Sandy Weill's Wild Ride

By Maria Bartiromo

In 1960, Sandy Weill, then 27, and his partners opened a tiny brokerage on Wall Street. By 1981 he was president of American Express (AXP ). Four years later he was ousted--on the pavement without a job. But in 1998, after taking an obscure firm, Commercial Credit, and building it into a behemoth, Weill was on top again as co-head of Citigroup (C ). Now, in his just-published memoir, The Real Deal, Weill recounts his roller-coaster career and his often stormy relationships with some of the biggest names in finance: Arthur Levitt, James Robinson, Jamie Dimon, and others.

You write about the protégés who learned so much from you....Let me ask you what you learned from them. What about Jamie Dimon [now CEO of JPMorgan Chase (JPM )]?

Jamie was incredibly smart and unbelievably loyal. He's a terrific partner who I really loved, and I hated to see our relationship...come to an end. Unfortunately, it had to. I had a great experience writing this book. It was cathartic. I decided it doesn't make sense to hold grudges forever.

Tell me about your defeats.

When I left American Express, everybody told me I'd get all kinds of offers. I didn't get all kinds of offers, but I went to work every day. My wife said: "Let's do this. Let's do that." I said: "I gotta go to work." And she said: "What do you mean go to work? You don't have a job." But I was afraid of missing a phone call, an opportunity. Finally, in the spring of '86, the Commercial Credit idea surfaced. No one really wanted it, but it was a chance to get started again, though in a different place...We were not part of this great city anymore. I remember the crash of '87. I had a terminal on my desk in Baltimore. This is not like Wall Street, where people jump out of windows because they're losing money in the market. Our customers don't know the market's down. There's no building that's higher than four stories [there], so they wouldn't be killed if they jumped.

What got you through that crisis?

Two things. Number one, my family. My kids had the opportunity for the first time to see their father as a vulnerable person rather than someone on top of the heap. I was someone they could help and relate to as a real person, so it enhanced my relationship with my children a lot. Also, I felt like I was reading my obituary before I was dead, and I was very nervous about people not staying friends with me because I was no longer president of AmEx, I no longer could do things for them. I offered to resign from the board of Carnegie Hall because, I thought, how can I raise money if I can't help give other people money. But my friends really turned out to be my friends, and it had nothing to do with me being part of AmEx. Some people never ever find that out.

Another point that you write about is the [Eliot] Spitzer era. Tell me about then versus now. How have things changed?

The regulatory environment because of Sarbanes-Oxley has added expenses. But I think the lesson that came out of the early 2000s with all the investigations is the importance of reputational risk. It is just as important as market it will look three or four years from now if what you're doing is on the front page in a different environment. [Keeping that in mind is] a good way to run your business.

Are boards more independent today?

Boards are much more scared today.

Tougher to get a director?

It's a big issue, very tough to get a director.

Because people are afraid of the liability?

That's one reason. The other reason is directors are responsible for a lot of things [now], and it's close to a big-time job to keep up with [all that]. Most people have other things to do.

Will you start a private-equity firm?

I don't think so. I don't want to get into the rat race to be the best anymore. I've done a lot in 50 years in the for-profit world. I might need to do something to keep part of my brain busy, but it won't be anything that's full-time. It's more than a full-time job to think about how to give my money away half as intelligently as I made it.

Maria Bartiromo is the anchor of CNBC's Closing Bell

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