Last October, Astoria native Stephen Squeri, 58, was elected chairman and CEO of American Express. He will take the reins from Kenneth Chenault on February 1.
A 32-year veteran of the company, Squeri will be the 12th executive of the corporation. He currently holds the position of vice chairman, but began his journey in 1985 as a manger.
In addition to setting strategy and metrics and working with analysts, investors and key customers, the most important aspect of the job is knowing how to lead an organization of 50,000 people, Squeri said.
“People have to wake up in the morning and understand what it is they need to do and have a passion for,” he said. “You have to inspire the organization through your leadership, your vision, and how you follow up.”
Squeri said leading American Express, a 167-year-old company and an iconic brand, is a humbling and “huge honor.” He has big shoes to fill after the departure of his predecessor Chenault, whom Squeri called an iconic business leader.
The new CEO said he also feels thankful and fortunate to be where he is now.
“I’ve had a lot of people along the way who have mentored me in business,” Squeri said. “People who took a chance on me, people who gave me an opportunity.”
Squeri grew up in Astoria, where he frequently played basketball at the courts underneath the Triboro Bridge and Astoria Park. He lived a few blocks away from the Variety Boys and Girls Club, which back then was just the Boys Club.
His grandfather immigrated to the United States by boat in the early 1900s, and didn’t speak any English. Squeri said his grandfather imparted upon his father, and later Squeri himself, the value of education and family.
One of four boys in the family, Squeri said his extended family got together every Sunday at his grandmother’s house for lunch.
“There was a real sense of family,” he said. “A real sense of appreciation for history, a real sense of appreciation for those who have come before us.”
He learned from his grandfather the Golden Rule: treat people the way you want to be treated. He learned that no matter what someone’s status or lot in life , everyone should be treated with respect and dignity.
Squeri has since translated those values to his leadership at American Express.
“When you’re running a company, what you want to do is create a culture that people feel included in, and like it’s a big family,” he said. “I think the authenticity that I have as a person, the ability to respect everybody, the ability to communicate at all levels, that stems from my upbringing with my parents and grandparents.”
Squeri attended Monsignor McClancy Memorial High School in East Elmhurst, where he said he learned the value system taught by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. He later went on to Manhattan College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and an MBA. There, he was taught by the De La Salle Brothers.
At McClancy, where he graduated in 1977, Squeri said he learned not only values, but gained a strong work ethic. He did well academically, but also enjoyed the school environment and the people around him.
“There was a lot of camaraderie, a lot of school pride,” he said. “There was a really good feeling about coming to school.
“It was really a turning point in my life, it provided a fantastic foundation for me,” Squeri added. “I really understood just how important education was and what you could accomplish through education.”
His positive experience at McClancy eventually led him to come back as an alumnus. Squeri is now a member of the Board of Governors for the school, and raised substantial funds for the school.
On January 17, he visited the school again to speak to prospective students and their families, sharing his story and experiences at McClancy.
Squeri said he wants to help shape the future of the school for students just like him.
“I believe that it’s really important for kids in this neighborhood to have the same chances at success that I have had,” he said.
McClancy administrators praised not only Squeri’s success in the corporate world, but his commitment to the school. Nicholas Melito, the school’s admissions director, graduated only one year earlier than Squeri.
“He makes time in a schedule that’s impossible to come back and talk to incoming potential freshmen,” Melito said. “It really means he cares about the school.
“He never, ever acts any different than when he was here,” he added. “Our friendship has lasted that long.”
Brother Joseph Rocco, president of Monsignor McClancy, recalled that Squeri was a “wonderful student.”
“Certainly what we saw back then as a student is what we also see now,” Rocco said. “His generosity, his spirit of service and willingness to be part of McClancy, which has made a big impact on his life.”
Squeri’s focus on community is exemplified by one of American Express’s signature initiatives, Small Business Saturday. The incoming CEO said despite the success of Cyber Monday for the Internet and Black Friday for the big-box merchants, Small Business Saturday is meant to celebrate the local companies that are “the lifeline of a community.”
“We just believe that the small businesses are the grit of society,” he said. “That’s what makes the world go round. Small businesses make society vibrant.”
Squeri noted the initiative isn’t to encourage small businesses to only use American Express, but rather it’s about spending in local mom-and-pop shops in every way.
“One of the values we have as a company is we care about the communities we live and work in,” he said. “That was a way to give back to the community.”
As he enters his new position leading the financial giant, Squeri said he hopes to accomplish three goals: leave the company in a stronger position competitively, ensure the company culture is stronger, and have a strong talent base.
“[I want] a number of options to succeed me so we can carry on the work that we do,” he said.