Fourteen months ago, Marjorie Magner ascended to one of the most-powerful and influential jobs in banking. As chairman and CEO of Citigroup’s global consumer group, she oversees 170,000 employees in 54 countries. The group is on pace to generate $11 billion in earnings this year. If it were on its own, it would be the most profitable retail company in the world—bigger than Wal-Mart or Coca-Cola. As things stand, the group accounts for about 60 percent of Citi’s profits. “It’s really, really big, staggering sometimes, when you think about the sheer size of our operations,” she laughs in a pinch-me tone.

The demands and responsibilities of the job are really too much for one person to manage. She credits a sharp management team. Colleagues say Magner’s smarts, caring and energy—along with a willingness to learn and decisive management style—merit most of the plaudits. She’s off to an impressive start; the Global Consumer Group recorded income of $3.1 billion in the second quarter, up 37 percent.

Immediately after taking the helm, Magner immersed herself in areas such as credit cards, where she lacked intimate knowledge, listening to concerns. In some cases, action quickly followed. Two months into the job, she visited Japan to get a handle on Citi’s struggling consumer- finance business, then promptly overhauled the local management team. Today, the unit’s profits are rebounding to former levels. “That she actually went there meant a lot to the people,” says Mike Dunn, the group’s CFO. “It made them feel important.”

This is the Magner way, giving of her time and experience to change things for the better. Ajay Banga, a Citi evp, recalls grappling with a bureaucratic problem shortly after the Citi-Travelers merger in 1998. He called Magner for help, and three minutes later she stepped out of a high-level meeting to resolve it. A few months later, he asked Magner to visit London to talk with European country managers about credit practices. Though extremely busy, she hopped a transatlantic flight, gave a three-hour talk, and returned to New York. “She has a responsive, I’m-available-if-you-need-me leadership style,” Banga says.

It wasn’t necessarily in the cards for Magner, 55, to wind up here. The daughter of a NYPD lieutenant, education got top billing at home. She attended Brooklyn College near her childhood home, and earned a master’s degree in business from Purdue University. Recruited in 1973 by longtime mentor Robert Lipp, now chairman of St. Paul Travelers, into an operations job at Chemical Bank, she steadily climbed the ranks, never complaining or worrying much about job titles—or resistance from male counterparts. “I heard all the things young women heard: ‘You’re taking a job that belongs to a man,’ or, ‘Why would any man consider working for you?’” she says.
Magner’s biggest career risk came in 1987, when she left the comfort of Chemical to join Lipp and current Citi president Robert Willumstad at Sandy Weill’s Commercial Credit. Choosing people over company paid off. Recalls Claire O’Connor, a director of asset products at Citi, and a Magner friend for 25 years, Magner employed a “soft-but-subtle ambition, worked hard and was grateful for every position” as she rose through Travelers, and then Citi.

Magner views her position as a platform for favored causes. In-house, she champions affordable-housing initiatives, and micro-lending programs for the developing world. She also is a key sponsor of women’s mentoring and diversity programs. “I have opportunities in this job to cause things to happen,” Magner says simply.

The same energy and insight is applied to volunteer activities. As a board member of Dress For Success, which provides career counseling and support to low-income women, she prodded the organization to “further our mission by strengthening the brand,” says executive director Joi Gordon. “When Marge gets involved in something, it’s about effecting change.” A couple of years ago, recalls Christopher Kimmich, Brooklyn College’s president, Magner talked with women students about her life and career. When she left, one told Kimmich, “I’ve just met the person I would like to be like,” he says. “Do you know how powerful that is?”

In fact, she does. Being a role model “is one of the most-important things I do,” Magner says. Beyond being a mother and banker, she says, her most important role is “about me as a human, and how I can impact the future.” Clearly, Magner is succeeding there as well.

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