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AmEx CEO's retirement leaves just three black Fortune 500 heads

Kenneth Chenault
Photo: Michael Cohen / Getty Images for The New York Times

Ken Chenault, 66, is days away from stepping down after 17 years as chairman and CEO American Express. He guided the company through 9/11 (the HQ, across the street from the World Trade Center, was left unusable), the global financial crisis, and numerous challenges to AmEx as the go-to payment option for the wealthy and well-traveled, AP's Ken Sweet writes.

Why he matters: "When Chenault became CEO, he was only the third black CEO of a Fortune 500 company ever. And for several years after his appointment, other black men and women were hired as CEOs, at companies such as McDonald's, Xerox and Merrill Lynch."

  • "The son of a dentist from Long Island, New York, who grew up as a black man during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Chenault never expected to be CEO of a major company, let alone work 37 years at the same one."
  • "But that trend has reversed. With Chenault retiring, there will be only three black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies: [pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.], financial company TIAA and retail chain JCPenney."
  • Chenault: "It's embarrassing. ... You need a pipeline of people coming in. You need to create an environment where people are embraced and engaged rather than just tolerated."
  • What's next: "He will be joining the corporate boards of Facebook and Airbnb."

Editors note: AP incorrectly identified Pfzier as being one of three Fortune 500 companies with a black CEO, while excluding Merck & Co., who's CEO Kenneth Frazier is African American. We have updated this story to reflect the changes.