At this year's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater benefit, Citigroup (C) CEO Sanford I. Weill danced cheek-to-cheek with his wife, Joan, who chairs the foundation. The dance floor was filled with luminaries from business, the arts, and politics, including Jesse Jackson. In the low light of the hotel ballroom, you could just make out an enameled pin on Jackson's lapel--a red umbrella, Citigroup's logo. The long arm of Sandy Weill, it seems, reaches everywhere.
Nonstop drive has served Weill well. At 67, an age when most executives are ready to put in some quality time on the golf links, he is more visible than ever. The hard-driving Weill made Citigroup his own in 2000, elbowing out co-CEO John Reed and installing his numbers-obsessed loyalists in key spots. It was also the year Citigroup stock rose by 20%, to a recent $49 a share. Now that he's taken full control, Weill must make Citigroup perform at peak potential. Created in 1998 from the merger of his hardscrabble Travelers Group Inc. and the old-line bank Citicorp Inc., the colossus spans 100 countries and serves over 100 million customers.
Weill has been working toward this moment for decades. In the 1960s, the Brooklyn native built up securities firm Shearson Loeb Rhodes. After selling it to American Express Co. (AXP) in 1981, he bought Commercial Credit Co., an ailing finance company, then added Amway-esque financial planner Primerica, insurer Travelers, and Salomon Smith Barney, creating one of the best performing financial-services firms in the business. The $70 billion merger with Citi was unprecedented in the banking business. But since then some of the biggest players have followed Citigroup's lead; most recently, Chase (CMB) and J.P. Morgan (JPM) said in September they'd merge.
Of course, Weill didn't get everything he wanted in 2000. Longtime Weill loyalist Bob Lipp left in December to pursue philanthropic work. Citigroup's $35 billion purchase of lender Associates First Capital Corp. earned jeers from activists, who challenged its practice of targeting low-income households with high interest rate loans. And critics openly worry that Weill doesn't have a succession plan in place. But that may just be his close-to-the vest way of doing things. "He's very much strategically focused on where this institution needs to go, even though he doesn't always articulate it," explains his co-chair, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. And why should he? His track record speaks loud and clear.