On His Own

James D. Robinson

James D. Robinson hasn't waited for succes; he's gone after it.

By Jerry Schwartz

A lthough James Dixon Robinson III was born into one of Atlanta's most prominent banking families, the 1957 graduate of Georgia Tech's School of Industrial Management has not been one to wait for success and prominence to come to him. While many of his peers might have been content to accept family wealth and an American Express Gold Card, Jim Robinson went to New York and got American Express--the whole company. At age 41, Robinson was named chairman and chief executive officer of American Express Co. Casual observers may have viewed Robinson's rise as an easy ride on rails greased by family connections. But by the time he left American Express earlier this year following a gruesomely public bloodbath inside the company's board of directors, it was clear that Robinson was a man who had out-worked and out-thought some of the country's best business executives to attain his position . . . and a man not afraid of a fight to maintain it.

The Competitive Urge

Y ou have to give Jimmy Credit, "says Willis Everett, an executive with an Atlanta money-management firm and a boyhood friend of Robinson's. "A lot of the guys in his peer group stayed around Atlanta waiting for a fat and happy job. But somewhere along the line Jimmy decided he wanted to make it on his own. He sure did it, too. I don't know, but that might have had something to do with his father."

James Robinson Jr., known as "Big Jim," had been president of First National Bank of Atlanta (now Wachovia Bank). Before that, his grandfather and great grandfather also had been prominent Atlanta bankers.

James D. Robinson But where "Big Jim" was an imposing 6 foot, 4-inches and 200 pounds, his son was a slender 5-foot, 8-inch, 125-pound splinter. During his Tech career, Robinson began an all-out weight-lifting regime that by graduation transformed the bantamweight into a chiseled 205-pound match for any linebacker.

That program--both the physical-fitness routine and the intense competitiveness--became a way of life he has kept up, and even intensified, to this day. "My father was a very tough-minded fellow," Robinson told one interviewer. "However hard I was working, he'd say, 'Work a little harder.'"

It was a philosophy that didn't immediately take root, Robinson admits. Maximum effort was not a part of his modus operandi at Georgia Tech. "Well, I can tell you about Tech, but I'm not sure it's an answer you're going to like," Robinson says. "I had been at prep school in Virginia. I'd been away for four years and I decided to go to Tech, in part, because I wanted to get back to Atlanta.

"I imagined that I would go into banking or financial services rather than engineering, so that's how I picked the industrial management school. I have to say Georgia Tech was easy for me. I was on the dean's list most of the time. In hindsight, I might have done better to go into electrical engineering or one of the tougher schools down there. But I enjoyed myself and graduated early."

"I think he did reasonably well with a minimum of effort," says Wade Mitchell, executive vice president of Trust Company Bank and a Tech classmate of Robinson's.

"Probably the bulk of his time and attention was spent socializing, having a good time and going to school to get four years older."

Robinson went on to the Navy, became a supply officer, and reconnected with his boyhood pal, Everett, when both were stationed in Hawaii. "I have to say the impression I recall of Jimmy from Pearl Harbor was of someone you'd call an officer and a gentleman," Everett says. "My wife and I would see him and his wife for dinner and cocktails. I'm not sure I was aware at that point that he was a really driven person. It was clear he had a very quick mind. He did have a sense of humor, but it was not visible all the time."

James D. Robinson Things changed when Robinson got to Harvard and began work on his MBA. "I had taken some correspondence courses while I was in the Navy and I had some experience at Trust Company of Georgia," Robinson recalls. "When I got to Harvard, I felt that I had a leg up on everybody because I had done those things. It didn't take me long to realize that my associates who had come from other backgrounds, who had learned in undergraduate school to think in the scientific, reasoning fashion, were going to outdistance me. I had the trade tools, but I didn't have the perspective," Robinson says. Compared to his Tech career, the Harvard MBA program was a struggle, he concedes.

Robinson says he's always been consumed by a desire to succeed, even though it may not always have been obvious to his associates. "When I found something that interested me, I pursued it aggressively. But I think I got a little more focused when I went into the Navy. Whatever water I drank, it made me a little more competitive than some others."

More Than Flash

B y the time he completed his MBA, Robinson already was a man marked for stardom. "Everybody in town wanted to hire him when he came out of Harvard," Howard Clark Sr. told Business Week in 1988. It was nice that "everybody" was interested in Robinson, but the fact that Howard Clark Sr. wanted to hire Robinson became significant because Clark had decided he would retire early as chairman of American Express. After watching Robinson zoom up the corporate ladder, first at Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. and later at White, Weld & Co., Clark indirectly offered Robinson the opportunity to join a dozen or so other men in the sweepstakes to succeed him at the AmEx helm. In that class of heavyweight contenders, it was James D. Robinson III who emerged as champion.

