In the Express Lane

How Louise Parent moved up the AmEx corporate ladder

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2009 — January 2009

Thirty-two years ago in New York, Louise Parent watched the moon rise over the Empire State Building from her office in Midtown. She was in her early 20s, just out of law school. It was Saturday night and it was her birthday. The last place she wanted to be was at her desk.

After triumphant turns at both Smith College and Georgetown Law, she now found herself in an unfamiliar environment. There were only a few female attorneys at the firm. Some partners even thought she had unfairly taken a man's place by going to law school.

"That night," says Parent, "I said to myself: There has got to be a better way. There has just got to be a better way."

Now general counsel for American Express, she found that better way. And it's safe to say that her office on the 51st floor of Three World Financial Center is a long way from Midtown.

 

Parent grew up in Wilton, Conn., a town of fewer than 10,000 people. Her father commuted into the city every day. Her mother, a homemaker, required young Louise to read military histories alongside Nancy Drew.

"There was only one professional woman in the town I grew up in, and she was a lawyer," Parent says, recalling her early influences. "She had her own practice in a small town, but at the same time she had time for her family and her children and for occasional tennis games."

A voracious reader and an enthusiastic student, Parent set her sights on Smith College, an all-girls school, determined to get the best education she could at a time when Harvard and Yale accepted only men. "[Smith] was one of the best experiences of my life, honestly, because it was so dedicated to women doing everything," she says. "Women were the math majors, women were the pre-med majors, women ran the student government, women ran the newspaper—women did everything. And the belief was—why not? Why wouldn't a woman be able to do absolutely everything?"

Parent decided she wanted to be a lawyer, so she chose an American studies major to gain an interdisciplinary background in history, government and literature. After graduation, she went to Georgetown Law, where she discovered an affinity for her corporations and tax classes. That interest led her to Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine, a Manhattan litigation firm with a small corporate practice.

Aside from meeting her future husband at the firm, she soon found out it wasn't a good fit. "I like beginnings, middles and ends," she says. "I like to have a to-do list that I check off. I could not bear to gear myself up every six months for a motion in a case that was going to go on for years."

She was thrilled when, a few months after that working birthday, she got a headhunting call from American Express.

In 1977, the credit card company's general counsel office was a small operation. One of only a handful of lawyers, Parent started out in state government affairs, lobbying legislators in state capitols. A born extrovert, she found the work terrific fun. She also appreciated AmEx, as it's also known, for its culture. "From day one, I liked working here," she says. "I liked the people. I felt that they were interested in my career, that they were trying to help me, and that there was a lot of opportunity."

A few years later she branched out into mergers and acquisitions, and her timing could not have been better. The Reagan years of prosperity and big business were in full swing, and American Express had embarked on an acquisition spree with the goal of becoming a financial powerhouse. In fairly short order, it purchased Lehman Brothers, Shearson Loeb Rhodes, E.F. Hutton and others.

Parent spent most of the decade working closely with an enviable executive circle—including then-American Express CEO Jim Robinson, Lou Gerstner (later CEO for both RJR Nabisco and IBM), Sandy Weill (later CEO for Citigroup) and Harvey Golub (later CEO for American Express). She credits the next move in her career to advice she received from Gerstner, who at the time was running the company's First Data subsidiary.

"I had done some M&A work for First Data," she says, "and Lou said to me, ‘Do you want to be the general counsel of American Express?' And when I said yes, he said, ‘I think you ought to take a job as general counsel of our information services subsidiary.'"

In 1989, she did, despite a flood of opposing advice. "People thought I was nuts to take that job," she says. "I went from the pantheon of M&A, dealing with CEOs on these incredibly sophisticated deals, to supporting a non-core business where most of the activity was in Omaha, Nebraska. And, by the way, it wasn't any more money. But if I hadn't done it, I don't believe I would have this job today."

