,” he said.

How good of a “global citizen” Weill is, however, is a topic that many find debatable.

“While Sanford Weill’s philanthropic work may have helped small communities in the United States, the projects that he funded have caused both ecological and social destruction for people around the world,” said Bria Morgan ’04, a member of the Cornell Greens.

“Projects like the Three Gorges Dam in China have displaced tens of thousands of people, depriving them of the right to live happily in their homelands. If this is philanthropy work, I’m really confused as to where this benefits people,” she added.

Later in the conference, Weill expressed his pride in Weill Cornell Medical College, of which he is chair and which is named for him. He has given an endowment to the college in New York City, and has been a major supporter of the Qatar branch of the medical school. In particular, he conveyed his enthusiasm that the Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar will be the first college to offer an Ivy League education in the Middle East.

“I think maybe… one of the ways we’ll end up having peace in the world is through cultures coming together… rather than always fighting each other,” he said.

Weill also addressed his previously announced resignation as CEO of Citigroup and the transition over to the next chair. He believes the transition will go smoothly, and hopes not to lose any of the top staff at Citigroup. Later, during a question and answer session, he said that he planned his departure carefully to take people by surprise.

“By introducing the element of surprise, it didn’t give people time to pose and posture and position themselves and watch the worst in people’s personalities come out.”

Although he has enjoyed his position at the company, he said he is grateful to be retiring. “I’ve lived for the last 48 [years] not really being in control of my own calendar,” he said. “I feel good [knowing]… I’m not going to die [at] my desk.”

Weill ended the conference with a question and answer session, answering questions on business media and technology.

Responding to a question addressing classes in business ethics, he said, “It’s never too late, but it would be a heck of a lot better to teach [ethics] at very early ages in school. A person’s character is somewhat shaped already by the time they go to business school.”

Johnson School of Management Professor Charles M.C. Lee Ph.D. ’90 affirmed Weill’s success at Citigroup. “Citigroup has done quite well, although they’ve obviously had their bumps over the past five years.” For the most part, he agreed with Weill’s view of business ethics courses, although he had a somewhat more positive viewpoint of them. “I think that ethics is something we need refreshers on all through our lives,” he said.

Unfortunately, he sees the job market as tough on recent graduates, despite Citigroup’s financial success. “It’s been tough for two years in a row [and] we have not seen things turn around a corner yet,” he said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher