When the history of American capitalism is written, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett may get the lion’s share of attention, but the real story-indeed, the most remarkable business story in history-will belong to Sandy Weill. A chapter of that story came to a close with Mr. Weill’s announcement on July 16 that he’ll be stepping down as chief executive of Citigroup at the end of the year, while remaining chairman until 2006. In his nearly 50 years on Wall Street, Mr. Weill has left everyone else in the dust.
The most stunning achievement, of course, is his creation of what is today known as Citigroup: In a mere 17 years, he took a $5 million investment in a moribund company called Commercial Credit and turned it into the most profitable, successful company ever. And he survived to tell the tale. As he made dozens of acquisitions, he increased the company’s market value 500 times, and increased its annual earnings 700 times, to its current 14 billion dollars a year profitability. Along the way, for his trouble, he accumulated a billion dollars. One might also note that Citigroup outperformed the S&P Index sixfold during the best stock market in history. When Mr. Weill started assembling the company in 1986, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates were already No. 1 and No. 2 among America’s wealthy business leaders. They are still right up there, but frankly their accomplishments pale by comparison.
Not only did Mr. Weill pull off several multibillion-dollar acquisitions-he bought both Shearson and Travelers in 1993, Salomon Brothers in 1997, Citicorp in 1998, Associates First Capital in 2000, Grupo Financiero Banamex-Accival in 2001, Golden State Bancorp in 2002-but, without a misstep, he seamlessly integrated them into what is now Citigroup. These were companies that were going nowhere or slipping badly; today, they are integral parts of the most powerful company in the world, with nearly 200,000 employees in over 100 countries. It’s also worth noting that this was Mr. Weill’s second act: He’d already made a name for himself on Wall Street, helping build a small brokerage firm into a powerhouse that American Express bought in 1981.
For the past 25 years, Mr. Weill has been profoundly generous with his money, energy and time, becoming one of New York’s most prominent philanthropists. He played a pivotal role in the renaissance of Carnegie Hall and has been a powerful presence at Cornell University’s School of Medicine.
Mr. Weill has always had a talent for knowing how to choose the appropriate talent at the right time. But behind the scenes, there was another factor that played a significant role throughout his career: his wife, Joan Weill, whose good judgment, quiet charm and personal likability were essential components of this great success story.
Congratulations to Joan and Sandy Weill for an extraordinary career, and for making a magnificent contribution to New York City.
Councilwoman Foster Plays Racial Politics
It was perhaps inevitable that, just when racial politics seemed to have taken a welcome holiday in New York, some City Council members would step in and make another cynical and cheap attempt to inject race into an important issue. Last week, Councilwoman Helen Foster publicly accused Council Speaker Gifford Miller of delaying action on a lead-paint bill because his children are white and live on the Upper East Side, whereas most of the children affected by lead paint are minority kids. Councilwoman Foster’s accusations are preposterous-several experts have serious misgivings about the effectiveness of the lead-paint bill in question-and are the sort of inflammatory and destructive comments that one would normally expect from a buffoon like Al Sharpton.
Unfortunately, Councilwoman Foster-who is the chairwoman of the Council’s black, Latino and Asian caucus-isn’t alone in her ugly attempts to racially polarize the lead-paint issue: Councilman Bill Perkins of Harlem has also implied that Speaker Miller is only concerned with his predominantly white constituency. Perhaps most disturbing, three likely Democratic contenders for Mayor-City Comptroller William Thompson Jr., Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and former Bronx Borough President Freddie Ferrer-were present when Councilwoman Foster made her absurd statement and only later said they thought she was out of line.
Lead paint is a health issue, not a race issue. Indeed, the City Council must address it, since on July 1 the courts overturned the city’s previous regulations governing lead-based paint. But the current bill might very well undermine any serious effort to solve the problem. The real danger of lead paint comes from its dust, and thus scientists recommend leaving intact lead paint alone. But as The New York Times has reported, the new bill might lead to the removal of more lead paint than would be prudent, stirring up toxic airborne dust as well as creating mountains of paperwork that opponents of the bill have suggested would allow tenants to file spurious lawsuits against landlords and the city. It’s also important to note that the bill is not in accord with the recommendations of the federal Center for Disease Control and the city’s Department of Health, lead by Commissioner Tom Frieden.
In order to reach a solution to this very important issue, Speaker Miller has scheduled hearings in September. But Councilwoman Foster and her allies are hoping to avoid reasoned debate, and instead to win cheap political points. Surely the children at risk deserve better.
Central Park at 150
It was on a mid-July day 150 years ago that New York City bought over 700 acres of swampland and created the country’s first park intended purely for the public enjoyment. As this summer reaches its midpoint, New Yorkers might want to pause and appreciate how the 19th-century vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux continues to enhance the city, offering moments of calm and pastoral beauty for the world’s most caffeinated populace. The profusion of nature is staggering: 26,000 trees, 275 species of birds, 150 acres of lakes and streams, 58 miles of pedestrian paths. Every longtime New Yorker knows that even a short stroll under the park’s leafy canopy has the ability to soothe anxieties and make huge problems suddenly seem manageable.
A walk in the park was not, however, always the sublime experience it is today: During the 1970′s, budget cuts took a severe toll on the upkeep of the park’s many attractions. Fortunately, in 1980 the private, nonprofit Central Park Conservancy was formed; thanks to individual and corporate donors, the conservancy now provides more than 85 percent of the park’s annual $20 million operating budget and is largely responsible for the park’s current splendor.
Central Park is 150 this week. And it’s never looked better.