Seven years after he joined AmEx, Robinson was named chairman and chief executive officer, beginning a 16-year tenure at the head of one of the nation's most prestigious financial institutions.

Robinson and his second wife, Republican Party activist and public-relations executive Linda Gosden, were decidedly on New York society's "A" list. They counted among their friends--and Robinson's and those of AmEx board of directors colleagues--Henry Kissinger, opera star Beverly Sills, Urban League director Vernon Jordan and former President Gerald Ford. Jim Robinson was hardly out of place in such rarefied company. His voice carries a reserved, patrician air. He speaks in the confident, but measured cadence of diplomats and successful executives. The Robinsons were trendy, attractive, successful-- everything coveted in New York's penthouses and board rooms.

But there was more than flash in Robinson's approach to his job at AmEx, according to accounts of his associates. He had an immense appetite for work, and consumed information with the voraciousness of a mainframe computer.

Every moment counted: Flights were work sessions; upon landing, Robinson would trade finished papers for a briefcase of new work needing his attention. Each year, prior to American Express annual meetings, Robinson required key executives to prepare exhaustive summaries of any questions likely to be asked by shareholders, along with the appropriate answers. Daily, Robinson was awake before dawn, throwing off the coils of sleep with an Olympian exercise routine, and on the way to AmEx's midtown office building before the garbage trucks had cleared the streets.

And though his family tradition may have been in the old school of conservative corporate management, Robinson was assuredly a man of his times--joining in the corporate acquisition binge of the 1980s with gusto. In 1981, Robinson led AmEx to a buyout of Shearson Loeb Rhoades. In quick succession, American Express acquired Investors Diversified Services, Trade Development Bank, Lehman Brothers and E.F. Hutton Group.

Business Week said Robinson's acquisition strategy was "widely considered the most successful financial-services diversification drive of the 1980s." And an Industry Week poll of corporate head hunters in 1986 named Robinson among "America's Most-Admired CEOs." It is ironic, perhaps, that the Industry Week Class of 1986 included John Akers of IBM, and Roger Smith of General Motors. By late last year, all three of those blue-chip companies were reporting huge losses, and all three men were out of their jobs.

Though press accounts of the hour-by-hour maneuvering at American Express paint a picture of Robinson as a man grimly determined to hang onto corporate power, whatever the cost, Robinson himself clearly is philosophical about his departure.

"I think there is a limited useful life for a CEO--10 to 12 years at the outside, seven or eight years probably is better. I stayed longer at American Express than I intended to.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, management turned over every five years because people aged. That was too fast for chief executives to set a direction and implement their strategies. But a CEO shouldn't go more than eight to 12 years, 15 at the outside if you own a good part of the company.

"The reason for burnout is both the freshness of capacity to look at what's going on and the ability to keep up. As you go along, there are always hotshots who are as good or better than you are. It's tremendously difficult to maintain momentum. The other aspect is that the world in that league is so competitive and aggressive, you've got to make it clear that there is room at the top for new blood or you're going to lose your young talent."

On the other hand, Robinson deplores a recent trend of almost management du jour, a switch in chief executives to fit every shift in business strategy. "There are times when the CEO's talents, because of the business situation, must be more focused on cutting or on investing and acquisitions, or what have you. What you've got, hopefully, is the capacity to play on all those courts and the ability to know how to manage through adversity.

"Boards of directors probably are feeling their responsibility more. Some of them try to prove that they are tough. But sometimes change for the sake of change is okay, too," Robinson says with a bit of a laugh.

A New Freedom

T he change in his own life since leaving American Express in January has been good for him, Robinson says. He's begun a New York company that will make venture capital investments in new technologies. "We're looking chiefly at information technologies, interactive kind of stuff that's a marriage between telecommunications, distributed computer database and media," Robinson says.

As to his penchant for physical fitness, it's only increased. "Absolutely," he says with emphasis. "I've stepped that up. I will put more discipline into getting to the gym."

Though he still carries a heavy workload Robinson's grimly competitive zeal may have been tempered slightly by his American Express experiences. With a hint of autumn in his voice, he says, "I haven't felt this free in 22 years."

Jerry Scwartz is an Atlanta free-lance writer.