Saying that the succession process he began last year is proceeding more smoothly than he had anticipated, Harvey Golub, the top executive at American Express Co., said Friday that he would retire as CEO at yearend, four months sooner than planned.

Mr. Golub, 61, also said he will retire as chairman of the credit card and financial services giant in April, about a year ahead of schedule. Both jobs will pass to his chosen successor, Kenneth I. Chenault, 49, who is now president and chief operating officer.

Mr. Golub chose Mr. Chenault as his successor in April 1999. When Mr. Chenault takes the top job Jan. 1, he will probably be the most powerful African-American CEO in the country.

Mr. Golub’s original plan had been to hand over the chief executive reins in April and to remain as nonexecutive chairman. But in a letter to American Express employees Friday, Mr. Golub explained his decision to leave sooner.

“The CEO succession process from me to Ken has gone smoothly, and we have been able to move even more quickly than I anticipated,” Mr. Golub wrote. “I’ve always believed that when CEOs retire from jobs, they should let the next generation take over fully.”

Michael J. Freudenstein, an equity analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities, said that Mr. Golub has given Mr. Chenault a free hand to set things up for himself and this has aided the transition. Mr. Golub gave Mr. Chenault the stage at the last shareholder meeting and in June gave him the go-ahead to name his own management team.

In June Mr. Chenault unveiled a number of organizational changes, restructuring the company into four business lines reporting directly to him. These are the global financial services group, the U.S. consumer and small-business services group, the global corporate services group, and the global establishment services and Travelers Cheque group.

American Express “is a very high-profile company, and they’ve managed to very seamlessly hand the reins over,” Mr. Freudenstein said. “It’s something [Mr. Golub] deserves a lot of credit for.” Other large companies could learn a lesson from the trouble-free transition, he said.

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