James D. Robinson III, former CEO of American Express, dies at 88

Atlanta born, Georgia Tech graduate

                        FILE — James D. Robinson III while he was chairman of American Express, in New York, on June 25, 1985. Robinson, who as chief executive of the American Express Company from 1977 to 1993 helped transform Wall Street into a more competitive financial marketplace, with a wide diversity of businesses housed under single roofs, died on March 18, 2024, in Rosalyn, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 88. (Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times)

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FILE — James D. Robinson III while he was chairman of American Express, in New York, on June 25, 1985. Robinson, who as chief executive of the American Express Company from 1977 to 1993 helped transform Wall Street into a more competitive financial marketplace, with a wide diversity of businesses housed under single roofs, died on March 18, 2024, in Rosalyn, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 88. (Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times)

James D. Robinson III, who as CEO of American Express Co. from 1977 to 1993 helped transform Wall Street into a more competitive financial marketplace, with a wide diversity of businesses housed under single roofs, died Monday in Roslyn, New York, on Long Island. He was 88.

He died from respiratory failure from recurrent pneumonia, Walter Montgomery, a spokesperson for the family, wrote in an announcement.

A soft-spoken son of Atlanta gentry, Robinson followed a well-worn path to financial success, power and influence: from private school to the Ivy League and then to the moneyed canyons of lower Manhattan, with side trips to the corridors of Capitol Hill.

In Washington, D.C., he was among Wall Street’s most influential advocates for deregulating the financial industry and widening its horizons. Some called him the unofficial secretary of state for corporate America.

The deregulation he fought for was largely accomplished with Congress’ repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall legislation in 1999. As a result, commercial banks became empowered to underwrite and trade corporate securities and own insurance companies.

This shift also prompted the securities industry to respond with increasingly sophisticated and complex computer-enabled products. Among them were highly leveraged derivatives that figured importantly in the market meltdown of 2008.

Robinson subsequently acknowledged that financial deregulation “went too far,” but he never argued for the reimposition of Glass-Steagall restrictions, which had erected a wall between investment banking and retail banks.

Robinson may have been best known to the public for his role in the epic $25 billion battle for control of North Carolina’s RJR Nabisco in 1988 and his dismissal by disgruntled shareholders. Amex-owned investment firm Shearson Lehman Hutton was the financial backer of an RJR Nabisco management group that sought to control the company in a bidding war that was won by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

“I was a facilitator trying to bring the sides together,” Robinson said in an interview for this obituary in 2016.

That takeover was the biggest business deal on record for almost a decade and was called by some the high point of a new gilded age.

Robinson’s career was most defined by his putting American Express in the vanguard of his era’s corporate boundary-stretching.

During his tenure, the American Express travel and charge-card empire expanded to include Shearson Lehman Hutton; First Data Corp., a payments concern; Investors Diversified Services, a mutual fund company; and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. American Express also operated an international bank.

But the prosperity of the late 1980s and early ’90s turned into what he called a “dark period” as the stock market and brokerage business slumped and merchants, in what became known as the “Boston fee party,” revolted nationwide over the high cost of accepting American Express cards.

The rebellion forced the company to cut its so-called discount rate — about 4% per transaction — to match that of its credit-card competitors, which were charging one-third as much. Disgruntled stockholders and directors forced Robinson to resign in 1993, at 57.

James Dixon Robinson III was born Nov. 19, 1935, in Atlanta to James Dixon Robinson Jr. and Josephine (Crawford) Robinson. The son and grandson of prominent Georgia bankers — his father was chair of First National Bank of Atlanta — he grew up with two sisters in the city’s affluent Buckhead district.

He maintained Atlanta ties, becoming a notable supporter of Spelman College and serving for decades on the board of Coca-Cola Co. He served on many other corporate boards and nonprofits nationally, including as chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations.

After attending Woodberry Forest, a private school in Virginia, Robinson enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he studied industrial management. He graduated in 1957, and joined the Navy, serving as a disbursing officer, or paymaster. In the meantime, he took New York Stock Exchange correspondence courses. That same year, he married Bettye Bradley, with whom he had two children.

His marriage to Bradley ended in 1983 after she had an incapacitating brain aneurysm, he said, and asked for a divorce.

In 1984, he married Linda Gosden, a high-profile public relations executive who later advised him during the RJR Nabisco battle.

He is survived by his wife; his two children from his first marriage, James IV and Emily Cook; two children from his second marriage, Nicholas Robinson and Olivia Robinson; his sister, Frances Huber; and six grandchildren. Robinson lived on Park Avenue in Manhattan.

At 80, when asked when he planned to retire, Robinson said, “Three years after I’m dead.”


                        FILE — James D. Robinson III at RRE Ventures offices in Manhattan, on Jan. 6, 2015. Robinson, who as chief executive of the American Express Company from 1977 to 1993 helped transform Wall Street into a more competitive financial marketplace, with a wide diversity of businesses housed under single roofs, died on March 18, 2024, in Rosalyn, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 88. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

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