April 15, 2004

After a Weill in the World of Business

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“I love giving money away,” admitted Sanford I. Weill ’55, chair of Citigroup Inc. The Cornell alumnus spoke yesterday about his experiences in the business world for the past 50 years. Addressing a full audience in the David L. Call Auditorium, with overflow in the PepsiCo Auditorium at Ives Hall, Weill touched on his personal history, financial advice and, of course, philanthropic endeavors.

Weill was the opening speaker for a two-day event recognizing the 20th anniversary of the naming of the Johnson Graduate School of Management. For this event, business leaders have come to Cornell to speak about “Managing the Future” in what is being called “A Summit on the Transformation of Business.” The business school, which was founded in 1946, was named after Samuel Curtis Johnson, the great-grandfather of donor Sam Johnson.

Robert Swieringa, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management, said the $20 million Johnson donation “was a transforming gift.” The events of the summit, according to Swieringa, are about “gratitude…and describing what the school is all about today.”

In his introduction to Weill’s address, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 called the business leader “an entrepreneurial risk taker.”

Weill, who has been chair of Citigroup since it was formed by a merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group in 1998, was also its CEO until Sept. 2003. He will retire as chair of Citigroup in April 2006.

After showing a few slides proving the success of Citigroup in comparison to AIG, General Electric, and Berkshire Hathaway, Weill turned to a more personal topic. Spending the majority of an hour discussing his rise through the ranks of the business world, Weill said he wanted to talk about “the lessons I’ve learned” in the process of becoming one of the world’s most prominent financial leaders.

Choosing between Harvard and Cornell for college, Weill came to Cornell thinking he wanted to be an engineer. He openly admitted, “I really did not flourish in that environment from the beginning.”

Leaving Cornell after his first term, Weill returned the next year on a probationary standing. He became a liberal arts student and took classes at the business school during his senior year.

Speaking about meeting his wife in April 1954, Weill said his first lesson for the day was “Pick the right partner.” Because they met on a blind date, Weill also noted, “a lot of the time, it’s better to be lucky than smart.”

Weill planned on joining the Air Force but a delayed graduation caused him to retake the entrance physical, which he failed because of a cavity. A college graduate with a wife and no job, Weill became a runner at Bear Sterns. “It turned out to be a tremendous break for me,” he said.

In 1960, Weill and three of his friends pooled all of their savings to create the brokerage company Carter, Berlind, Potoma & Weill. From this experience he learned his second big lesson.

“Understand how to be a risk taker,” Weill said. “You always have time to do something again.”

In June 1981, Weill organized a $1 billion business deal with American Express. “I really learned a lot,” he said about his four years with American Express. “We were really talking about changing the future of financial business services.” In addition to thinking about the future of business, Weill said he also learned the importance of a company’s Board of Directors. Despite this educational experience, Weill said, “I was miserable.” He left American Express in 1985 and was unemployed for a year.

In 1986, Weill became chair of Commercial Credit Company. In his first year there, the struggling company saw a profit of $25 billion. “They’re all numbers, it doesn’t mean anything,” Weill joked. In 1993, Commercial Credit circuitously acquired The Travelers Corporation and became known as Travelers Group. After looking to become a presence in the global arena, Travelers Group bought Solomon Brothers in 1997, around the time of the worldwide market crashes. “That’s when we got a good idea of what being global was,” he said with a smile. The company’s stock increased by $30 billion on its first morning after the announcement and then fell $60 billion from that height when Russia’s economy fell apart.

In addition to his extensive involvement in business organizations, Weill is known for his generosity in education, music and the arts. Business Week has called him “One of the 50 Most Generous Philanthropists.” Weill said “it’s…fun to give away money and see the results of it while you’re still alive.” He added, “The more I make, the more I can give away.”

Weill is currently chair of the Board of Overseers for the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College and Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University. The medical college was named after the Weills in 1998. Weill is also a Trustee Emeritus of the University and serves on the Advisory Council of the Johnson Graduate School of Management. In addition, Weill has made significant donations to high school education programs across the country and supports the arts through fundraising campaigns for Carnegie Hall and as a director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

During a short question and answer session, Weill spoke about his charitable contributions and ways in which one can be a good business leader. Joking about the Enron scandal while answering the latter question, Weill said, “I don’t do e-mail and I think that turned out to be a good idea. You can manage a big business by talking to a lot of people, by not staying in your office.”

Rick Sweeney, director of Marketing and Communications for the business school and an organizer of the summit said that having people like Weill speak is “a model for anyone at Cornell.” He added that the events give guests “an opportunity to glimpse through the window of someone who’s a leader in their field and get a firsthand perspective on how they see influences that are shaping the world.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Writer