Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox
Original air date: Tues., Jun. 23, 2009
Current Chairman of CitiGroup and UH Manoa Alumnus
Join Leslie Wilcox for a conversation with UH Manoa alumnus, former CEO of Time Warner and current Chairman of CitiGroup Richard Parsons. In the first of two parts, Parsons reveals the secrets behind his unique ability to lead companies and their employees through crisis. He also talks about being a brash, young African American from New York adjusting to college life in 1960s Honolulu.
It took me about a year to make the adjustment to Hawaii from New York. But once I did, um, probably the last three years of college were among the best years of my life. I really enjoyed Hawaii, I enjoyed the culture, and even though I did not knock the ball out of the park in school here, uh, I got through school, and I got through life, and I supported myself, and I … I made it.
Join us next for part one of a interview with University of Hawaii Manoa alumnus Richard Parsons, chairman of CITIGROUP.
New York native Richard Parsons came to Hawaii at age 16 to receive a college education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He would become became one of the most prominent figures in the business world and an advisor to five American Presidents, Republican and Democrat. At the time of this taping, in April of 2009, Richard Parsons was just a couple of months into a new job as chairman of the troubled financial services giant CITIGROUP. As busy as he was during the economic turmoil of the time, Richard Parsons returned to the UH Manoa for a week as promised…as the awardee of the 2009 Dan and Maggie Inouye Chair in Democratic Ideals. In this first part of a two-part conversation, we’ll start with Parsons’ upbringing. His middle-class African-American parents moved the family from Brooklyn to Queens and made it clear that a good education and good grades were building blocks of the American dream.
Uh, I didn’t consider rebelling, because, you know, parents and people have a way of um … of letting you know what’s non-negotiable, right? If you—if—if a kid senses a crack or senses a weakness or a pause and says, Can I do this?, and you go, Well, I don’t think it’s right, or something, then they’re all over you. If it’s non-negotiable, you might as well move on, because you’re not gonna move ‘em. So this was a non-negotiable subject.
You were expected to go on to college. Had your mother or your father at that time been to college?
Both. My mother hadn’t graduated; my father had. But both had been to college, and he—he really—and both of them sort of appreciated the importance of education.
And how far were you expected to go with your life?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m not—I’m not sure I can really answer. I think that what they would say, were they still here, well … they would hope that you would go as far as your potential would take you.
And did you have an early sign of your potential, where you would go, or how you would get there?
Um, that’s a debatable subject, you know. I—I uh, I came back uh, on this trip and I had a birthday; I had a birthday couple days ago. And uh, I saw my old fraternity brothers … got together to do this birthday party for me. And several of them, I hadn’t seen for forty yeas, right? And one of them said to me, Jeez, I had no idea that uh, that—that you were smart, and that you would go this far. And the other one—another one of my fraternity brothers, without missing a beat, said, Oh, Rich isn’t smart, he’s just uh, you know, he just doesn’t … piss people off.
Ah, but I’ve heard—um, I think it was a former next door neighbor of yours uh, who came along later in your life, and he said, People—uh, he said you uh, actually liked people to underestimate you, and you—you work at it.
Uh, I don’t have to work at it; they just seem to. So if that was a sign of potential, maybe yes. Um, I did okay in school. I did okay in school, but—
I mean, you—you’re smart.
I was clever enough. But I was not—for example, I was not the smartest kid on my—on my block. And I certainly wasn’t the smartest kid in our school.
And yet, later, you would be, I think, one of thirty-six hundred law school grads applying for the New York State Bar, and you would score the highest number?
Well, that was a—that was a fallow year.
See, you underestimate yourself. Or you want me to underestimate you, right? [chuckle] Okay; so you’re—you’re growing up um, with parents who—who expect you to do well and get—
Um, so um, actually, you went through school quickly, didn’t you?
Well, by the—were you living in a rough area, or was it the suburbs?
Well, I was born in um, in Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. And that was pretty rough—I think that’s one of the reasons my father moved the family. It just was getting not better, it was getting worse in the 50s. Uh, and then we moved to an area, uh, which at the time, as I said, was almost bucolic in terms of its rural splendors, but over time, um… became in a sense, um, uh, a somewhat rougher area, so that for example, the junior high school I went to was considered one of the worst in the city by the time I got to junior high school, because it had gotten violent. So it was—it was uh, it was the city, you know, it was urban America.
