Self-Portrait, Ego Included

THE REAL DEAL

My Life in Business and Philanthropy

By Sandy Weill and Judah S. Kraushaar

Warner Business -- 528pp -- $32

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good Usefully adds Weill's perspective to the record of his much-discussed career.

The Bad There are not many instances of genuine candor or real insight.

The Bottom Line Weill comes across as one whose ego is as towering as his ambition.

The most revealing photo in Sandy Weill's new memoir comes from 1984 and shows Weill, then president of American Express, with CEO James Robinson. Weill is beaming like the happiest man in the world, but what's most remarkable about the photo is the placement of his hands. One is wrapped around Robinson's right arm, and the other grips his boss's left shoulder. Edgar Bergen never held Charlie McCarthy any tighter. This portrait of executive-as-would-be-ventriloquist conveys what always seemed to me to be Weill's essence: extraordinary energy and warmth coupled with overweening ambition and a compulsion for control.

The Real Deal fills in the outlines of Weill's story, from his Brooklyn childhood and formative years on Wall Street through the investment-banking scandals that marred his last years at Citigroup (C ). Much of this will be familiar to readers of such books as Monica Langley's Tearing Down the Walls. But because Weill, who was 71 when he finally stepped down as CEO of Citigroup in 2003, was never either particularly forthcoming or articulate in his dealings with the press, this thick volume usefully adds his perspective to the record.

That said, readers will search in vain for passages of genuine candor or profound insight in this newest addition to the library of mogul memoirs. What makes The Real Deal intermittently fascinating nonetheless--at least for close students of Weill's career--is that his accounts of many of the great professional traumas that lined his path to the pinnacle are inadvertently unflattering to himself.

To give Weill his due, his success was hard-earned. The humble circumstances of his upbringing and the fact that he was Jewish put him at a marked disadvantage in starting out on Wall Street in the 1950s. Weill turned his outsider status to advantage by mastering the unglamorous ledger sheet and back-office fundamentals of business and in developing an exquisite feel for the unconventional business opportunity.

Weill built the upstart Shearson Loeb Rhoades from the broken pieces of haughty old-line brokerages unable to adapt to the Computer Age. In 1981, Weill sold Shearson to American Express, and many Wall Streeters assumed he soon would dislodge the seemingly soft, patrician Robinson as CEO. Instead, it was Weill who resigned in frustration after belatedly realizing that he would never run AmEx. In 1986, at age 53, he again started from scratch, acquiring a rundown consumer finance company in Baltimore. Over the next decade, Weill transformed Commercial Credit through a series of bold acquisitions into Citigroup, the world's largest and most profitable financial institution.

Weill's accounts of the souring of his initially simpatico relationships with Robinson and with John Reed, who lasted just a few years as co-CEO of Citigroup, are fairly judicious. But in writing about how he also fell out with the two highly ambitious and talented young executives who served as his crown princes--Peter Cohen at Shearson and Jamie Dimon at Citigroup--Weill's self-justifications founder on one-sided notions of loyalty.

For example, during the negotiations to sell Shearson, Weill told Cohen that he would push hard for his appointment to AmEx's board of directors. When Robinson pushed back, Weill promptly caved but did not inform Cohen until days later at the end of a shared Friday afternoon cab ride home. As Weill got out, he blurted out the bad news and slammed the door in Cohen's face. Yet when Cohen on his own successfully lobbied Robinson for the board appointment, Weill was furious at his protégé's disloyalty. "Now I looked completely foolish," Weill writes.

And Weill's quasi-paternal relationship with Dimon, now CEO of JPMorgan Chase (JPM ), took a decisive turn for the worse, after Citigroup hired Weill's daughter, Jessica Bibliowicz, in 1994. Bibliowicz, a mutual fund marketer several levels down from Dimon, disagreed with him about a marketing initiative. "At some point, I decided to sit in on some of the discussions," Weill writes. "Coincidentally, I adopted a point of view that turned out to resemble Jessica's." Fancy that. When Dimon declined to vault Bibliowicz ahead of others into senior posts, Weill bristled at "a hurtful treatment of my daughter."

Weill is no Donald Trump, which is to say that he has not airbrushed all the flaws from his self-portrait in print. He repeatedly admits to insecurities and doubts. In the end, though, Weill comes across as a man whose ego is as towering as his ambition. That's him on the cover of The Real Deal, smiling the same smile as in 1984 but now standing happily alone before the backdrop of Manhattan's skyline.

By Anthony Bianco

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