Just as Gerstner predicted, Parent's three-year GC stint at American Express Information Services Corporation was exactly the right move. Coming in as an expert in a narrow field, she was suddenly faced with questions about everything from human resources to intellectual property. She had to learn how to give good advice in areas where she had much less experience. She also learned about the fine art of integrating a legal team into business decisions.

"When I was in M&A, the lawyers were central to the deal," she says. "People had to come to me. But when you're a GC, they don't. So the question is how do you insert yourself into a process and add value when you don't have the transaction power? How do you serve as an enabler and not the sales prevention team?"

Parent made it clear that she was part of the business team. When the company's CFO spent a weekend in Boston doing financial due diligence before a purchase, Parent went too. "I just said to my husband, I'm going to Boston for the weekend. I don't know what I'm going to do there, but I'll figure it out," she says.

In 1992, when American Express decided to spin off First Data and take it public, she was offered a job as First Data's general counsel. American Express countered with an offer to serve as deputy general counsel, which she accepted. One year later, Harvey Golub was named CEO and he asked Parent to be general counsel. "It was like, ‘pinch me,'" she says. "It was wonderful to have this opportunity to contribute at this level to this company. At the same time, it was a difficult time for the company and we were facing a lot of serious challenges."

Under Golub, the company improved merchant relations and moved to shed the more volatile parts of the business. "The first thing we did was we pulled the Shearson retail brokerage network and sold it back to Sandy Weill [who was running Primerica]," Parent says. Worried that news of the deal would leak, the team moved quickly. "We did it from start to finish in about 12 days. It was just exhilarating and exhausting."

The company also spun off Lehman Brothers (now owned by Barclays), and worked hard to bring down its costs and expenses. For Parent, this meant reorganizing the legal department and eliminating positions, reducing outside counsel expenses and shifting work to paralegals.

The crowning work of Parent's career would come in her subsequent efforts to remove anticompetitive barriers around the globe, a project that would take more than 12 years to complete and prove key to expanding the newly created Global Network Services business.

The issue was a business practice, shared by both Visa and MasterCard, in which banks that decide to issue American Express cards would be prohibited from also offering Visa or MasterCard products—even if they had offered them in the past. The rule was already in place in the U.S., and Visa planned to expand it to Europe and Latin America in order to stop American Express from adding new partners there.

In 1996, American Express brought an antitrust complaint against Visa in the EU. When that was successful, it moved to Latin America, filing complaints in seven jurisdictions simultaneously. "It was our version of shock and awe," Parent says.

Different measures were required in the U.S., where the Department of Justice decided to open an investigation and ultimately brought a lawsuit against both Visa and MasterCard. The initial decision, which found that the practice was unlawful, was issued in 2001 and appealed, then affirmed in the Court of Appeals. When the Supreme Court denied certiorari, the rule was effectively overturned.

As an injured party to the antitrust claim, American Express brought suit against both companies, settling with Visa in 2007 for a reported $2.25 billion and MasterCard in the summer of 2008 for a reported $1.8 billion. "It's been resolved, and we're happy with the resolution," Parent says. "And most importantly, we can do the business."

AmEx president Al Kelly is impressed. "Louise has dogged determination," he says. "She knows the law and she knows the business. She's one of the most hardworking people I know, and very collaborative."

When not on the 51st floor of Three World Financial, Parent devotes her energy to a handful of nonprofits. She's passionate about reforming education, a firm believer in its power to affect social progress and greater equality. She supports A Better Chance, an organization that sends promising minority students to top private schools. (Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, is an alum.) She is also a director for the Cooke Center for Learning and Development, a school that provides specialized education for children with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities, and a board of trustees member for Smith College.

As someone who has seen the gender landscape transform just as completely as the financial services industry, she's excited about what's ahead. "I'm kind of at one end of a pipeline, and the good news is that there are just tons and tons of highly qualified women to rise up in the ranks," she says. "If I'm singled out as the sole woman anywhere now, it's not going to be for long."

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