Business

James D. Robinson III, Former Chief of American Express, Dies at 88

James D. Robinson III, who as chief executive of American Express from 1977 to 1993 helped transform Wall Street into a more competitive financial market with a wide diversity of companies housed under one roof, is died Monday in Roslyn, New York. Long Island. He was 88 years old.

The death, which occurred at a hospital, was caused by respiratory failure due to recurrent pneumonia, Walter Montgomery, a family spokesperson, wrote in a statement.

The soft-spoken son of Georgia gentry, Mr. Robinson followed a well-trodden path to financial success, power and influence: from private school to the Ivy League, then into the moneyed canyons of Lower Manhattan , with excursions through the corridors of the Capitol.

In Washington, he was one of Wall Street's most influential proponents of deregulating the financial sector and broadening its horizons. Some have called him the unofficial secretary of state for corporate America.

The deregulation he fought for was largely accomplished with Congress's repeal of the Great Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act in 1999. As a result, commercial banks gained the authority to underwrite and trade corporate securities and owning insurance companies.

This cultural shift has also prompted the securities industry to respond with increasingly sophisticated and complex IT products. Among them were the highly leveraged derivatives that played a significant role in the 2008 market collapse.

But while Mr. Robinson later acknowledged that financial deregulation “had gone too far,” he never argued for reimposing the Glass-Steagall restrictions, which had erected a wall between investment banks and retail banks.

Mr. Robinson was perhaps best known to the public for his role in the epic $25 billion battle for control of RJR Nabisco in 1988 and for his dismissal by disgruntled shareholders.

In the Nabisco episode, an Amex-owned investment company, Shearson Lehman Hutton, was the backer of an RJR Nabisco management group that sought control of the company in a bidding war that was ultimately won by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company.

“I was a facilitator trying to bring the parties together,” Mr. Robinson said in an interview for this obituary in 2016.

The buyout represents the largest business transaction in nearly a decade and has been called by some the culmination of a new golden age.

The struggle was chronicled in Bryan Burrough and John Helyar's bestselling 1989 book, “Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco.” The book was the basis for a 1993 HBO film in which Mr. Robinson was played by Fred D. Thompsonwho later became a U.S. senator from Tennessee.

Mr. Robinson's career was defined above all by placing American Express at the forefront of expanding the corporate frontiers of his era.

“We invented the term 'diversified financial services industry,'” Mr. Robinson said in the interview, in his Midtown Manhattan office (where an abstract painting by Frank Sinatra hung on the wall).

During his tenure, the American Express travel and payment card empire expanded to include Shearson Lehman Hutton; First Data Corporation, a payments company; Investors Diversified Services, a mutual fund company; and the Fireman's Fund insurance company. American Express also operated an international bank.

Mr. Robinson made an unsuccessful bid in 1978 for the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company and at one point considered acquiring the Walt Disney Company.

But the prosperity of the late 1980s and early 1990s turned into what he called a “dark period,” as the stock market and brokerage industry collapsed and traders, in what became known as the “Boston Fee Party”, rioted across the country against the high cost. to accept American Express cards.

The rebellion forced the company to reduce its so-called discount rate — about 4 percent per transaction — to match that of its credit card competitors, which charged a third of that amount.

Disgruntled shareholders and directors forced Mr. Robinson to resign in 1993, at age 57.

Within a year, he had joined his son and Stuart J. Ellman to create RRE Ventures, a New York venture capital firm investing in new information technology companies.

His ouster from American Express came a decade after he presided over the forced departure of Sanford I. Weill, the Wall Street titan whose securities empire had been absorbed by American Express under Mr. Robinson's leadership .

The brash Brooklyn-born Mr. Weill, who began his career on Wall Street as a messenger, and Mr. Robinson, a patrician Georgian, were a cultural odd couple. When Mr. Weill's proposal to buy the Fireman's Fund, which he headed, was rejected by Amex's board of directors, he decided he had to leave.

Mr. Weill thought Mr. Robinson was bureaucratic and indecisive. But during the 2016 interview, Mr. Robinson challenged a widely held belief that Mr. Weill was a risk-taker and that he was risk-averse. In fact, Mr. Robinson said, “it was the opposite.”

James Dixon Robinson III – sometimes called “Jimmy Three Sticks” because of his use of Roman numerals – was born November 19, 1935, in Atlanta. James Dixon Robinson Jr. And Josephine (Crawford)Robinson. The son and grandson of prominent Georgia bankers — his father was president of Atlanta's First National Bank — he grew up with two sisters in the city's affluent Buckhead neighborhood.

A neighbor, famous golfer Bobby Jones, inspired Jimmy to start playing at age 8, by offering him occasional tips. His 2016 resume listed seven golf club memberships, including Augusta National (founded by Jones), and nine former golf club memberships.

After attending Woodberry Forest, a private school in Virginia, Mr. Robinson enrolled as a day student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he studied industrial management. After graduating in 1957, he joined the Navy, which assigned him to the Pearl Harbor nuclear submarine base in Hawaii as a disbursing or paymaster officer. In the meantime, he took correspondence courses at the New York Stock Exchange. The same year he married Bettye Bradley, with whom he had two children.

After his discharge in 1959, Mr. Robinson enrolled at Harvard Business School and earned an MBA in 1961. He began his business career at Morgan Guaranty Trust Company and, after five years, was named assistant to the CEO, Thomas S. Gates Jr.

In 1968, Mr. Robinson became a partner at White Weld & Company, where he developed an interest in venture capital. He joined American Express in 1970 as executive vice president, recruited by Eugene R. Black Sr., an Atlanta native, director of Amex and former director of the World Bank. Mr. Robinson became president in 1975 and chief executive officer in 1977.

He also served as chairman and CEO of Shearson Lehman Brothers, the brokerage subsidiary of American Express.

He resigned in early 1993 after a boardroom battle on the fact that he continues to exercise his functions. Major shareholders demanded his ouster. The Times reported that he left behind a company with “crumbling morale,” erratic profits and losses, and a falling stock price. Analysts, investors, some board members and even his predecessor, Howard L. Clark Sr., had turned against him.

His marriage to Ms. Bradley ended in 1983 after she had a disabling brain aneurysm, he said, and she filed for divorce.

In 1984, he married Linda Goddena high-level public relations executive who later advised him during the Battle of RJR Nabisco. She is the daughter of Freeman F. Gosden, co-creator and voice of the radio show “Amos 'n' Andy.” As he became active in philanthropy and fundraising for Republican candidates, Mr. Robinson and his wife became prominent members of New York's glittering social scene, living at the famously exclusive address of 778 Park Avenue.

He is survived by his wife; his two children from his first marriage, James IV and Emily Cook; two children from his second marriage, Nicholas and Olivia Robinson; his sister, Frances Huber; and six grandchildren. Mr. Robinson lived on Park Avenue in Manhattan.

At age 80, when asked when he planned to retire, Mr. Robinson replied: “Three years after I die. ” He added that if his dreams of technological advancement came true, “I might be able to achieve it.”

Robert D. Hershey Jr.a reporter who covered Wall Street finances and economics for many years for The Times, died in January. Alex Traub reports contributed.

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