American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault — now a top contender for key positions in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet — got his start in the business world thanks to friend and Harvard classmate Mitt Romney.
The White House approached Chenault on Tuesday about the possibility of naming him the next secretary of treasury or commerce. Chenault is also reportedly under consideration to be a senior presidential adviser.
The executive graduated from Harvard Law School alongside Romney in 1976. He then moved to New York to work for the law firm Rogers & Wells for approximately two years.
Chenault “moved back to Boston to join some of his Harvard classmates at management consultancy Bain & Co.,” according to a 1998 profile of Chenault in Businessweek.
“I wasn’t bored or disappointed by law,” Chenault told Businessweek. “I wanted to try something new: business.”
“W. Mitt Romney, the son of former governor of Michigan who had attended Harvard Law School with Chenault and gone on to Bain, recruited Chenault to the firm,” according to the Encyclopedia of Business.
Romney explained why he hired Chenault, an African-American, in a July 1997 Ebony magazine profile of Chenault.
“I’ll take full credit for hiring Ken,” Romney told Ebony. “Although Ken lacked an MBA, he was a natural fit for the business world. He was able to process a lot of conflict and frenzy, and still be able to cut through the confusion and arrive at very powerful conclusions and recommendations and then see them through to their implementation.”
Chenault reportedly “found his métier” at Bain & Co., where he was promoted to manager and performed well enough under Romney to earn a job at American Express, according to Businessweek.
The credit card company hired Chenault directly from Bain & Co. in 1981. Chenault never looked back, becoming American Express’s CEO in 2001.
During the 2012 presidential election campaign, Obama persistently criticized Romney’s record at Bain Capital, the asset management firm founded by Romney and other senior members of Bain & Co. in 1984.
The pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action even aired a commercial before the election that attempted to link Romney and Bain Capital to a woman’s death.
“Mr. Romney claims that he’s Mr. Fix-it for the economy because of his business experience. And so I think voters entirely legitimately want to know, well what exactly was that business experience?” Obama said during the campaign, in defense of his attacks on Bain Capital.
“I think most Americans figure if you are the chairman, CEO and president of a company, that you are responsible for what that company does,” he said in July.