How did you navigate that? Did you get into fights?
I did, until I realized I wasn’t very good at it. I must have lost fifty fights by the time I was in the sixth grade, so I thought—
These are fistfights?
Yeah; so I thought, there has to be a better way, right?
Well, you learn to um… y—you learn to deal with people in—in an non-confrontational fashion or format. I mean, there’s always—there—there is—at least it’s been my experience, almost always an alternative to fighting.
So if a guy wants to hijack your lunch money, or just wants to fight you just because you—
You know, you were there, weren’t you?
They used to do that. You know, you’d come out of the lunchroom, and you’d have the change on you; they’d take your lunch and your—there are some times when—when—when, you know, you have stand up to a bully. But frequently, um, you can use other techniques to get where you need to go.
For example, how do you diffuse a bully’s—uh, or uh, a—a fight—
Humor is one way.
Well, you can’t make fun of the guy who’s—
No, no, you—
You can’t make fun of him, but you can make fun of other things, where you can get people—you can get people to change their um, attitude, to change their approach, to change their sense of wellbeing.
How did you do it? Give me an example.
I’ll give you two; ‘cause there are two different techniques. One was … to self-effacing humor, or a self-depreciating humor, can frequently um, disarm somebody. Fre—a lot of times—I mean, there are bullies in the world, but most people um, fight for defensive reasons, not for offensive reasons. They—they feel cornered, or they feel uh, insulted, or they feel sort of that they’ve been confronted and have to defend themselves. Um, another thing that—that turned out to be um, very beneficial, when I was in high school I learned, that … you know, I went to school in a place where—where smart kids were frequently picked on. I mean, it was not… it—it wasn’t a cool thing to do well in school. Uh, but if you were an athlete, right?
If you played on any of the sports teams, and particularly if you played on the basketball team—‘cause we had a good basketball team, then the—the real toughs in the school would protect you, because you were part of the team, right? We gotta—
–stand up for the team. So I played basketball, and that—that was sort of a pass through high school, because nobody could pick on the basketball guys, or some really bad operators would come and upset your day.
Well, y—were you six-feet-four in high school?
Yeah, I was.
And were you a naturally talented athlete, or did you have to work at it?
Had to work at it. I had to work at it. Um, it turned out I, uh, I actually wasn’t all that talented uh, in the [INDISTINCT] time, I learned. I thought I was when I was in high school, but—but I had to work at it. But I did; I played a lot of ball.
Richard Parsons graduated from high school at the age of 16. He had dreamed of attending Princeton University since the 7th grade but the combination of financial constraints and wanting to break free of home led to his enrollment at the University of Hawaii in 1964.
And as a lark, I applied to University of Hawaii, because um, I sat next to a gal from Hawaii in my junior year in physics course, and she was the cutest thing I’d ever seen in my life. And I thought, There must be a University of Hawaii. To be honest with you, I didn’t even really know there—wa—was certain if there was one. But I said, There must be. So I put it down on the SATs as my third choice. Uh, long story short; I got wait-listed in Princeton, uh, which meant I wasn’t gonna get in any financial assistance even if I got in. I got into CCNY, but it was really time to leave home, it was time to go away.
And I got into Hawaii, and so I came out here.
And how did you pay for college?
Uh, I worked. My first year, I worked at the Pacific Biomedical Research Center. I don’t even know if it’s still out here. Basically, after school, washing test tubes and stuff; and then I had a night job at the Primo Brewery. You know, watching—in those days, they recycled the bottles, and you had to watch ‘em on the assembly line to make sure that there was nothing in them as they sort of came through. Pull them off if there was. And then um, my sophomore and junior year, I worked at Mark—a place called Mark’s Center Garage, downtown.
I was uh … first, I parked cars, and then I was the night manager. And then my senior year, I worked for Honolulu Gas Company, putting in gas pipes out in Hawaii Kai.
But you were also on the basketball team.
How’d you do all that?
Well, something had to come up short, right?
Turned out to be school. So I was not—I was—I was not … I didn’t make my mother proud, I’ll put it that way, in terms of the grades I got while I was out here.
