The former Time Warner CEO reflects on his decision to become chairman of Citigroup during the financial crisis
There had to be a chairman at Citigroup. (C) My hope was that Bob Rubin would step forward because he knew the business and he knew all the relevant players. The new government was pretty much in place—and they were all Bob Rubin acolytes. Bob just didn't want to go there, though.
We initially pressed Win Bischoff to do it, but it became reasonably clear as time went on that because Win was also an executive of the company, it compromised his independence. The only other person who really knew the banking business and knew the incoming cast of characters in the government was me. I was the lead outside director and I was one of the long-standing directors. So everyone said: 'You're it.' You don't abandon the team when they need you.
I used to run a bank in the late '80s and '90s, and I became CEO just when the housing boom was touching bottom. When you're in the kind of shape that Citi was in, you have only two friends: One is time, and the other is earnings. We had to play for time and figure out how to get the bank back on the path of earnings growth as quickly as possible.
The toughest part of this job was to trying to help management get their arms around this thing without overstepping the bounds of the non-executive chair. If you're used to running things, you want to step in, but that's not what I am supposed to do. We recruited a bunch of terrific new board members. That wasn't easy. They wanted to know: "Is this thing going to make it? What's my exposure? Why would I want to invite myself to a food fight between Citi and the government?"
There's still a sense of resentment out there. It will get better as the economy gets better. When everyone is doing O.K., there's more tolerance for the people who are doing super-duper O.K. There's been a growing split in this country between the top and the bottom. At some point, it breaks. It's not sustainable. I think the boat is clearly lifting, but we have a long way to go.