Sanford I. Weill, the brash dealmaker at the helm of Citigroup Inc., and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have come to rely on each other to advance their business and political causes.
The unusual alliance may prove doubly beneficial to Mr. Weill.
When Mr. Weill needed the endorsement of a highly visible community activist for the merger that created Citigroup two years ago, Mr. Jackson was there, saying he was "pleased" with a $115 billion pledge to invest in inner-city development.
Similarly, when Mr. Weill needed a high-profile endorsement from a minority and consumer advocate to get last year's financial reform legislation passed, he turned to Mr. Jackson.
In both instances, Mr. Jackson's support drowned out the protests of lesser-known community activists, and Citigroup was able to push through its agenda.
Now Citigroup may reap even more rewards with the help of Mr. Jackson as it brings its philosophy for empowerment to low-income consumer markets in the form of a customized financial-needs analysis known as CitiPro.
Mr. Weill and Mr. Jackson declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. But each has embraced the idea of promoting financial independence in impoverished neighborhoods through education and assistance.
Mr. Jackson has exhorted America's corporate leaders to "go to Brooklyn and the Bronx" as well as Russia to "teach capitalism." Mr. Weill has been using almost identical language to talk about Citigroup's approach to customers in "emerging markets at home as well as abroad."
Citigroup will be able to provide low-income communities with "an unparalleled level of product choice and convenience while also making available products that they might never have had the ability, or in some cases even the awareness, to choose," Mr. Weill has said.
CitiPro offers a free financial analysis based on information provided by the customer, including past pay stubs, income tax forms, insurance policies, and statements from savings, investment, retirement, loan, and employee benefit accounts.
After advising the customer about the results of a CitiPro analysis, the bank associate offers a host of lucrative Citigroup services, including debt consolidation, cash management, mutual funds, checking and savings accounts, term insurance, and variable annuities.
Since the merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group, the goal of the company has been to cross-sell as many products as possible. Financial needs analyses, which originated several years ago at a Travelers subsidiary, Primerica Financial Corp., was quickly identified as a key to growth. CitiPro, which is the same concept with a different name, was introduced in Citibank's 400 U.S. branches in January.
Marge Magner, head of Citibanking North America and Primerica, calls CitiPro crucial to the company's marketing plans for low- and middle-income consumers. "When we are serving the inner-city community, there is a process of educating, spending time with people, building relationships. CitiPro is an extremely important part of how we serve those communities."
"The one-on-one CitiPro approach is a fundamental aspect of our strategy in the inner city," Ms. Magner said in a recent interview.
Mr. Jackson too has focused on teaching his inner-city-based, low-income, and largely minority constituency how to achieve financial freedom. Through a program co-sponsored by the New York Stock Exchange, he intends to train black clergy to include financial education as part of their ministries.
Through the program, 1,000 pastors are to be taught about financial planning. Investment clubs will be started up in African-American churches, and stock market games will be taught in Sunday schools. The goal, Mr. Jackson says, is for his constituency to be "debt-free by 2003."
While Mr. Jackson has formed connections to other financial services executives, most notably to Bank of America Corp. chief executive Hugh L. McColl Jr., his connection to Mr. Weill seems strongest.
Each man claims a similar, humble beginning.
Mr. Jackson, 58, was born poor and has reportedly worked since he was 6 years old - reading to illiterate neighbors, parking cars, waiting tables. He attended the University of Illinois on a football scholarship and later transferred to North Carolina A&T State University. He studied at the Chicago Theological Seminary but dropped out in 1965 to join Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference soon after the march on Selma, Ala.
Mr. Jackson has been married to his college sweetheart, Jacqueline Brown, since 1963. They have five children.
Mr. Weill, 67, grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, the son of a Polish immigrant who worked in the garment industry. He was the first in his family to get a college degree, from Cornell University in 1955. He started out on Wall Street as a messenger.
He married right after college. He and his wife, Joan, have two children.
The friendship between the CEO and the civil rights activist seems to have begun in 1997 with the initiation of Mr. Jackson's Wall Street Project. Meant to promote minority access to corporate America, the project has grown into an annual financial hoedown, attracting the President of the United States, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the leader of the New York Stock Exchange.
Citigroup contributed a total of at least $100,000 to the Wall Street Project over this year and last. The list of the organization's corporate backers reads like a Who's Who of the Fortune 500, including such blue-chip names as AT&T, General Motors Corp., Goldman Sachs Group, Merrill Lynch & Co., Chase Manhattan Corp., Credit Suisse First Boston, Texaco Inc., and Coca-Cola Co.
Mr. Weill was one of the first big names to lend his support to the project when it desperately needed credibility and funding. In return Mr. Jackson has helped Mr. Weill.
When Citicorp and Travelers announced their merger plan in April 1998, community development activists across the country protested. Travelers, they claimed, failed to sell insurance in low-income neighborhoods, and Citibank did not have an outstanding record of providing credit or deposit services to the poor.
To demonstrate its intent to improve that record, and to quell the protests, Citigroup pledged to make $115 billion available for loans and grants to inner-city housing and small-business development as its commitment under the Community Reinvestment Act. Mr. Jackson publicly endorsed the commitment, but some community groups were outraged.
Citigroup's commitment fell short, said Matthew Lee, executive director of Bronx, N.Y.-based Inner City Press/Community on the Move. BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp., which unveiled a plan to merge shortly after the Citi-Travelers announcement, made a much bigger commitment, of $350 billion.
Several black ministers and Acorn, a prominent community development organization with offices across the country, held two closed-door meetings with Mr. Jackson to explain why the Citigroup merger sold African-Americans and lower-income people short.
But by then it was too late. The transaction had already been given "the imprimatur of Jesse Jackson," Mr. Lee said.
The same pattern occurred during the passage of the financial reform bill. Community activists came close to killing the bill, because it would have reduced the frequency of CRA examinations at small and rural banks, and because, they claimed, it loaded burdensome reporting requirements onto organizations defending CRA-related issues. These neighborhood groups put pressure on President Clinton to reject the bill because of its CRA problems.
At first it appeared that Mr. Jackson was on their side. In mid-October he blasted the bill at a joint press conference with representatives of the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and the National Congress of American Indians.
"Why should banks be granted the right to merge with insurance and securities companies but at the same time make fewer commitments to the communities that house them?" Mr. Jackson asked. "Under this legislation, many Americans will be left behind."
Eight weeks later, after President Clinton signed the bill into law over the protests of the same community activists, Mr. Jackson lauded the legislation. "In the new financial modernization act we were able to expand CRA to include insurance companies," he said.
The erroneous claim that CRA now extended to insurance firms was also repeated in the 1999 Wall Street Project annual report.
Most observers believe that Mr. Jackson's close relationship with Mr. Weill accounted for the about-face.
John Taylor, president and chief executive officer of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, blames the Clinton administration. "The White House told Jesse that this bill saved CRA," Mr. Taylor says. "That was the spin on it. He was used by the White House."
A local community activist who spoke on condition of anonymity expressed a different view. "Jackson's agenda was to get the law passed and make Sandy Weill happy," she said.