And you were a history major?
Yeah; I started out as a physics major. But um … but that required more time and attention than … all these other activities afforded me.
So I became a history major.
Did you take anything from here that has um, stood the test of time in terms of values, people?
All of these… um, experiences are—are—are platforms for whatever you go on to next, right? And I think that uh, you find… most successful people um, they didn’t just go from nowhere to being hugely successful. It’s a step process, and they have—they have prior su—success platforms. And for me, Hawaii became one. Uh, not only ‘cause I got an education here, but because um, as you indicated, I was pretty young when I got out here, and I was very much on my own. And um, I survived. You know, I made it.
And very different culture.
Expensive place to live.
It was different. It took me about a year to make the adjustment to Hawaii from New York. But once I did, um, probably the last three years of college were among the best years of my life. I really enjoyed Hawaii, I enjoyed the culture, and even though I did not knock the ball out of the park in school here, uh, I got through school, and I got through life, and I supported myself, and I … I made it. And … that was—that was um, confidence instilling, that was something that for the rest of my life, um … I never had to really stop and think about, well, can I do this, or—or—or what could happen to me if I fail, because I believed in myself.
What was the hardest thing about that first year?
Loneliness. Um, it was my first time, really, away from home. Not—you know, I’d gone to camp for two weeks, or I’d go see—visit my grandmother in Virginia, but usually that was with family. Uh, this was the first time that I was out from under family, and friends, and relatives, and everything that was familiar to me back in New York. And uh … I did okay in the fall semester, ‘cause there was basketball, right? So the basketball team became my extended family and my friends.
But after basketball season, uh, I got lonely. And so that was—that was an adjustment.
Did you find this an open society? Did people let you in?
That’s a good question. Um … it’s a friendly society, but it—it isn’t—it isn’t necessarily as welcoming um … as the tourist brochures suggest. It’s different. And—and—and once you accommodate those differences, or at least are aware of those differences, then people let you in. But … but it isn’t as though they come up to you on the street and drag you and say, Come with me, let me show you how to be a part of Hawaii. You have to find your way in.
How did you find that way?
Uh, ultimately, I sort of stopped resisting; that’s always the first step, right? You stop trying to pretend that this is still New York, or … and you—you acknowledge that there are some difference, and then you kind of give in to the … aloha spirit. And for me, I ended up uh, joining a local fraternity, um … making a lot of local friends. Most of the guys on the basketball team were not from Hawaii.
Uh, they were from other parts on the mainland. And so it was—it was a kind of a cloistered community.
And so I sort of had to give that up, and go local. And when I did, everything clicked.
Were you um—okay, we have a stereotypic New York, right? Loud and aggressive—
Were you that way?
You can say stereotypes about—
I regard myself—
–Hawaii, and I can deny them.
–as the stereotypical New Yorker. Relatively sophisticated, urbane, witty, and … charming.
And that’s how you always were, even in beginning of college? [chuckle]
Yeah, actually, true. I’m—you know, the one thing most of the people who’ve known me for many, many years, going back to high school, but certainly in college would say, Jeez, you haven’t changed; you’ve gotten older, a little balder and fatter, but basically—
–you’re still you.
Y—your friends seem to speak really frankly with you.
Yeah, well, they do, they do, they do.
You know, um, one of your friends has said that you’re very smooth, and you’re—you’re a diplomat, you’re a charmer, but you’ve got a killer instinct. Now, I bet you had it in basketball, and I’ll be you have it in business.
What I would say is that I’m competitive, as opposed to killer instinct. That sounds too much like uh, the kid who lost too many fights when he was—
–in grade school. I’m competitive; I don’t like to lose. Now, what’s interesting is—‘cause I’ve—I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t mind um, if everybody wins, right, if we all get to the finish line simultaneously and we’re all winners. But I just don’t like to lose.
At the UH Manoa, Richard Parsons met his future wife, Laura, and Rainbow Warrior basketball coach Red Rocha.
I think I was frustrating to him. ‘Cause I had talent, um … but I was young. And I hadn’t—I hadn’t fully grown into my own body, and I hadn’t developed the—the sort of discipline and—and … focus and sense of real purpose that uh, a coach like Red requires, you know. I was still goofing off, right? You know.
