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Following business school, Mr. Stiefler married, divorced a

November 22, 1995

Following business school, Mr. Stiefler married, divorced and married the same woman again. He was equally restless when it came to his career. First he worked for a real-estate unit of Boise Cascade Corp. in Palo Alto. He grew so enamored of the California lifestyle _ its ``informality and spontaneity″ and the emphasis on ``doing outdoor things″ _ that he resolved that he would never work in a cold climate or for a large company.

It didn’t work: He soon went to work for a small advertising agency, but it was located in Connecticut. Then he took a marketing job at Citicorp headquarters in New York, and then worked briefly for a now-defunct hotel development firm there. By this time, he was married again, to Linda Stiefler, whom he met when both were ad-agency executives. They wed in 1976, and their son, Todd, was born in 1978.

In 1983, Mr. Stiefler and his family headed to Minneapolis, where he joined money-management firm IDS Financial Services as a senior vice president for marketing, just a few months before the company was acquired by American Express. (The unit was renamed American Express Financial Advisors this year.) American Express hired Mr. Golub, who had endorsed the acquisition as a McKinsey & Co. consultant, to be IDS’s chief executive. Messrs. Stiefler and Golub developed a close relationship as they turned the firm into one of American Express’s steadiest profit producers.

Among his former colleagues, Mr. Stiefler is remembered for his drive and his energy. ``Everything he does, he does at full tilt, and his enthusiasm level is so high that it gets people excited about what they’re doing,″ says Richard J. Lehmann, Mr. Stiefler’s first boss at Citicorp, who is now president of Banc One Corp. in Columbus, Ohio.

``He moved around the office at a kind of half run,″ says Doug Lennick, a senior IDS executive. Mr. Stiefler once surprised winners of the company’s Premier Performers award by Rollerblading to their offices to present their prizes. ``He’s bright, very focused _ and he hates to lose,″ says Eugene Sit, a onetime IDS executive who is now a Minneapolis mutual-fund manager and who sometimes opposed Mr. Stiefler in hard-fought battles on the tennis courts at the Edina Country Club. With more amusement than annoyance, Mr. Sit says, ``He whacked the ball at my wife at about 100 miles an hour. That’s no way to play social tennis.″

Little of that energy and attention was reserved for his home life, though. ``Work was always the priority,″ says Linda Stiefler. ``I was married to a total workaholic.″

By 1985, that marriage, too, had broken up. The following year, Mr. Stiefler left Minneapolis, his young son and his job as an IDS senior vice president to become president of Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, a troubled savings bank. ``I was 39, and I wasn’t president of anything,″ he explains. The thrift, which already was having difficulties when he arrived, was taken over by the government after he left. But Mr. Stiefler didn’t suffer: After about a year, Mr. Golub persuaded him to return to IDS and Minneapolis with an upgraded job title, executive vice president. In 1986, he was married for a fourth time, to his current wife, Ellen Stiefler, a lawyer he met while skiing.

During the late 1980s, while IDS was producing ever-increasing earnings, its parent company was struggling with problems in its nascent credit-card operation. Previously focused on its charge cards, American Express plunged into the potentially more lucrative credit-card business with its Optima line in 1987. But American Express’s experience serving mostly wealthy charge-card customers didn’t prepare it for the task of lending money to sometimes marginally credit-worthy credit-card customers, and by 1991 it had become apparent that the company had advanced hundreds of millions of dollars to card holders who couldn’t or wouldn’t repay the money. The company’s board of directors, which lost much of its confidence in then-Chairman James D. Robinson III, turned to Mr. Golub, making him president of the parent company.

Mr. Stiefler, too, moved up, succeeding Mr. Golub as IDS’s president in 1990 and as its chief executive two years later. Mr. Stiefler thrived in those positions. He, Ellen and their growing family of boys (they now have three sons) lived in a big house just minutes from IDS headquarters in Minneapolis. His enthusiasm and instinct for creative marketing were well suited to an organization where marketing and salesmanship are crucial. Indeed, he says, the job ``was probably as close to perfection as a guy like me will ever have.″

By early 1993, the board’s patience with Mr. Robinson was entirely exhausted, and it replaced him as chief executive with Mr. Golub, who took over the chairman’s title later that year. At that point, Mr. Golub told the board that he would like Mr. Stiefler to come to New York to succeed him as president.

Given his experience at IDS, which manages money but which had nothing to do with American Express’s huge card business, Mr. Stiefler acknowledges that his potential contribution to the card business ``was not substantial.″ His mentor’s decision, he says, was based on their ``relationship as much as anything.″ Indeed, some observers of the company say Mr. Golub made a mistake in his choice.

There were even reservations in the boardroom, according to John J. Byrne, a former member of the board and its executive committee. ``I wondered if Harvey was just attached to him,″ he recalls. But the board nonetheless agreed to promote Mr. Stiefler. ``We thought Harvey was a better strategist than he was a general manager,″ Mr. Byrne explains, and the board believed Mr. Stiefler could help take care of administrative duties. Yet, in that role, Mr. Stiefler seemed a bit miscast, since until then he was best known as a marketer.

With the board’s assent, Mr. Stiefler stepped into one of the most prestigious jobs in corporate America. His predecessors include International Business Machines Corp. Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr. and Sanford I. Weill, chairman of Travelers Group. Mr. Stiefler, who kept a low profile, was never viewed by insiders as quite in the same league as those predecessors.


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