My 20 Minutes with Weill

After months of research into his life, I had just one fleeting chance to ask him questions -- and compare the man to my portrait

By Amey Stone

I first met Sandy Weill in mid-December, 2001, while standing by the elevator bank at Citigroup (C ) headquarters, accompanied by one of the company's public-relations staff. She was escorting me out of the building after I had just interviewed Deryck Maughan, who was named head of Citigroup's International operations on June 10.

"Well, here comes Sandy now," she said, continuing to press on the down button.

"Can I meet him?"

"Well, I guess there's no avoiding it now."

I stepped away from the elevator to shake Sandy Weill's hand.

The book, King of Capital: Sandy Weill and the Making of Citigroup (Wiley, June, 2002), which I was co-writing with my husband, Mike Brewster, was due in a month at that point and was about three-quarters written. It's not Weill's authorized biography, and Citigroup's public-relations team was understandably wary of the project.

Although I had been permitted to interview some Citigroup executives, and Chairman and CEO Weill had given some of his friends the O.K. to talk to me, I was starting to wonder if the whole book would be completed without ever meeting Weill in person. This wouldn't be the first time that authors wrote whole book about someone having spent no or very little time with the subject.

By then, I already felt I knew him, but there were many questions I had that only he could answer. I also wanted him to meet me.

"Amey, I've heard a lot about you," he said, surprising me that he instantly recognized my name.

"Oh, I've heard a lot about you too," I replied, displaying my mastery of the understatement.

He laughed and seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, so I plunged on. I told him the book was due in a few weeks and asked if we could sit down and go over some remaining questions.

"I'm going on vacation next Friday. Maybe we can meet that day."

I was in.

What to Give the Man Who Has Everything.

The morning of Dec. 21, the day of my much-anticipated meeting, the front page of The New York Times carried a photo of rioting in the streets of Argentina, where the country's financial system was collapsing. Citigroup's pretax earnings would later be slashed by $470 million that quarter and by $816 million in the first quarter of 2002 thanks to the mess in Argentina.

I was met downstairs at Citigroup corporate headquarters and escorted up the executive elevator, where Weill has a wood-paneled third-floor office overlooking Park Avenue. I was told he was very busy that day and could spend only 20 minutes with me. I had expected 45 minutes and hoped for a couple of hours. I had a list of about 60 questions.

Weill greeted me at the door of his office, ushering me in with a glance down at my bag. "Oh, a backpack," he said, with amusement. It seemed pretty standard to me -- a black BusinessWeek issue backpack, designed for carrying a laptop. Nonetheless, it seemed novel to him. I guess not many people show up for a meeting with Weill carrying a backpack.

His manner was as I expected: outgoing, genial, unintimidating. We sat down, and I started down my list. Since I had so little time, I figured I would start with some broad questions and hope for some good quotes.

"What strengths do you think led to your success?"

"I'll let other people talk about that."

"What advice would you give to someone starting out in financial services?"

"Today? Nothing. Well, really, I have my mind on so many things I can't really answer those kinds of questions."

"What was your favorite deal?"

"They were all different. I can't really pick one."

Clearly, Weill was not in an expansive mood. Getting nowhere, I switched to asking him about specific deals and business strategies he had pursued over the years, which he was happy to discuss.

Then when I started on questions about his family, the interview got rocky again.

"Tell me about your grandfather. Were you close?"

"He was my grandfather, I loved him."

"What about your father?

Suddenly his eyes turned steely, warning me away. I realized how quickly the famous Sandy Weill temper could flare up. "I don't really like to talk about my family"

It was clear I wasn't going to get answers to many of my questions. I decided to change my tack.

A Gift for a Billionaire.

"Well, I have something I wanted to show you." My co-author had spent weeks doing painstaking research into Weill's family tree. He had found a copy of the ship's manifest that had brought his mother, Etta, to the U.S. from Congress, Poland, in 1908. She was 3 years old at the time and accompanied by two siblings and her mother, Riwe (who later changed her name to Rebecca). Riwe had just $1.50 in cash when she arrived at Ellis Island.

Weill paused to look at the document. He put it down, politely thanking me.

I asked a few more questions about specific business strategies he had employed over the years. Then he picked up the copy of the ship's manifest again.

"They had their names changed," he said. "My mother's name was Etta, but she's called Ettel here. And Leib must be Louie." I guess Weill hadn't known that she and her siblings Americanized their first names after they arrived in New York.

I went on to ask a few more questions, but Weill never really opened up. At exactly 20 minutes the interview concluded.

"Thanks for the present," he said. This time it sounded like he meant it.

"Oh, you're welcome." I had just given a present to a billionaire -- something he couldn't have bought.

Helping me on with my long winter coat, he jokingly asked whether I had cut a hole down the back of the garment so it would fit over my backpack.

Amazingly, I had gotten through most of my questions, and he had answered about a third. I asked if I could meet again, and he said to call his office when he got back, but another meeting never happened.

Topography of a Life.

Quotes from that 20-minute interview are sprinkled throughout King of Capital. But the truth is that the meeting's greatest use was to confirm what I already had already learned about Weill from studying his 45-year career. We had interviewed dozens of his associates and read articles, books, annual reports, and court documents going back to the 1960s.

In fact, I'm convinced that spending more time with him wouldn't necessarily have yielded much more information than we already had. Weill isn't an introspective man -- part of which explains how he can act so quickly and decisively, sometimes making him appear ruthless in his decisions to lay off hundreds of people or eliminate divisions.

He can also be warm and friendly, and is usually very interested in the personal lives of the people he meets. In my time with him, he asked me where I went to college and how I liked working with my husband on the book. But, while he can be chatty, he typically doesn't reveal a lot about himself. Some people who worked closely with him for years said they felt they never really got to know him.

Luckily, ours is not a book about Weill's inner life. Our goal was to show how a man who strikes many as a very ordinary person, who grew up without any connections to Wall Street or the business elite, was able to achieve so much success. Weill wouldn't tell me in that short interview how he did it, but his actions had left a clear road map, complete with peaks and valleys, and plenty of natural drama. Our job in writing the book was mainly to connect the dots.

BusinessWeek Online Associate Editor Stone is the co-author of King of Capital: Sandy Weill and the Making of Citigroup (Wiley). Now available at bookstores everywhere

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