And so whenever I’d get into goofing off, boy, he’d get on me. But he was—he was a good man. He was—he was sort of like almost … the father figure. I didn’t realize this until many yeas later, but—but when you’re young and you sort of pull yourself away from the family and throw yourself out into the world, the team became like my family, and—
–and Red became the father figure. So he certainly took to the role, yelling and screaming—
–and carrying on.
[chuckle] Um, well, you also had another kind of figure; you—you met your—the woman who would become your wife here.
M-hm, m-hm. That was another part of the transition to uh, um … this becoming a place that—for which I have the fondest memories. I met my wife in my—my sophomore year. We were in an English class together, and you know, we dated … um, pretty steadily for our sophomore year. We then kinda broke up … ‘cause she went back home, um, and I didn’t that summer. And when she came back in our junior year, we sort of dated off and on, but we didn’t really um, get back together seriously ‘til my senior year. And then at the end of my senior year, we got married.
Young again; still young.
How old were you?
Twenty years old. And she’s from Oklahoma, you’re from New York, and you meet and marry in Hawaii?
Where’d you get married?
We got married right down the block at uh, the … church. Um—
Church of the Crossroads, in Manoa?
Yeah. Right down the block.
My parents did too. So—so now you’ve graduated, and uh … actually, you didn’t graduate—
–did you, from the UH?
No, I was six credits shy at the end of my … four years. And I was supposed to go to summer school to get those six credits, but I just um—other things came up, and I never got around to it. I’d applied to and gotten admitted to law school in—back in New York. And [CLEARS THROAT] I found out … on the way to signing up for those two classes that summer, to finish up, that I didn’t really need to; that—that I … got what was called the law school qualifying certificate, ‘cause I had enough college credits and I’d done well enough on the LSATs and all that sort of thing, that I could just go off and go to law school. So instead of um, instead of going to summer school, I worked. Law school was—was relatively easy for me. Because the law um … the laws are purely—particularly in those days, almost a purely logical exercise. It’s built on, you know, eight or nine hundred years of sort of human experience built around a few simple rules. And it turned out that—that apparently, my brain works the same way that um … that human experience over time works.
And so I didn’t have to—I—I just knew the answers. And so I did very well in law school, without having to work too, too hard.
And you worked hard on the side; you were a janitor part of the time, right, to pay—
Yeah, that was my—
–your way through.
That was my first job in the law. I was a—I used to clean up the law school after everybody went home.
Wow. Humbling experience?
Well, you know, humbling—uh, you know, it was a job. My mother always told me, All work has dignity. So I didn’t—in fact, my to this day best friend—that’s where I met him. He and I were—we worked in the bookstore uh, initially, and then we—we talked the sup—the superintendent of the building—
–the law school building into letting us work part-time as janitors at night, ‘cause we needed the money.
Immediately following law school, in 1971, Richard Parsons was offered the job of assistant counsel to then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He continued as a much-trusted advisor when Rockefeller was appointed Vice-President to President Gerald Ford.
I didn’t know Nelson Rockefeller as a—as a … political figure. Um … and I liked him; I liked him. But no, I didn’t consider myself a Democrat or a Republican. I was—you know, I was a guy who needed a job. Uh, over time, um … I found out that I—I—I agreed with a lot of his political philosophy and leanings, and I would still call myself a Rockefeller Republican. There aren’t many of us left.
What is a Rockefeller Republican?
Well, I think a Rockefeller Republican is somebody that’s—uh, who is more conservative on fiscal matters, um , but understands that government has a role in terms of making lives better for people. So many people call that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism.
Now, in—in all this time we’ve been talking about your um, early experiences, you haven’t once mentioned racism.
Did—have you experienced it?
