James D. Robinson III, Transformative Head of American Express, Dies at 88


James D. Robinson III, who as chief executive of the American Express Company from 1977 to 1993 helped transform Wall Street into a more competitive financial marketplace, with a wide diversity of businesses housed under single roofs, died on Monday in Roslyn, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 88.

The death, at a hospital, was caused by respiratory failure from recurrent pneumonia, Walter Montgomery, a spokesman for the family, wrote in an announcement.

A soft-spoken son of the Georgia gentry, Mr. Robinson followed a well-worn path to financial success, power and influence: from private school to the Ivy League and then on to the moneyed canyons of Lower Manhattan, with side trips to the corridors of Capitol Hill.

In Washington, he was among Wall Street’s most influential advocates for deregulating the financial industry and widening its horizons. Some called him the unofficial secretary of state for corporate America.

The deregulation he fought for was largely accomplished with Congress’s repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall legislation in 1999. As a result, commercial banks became empowered to underwrite and trade corporate securities and own insurance companies.

This cultural shift also prompted the securities industry to respond with increasingly sophisticated and complex computer-enabled products. Among them were highly leveraged derivatives that figured importantly in the market meltdown of 2008.

But while Mr. Robinson subsequently acknowledged that financial deregulation “went too far,” he never argued for the reimposition of Glass-Steagall restrictions, which had erected a wall between investment banking and retail banks.

Mr. Robinson may have been best known to the public for his role in the epic $25 billion battle for control of RJR Nabisco in 1988 and his dismissal by disgruntled shareholders.

In the Nabisco episode, an Amex-owned investment firm, Shearson Lehman Hutton, was the financial backer of an RJR Nabisco management group that sought to control the company in a bidding war that was ultimately won by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company.

“I was a facilitator trying to bring the sides together,” Mr. Robinson said in an interview for this obituary in 2016.

That takeover stood as the biggest business deal on record for almost a decade and was called by some the high point of a new gilded age.

The struggle was chronicled in Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s best-selling 1989 book, “Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco.” The book was the basis of a 1993 HBO movie in which Mr. Robinson was played by Fred D. Thompson, who later became a United States senator from Tennessee.

Mr. Robinson’s career was most defined by his putting American Express in the vanguard of his era’s corporate boundary-stretching.

“We coined the term ‘diversified financial services industry,’” Mr. Robinson said in the interview, in his Midtown Manhattan office (where an abstract painting by Frank Sinatra hung on a wall).

During his tenure, the American Express travel and charge-card empire expanded to include Shearson Lehman Hutton; First Data Corporation, a payments concern; Investors Diversified Services, a mutual fund company; and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. American Express also operated an international bank.

Mr. Robinson made an unsuccessful bid in 1978 for the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company and at one point considered acquiring the Walt Disney Company.

But the prosperity of the late 1980s and early ’90s turned into what he called a “dark period” as the stock market and brokerage business slumped and merchants, in what became known as the “Boston fee party,” revolted nationwide over the high cost of accepting American Express cards.

The rebellion forced the company to cut its so-called discount rate — about 4 percent per transaction — to match that of its credit-card competitors, which were charging one-third as much.

Disgruntled stockholders and directors forced Mr. Robinson to resign in 1993, at 57.

Within a year he had joined his son and Stuart J. Ellman to form RRE Ventures, a New York venture capital firm investing in new information-technology companies.

His ouster from American Express came a decade after he had presided over the pressured departure of Sanford I. Weill, the Wall Street titan whose securities empire had been absorbed by American Express under Mr. Robinson.

The brash, Brooklyn-born Mr. Weill, who started his Wall Street career as a messenger, and Mr. Robinson, a patrician Georgian, made a cultural odd couple. When Mr. Weill’s proposal to buy Fireman’s Fund, which he headed, was rejected by the Amex board, he decided he had to leave.

Mr. Weill thought Mr. Robinson bureaucratic and indecisive. But in the 2016 interview, Mr. Robinson challenged a widely held belief that Mr. Weill was the risk-taker and that he was risk-averse. Actually, Mr. Robinson contended, “it was the opposite.”

James Dixon Robinson III — sometimes called “Jimmy three sticks” because of his use of Roman numerals — was born on Nov. 19, 1935, in Atlanta to James Dixon Robinson Jr. and Josephine (Crawford) Robinson. The son and grandson of prominent Georgia bankers — his father was chairman of First National Bank of Atlanta — he grew up with two sisters in the city’s affluent Buckhead district.

One neighbor, the celebrated golfer Bobby Jones, helped inspire Jimmy to start playing the game at 8, offering the occasional tip. His 2016 curriculum vitae listed seven golf club memberships, including Augusta National (founded by Jones), and nine former golf club memberships.

After attending Woodberry Forest, a private school in Virginia, Mr. Robinson enrolled as a day student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he studied industrial management. After graduating in 1957, he joined the Navy, which assigned him to the nuclear submarine base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii as a disbursing officer, or paymaster. In the meantime he took New York Stock Exchange correspondence courses. That same year he married Bettye Bradley, with whom he had two children.

After his discharge in 1959, Mr. Robinson enrolled at the Harvard Business School and earned an M.B.A. in 1961. He began his business career at Morgan Guaranty Trust Company and after five years was named assistant to the chief executive, Thomas S. Gates Jr.

In 1968, Mr. Robinson became a partner at White Weld & Company, where he developed an interest in venture capital. He joined American Express in 1970 as an executive vice president, recruited by Eugene R. Black Sr., an Atlanta native, Amex director and former head of the World Bank. Mr. Robinson became president in 1975 and chairman and chief executive in 1977.

He was also chairman and chief executive of Shearson Lehman Brothers, American Express’s brokerage subsidiary.

He resigned in early 1993 after a boardroom battle over his continuing in the job. Major shareholders sought his ouster. The Times reported that he had left behind a company with “crumbling morale,” erratic earnings and losses, and a declining stock price. Analysts, investors, some board members and even his predecessor, Howard L. Clark Sr., had turned against him.

His marriage to Ms. Bradley ended in 1983 after she had an incapacitating brain aneurysm, he said, and asked for a divorce.

In 1984, he married Linda Gosden, a high-profile public relations executive who later advised him during the RJR Nabisco battle. She is the daughter of Freeman F. Gosden, co-creator and a voice of the radio program “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” As he became active in philanthropies and fund-raising for Republican candidates, Mr. Robinson and his wife became prominent members of a glittering New York social scene, living at the famously exclusive address 778 Park Avenue.

He is survived by his wife; his two children from his first marriage, James IV and Emily Cook; two children from his second marriage, Nicholas and Olivia Robinson; his sister, Frances Huber; and six grandchildren. Mr. Robinson lived on Park Avenue in Manhattan.

At 80, when asked when he planned to retire, Mr. Robinson said, “Three years after I’m dead.” He added that if his dreams for technological progress were realized, “I may be able to deliver on that.”

Robert D. Hershey Jr., a reporter who for many years covered Wall Street finance and economics for The Times, died in January. Alex Traub contributed reporting.


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