Yeah. But uh, but … certainly not in um … in its most virulent form. You know, I was born in the North, not in the South, uh, back in the 40s and 50s, and early 60s when—when uh … and I know this because my grandmother lived in the South, and we’d go visit with her in the summertime, when life as very different in the South for Blacks. Uh, in the North, it was … not easy, but it was not so stark, right? And then secondly, um … you know, I went to school in Hawaii, right, undergraduate school, and that was—uh, this was, at least in those respects, a more tolerant, open, embracing, and—and—and—and less stratified society. Still is. Uh, and then I got married, and my wife is White; and so we wondered a little bit when we went back to New York in 1968, right, uh, as an interracial couple. But I think in part because of our respective personalities, it just never bit. Um, you know, all those skills that one developed as a kid trying to avoid fights paid off, in a way that I wouldn’t have not—would not have inte—in—in … te—uh, expected.
Same principles apply?
Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s—it’s how you approach people. If you can—if you can disarm them, right, if you can cause them not to feel threatened, not to feel defensive, not to feel challenged, um—
Sounds like you don’t take offense easily.
I don’t. I don’t. Because—
You just let it pass?
Because y—you know, what happens is, first of all, most things aren’t intended.
–um … at a personal level. Mostly—and uh, I didn’t, by the way, realize much of this until I had my own children, and I saw in my son—my son is—is probably the world’s most secure, at least he was—you get older, some of it gets chipped off—but the most secure kid. He just assumed that uh, he was going to be accepted.
Even as like a one-year-old, one-and-a-half-year-old, we’d let him out in the yard, and other kids would be out there, and he’d just wade in as if, you know, I’m here, right? You know, who isn’t gonna accept me? And—and so he had no kind of defensive chip on his shoulder that he had to defend. And then secondly, he—he was secure enough to almost mold himself to whatever circumstance that he had to, to accommodate somebody else’s peculiarities or—or—or—or—or vulnerabilities, so that he made other people feel like they didn’t have to be defensive either. And I watched him, and I realized that I have some of those skills.
Of course, when the racism is deliberate, I mean, it is racism.
It’s not uh … ignorance or misinformation about what’s going on, it’s you know, I’m focusing my racism upon you. That—y—you can’t slip away from that very—
–you can’t. You can’t. That doesn’t happen nearly as much as people think it happens. Um, there is such a thing in America that I call structural racism. Um, it’s just—it—it—it sits behind the consciousness. People have—they’ve been—they’ve been raised with, and they’ve been reinforced by their experiences in life. They have … understandings um, and perceptions about people who are different than them. And that’s just a reality of life. That—again, that too isn’t intended as personal. I actually—I had an experience once uh, when I was … this was years after I left Hawaii, when I was in a law firm, I was a hiring partner, and I was talking to one of my pals who was on the hiring committee, and who was complaining about the fact that … that—that, you know, we weren’t hiring um, a certain kind of person. Because we—I’d made a big deal about being diverse, and we started recruiting at—at—at you know, uh, historically Black colleges and universities for lawyers, we started hiring a lot of women, and he … said to me once, um, he said, You know, well, but—but like I introduced so-and-so, and he’s uh, he’s the kind of person—you know, he’s the kind of person we need to hire, ‘cause that’s what our client is looking for; you know, he’s six-foot-two and he’s blond-haired and blue-eyed. And he looked right at me, he said, A real White man. And then he caught himself, and he went—he said—he said—[GASP], he said, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. ‘Cause you know, this was a pal. But what he was reflecting was a deep seated perception of the—the way the world is supposed to work. And that—that exists—probably always will, but you can’t let that—it’s—that’s not the sort of overt racism that you were talking about, but it’s—it’s every bit as pernicious. But you can’t let that uh, embitter you or cause you to um … take on more of a burden than you need to, to get to where you want to go. Right? You just gotta … it—it’s like a boulder in the middle of the path; you just gotta figure out how you’re gonna get around that.
And at that time, you were the hiring partner, so you were in the catbird seat anyway.
Yeah; right. I mean, most of these things, uh, uh, I—I—I think, to the extent of about eighty percent … people bring a lot of this on themselves, things that they could negotiate around, if they were—if they put themselves in the right mindset to do it.
Now, every once in a while, you do have to do stand and fight. And when you do … I don’t like to lose that either.
Have you done that? Have you stood up to racism?
Yeah. You know. But you know, I haven’t—I haven’t punched anybody. But I haven’t had to punch anybody. But you—sometimes you just have to … do what you gotta do, as they say.
Join us next time on Long Story Short for more conversation with Richard Parsons who reached the highest ranks of corporate power. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.