Gaines, Brenda 19(?)(?)–
Brenda Gaines 19(?)(?)–
$30 billion dollars in business. 7.6 million merchants. 800,000 ATMs. 3,500 employees worldwide. 200 countries. 54 local currencies. These are just a few of the numbers that fall under the domain of Brenda Gaines, CEO of Diners Club North America. Gaines is responsible for the daily operations of the world’s first credit card and as such is one of the most powerful women and most powerful African Americans in the financial field. Quite an accomplishment for a woman who confessed to Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), “In graduate school I had no intention of ever going into corporate America. It never even crossed my mind.”
Brenda J. Gaines grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan in North Chicago, about 40 miles north of the city of Chicago. An only child, she was raised by her parents—DeLoise, who worked for the Department of the Army, and Clarence, an employee with US Steel. She told CBB that she credited them with helping her become the success that she is. “The biggest influence in my life was my parents,” Gaines told CBB. “They always told me I could do anything I wanted to do. Anything I set my mind to. They encouraged me in school and were very involved in the PTA and other activities. They wanted good grades but always said that what really mattered was that I do my best. If my grades weren’t great that was okay as long as I did the best I could do.” Reflecting on her childhood she concluded, “I have been very blessed. I never wanted for anything. My parents worked very hard to ensure that.”
At North Chicago Community High School, one of Gaines’s earliest ambitions was to be a social worker. “I wanted to save the world,” she recalled to CBB. Following graduation she enrolled in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she earned dual degrees in psychology and sociology in 1970. Right out of college she went to work for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as part of their Urban Intern Program. “At the time HUD was doing a lot to revitalize the urban area in Chicago and provide housing for people who needed it,” she told CBB. She remained with the department for over 13 years, working up to the position of deputy regional administrator for the midwest. In addition to her full-time work schedule she attended Chicago’s Roosevelt University at night and earned a master’s degree in public administration in 1976.
“In 1983 Chicago Mayor Harold Washington asked me to become his commissioner of housing,” Gaines told CBB. She held that position for two years before joining Washington’s office as deputy chief of staff. Though she worked with Washington for just four years she told CBB, “The highlight of my career was working for his administration. It was a part of history. He was the first African-American mayor in Chicago and was elected on a reform ballot. It was a time of changes in the city and being able to make a difference.” She credited Washington for teaching her many valuable leadership skills. “In my role as CEO at Diners Club, I’ve tried to apply some of those lessons, especially with
At a Glance…
Born to DeLoise and Clarence Gaines. Education: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, BA, psychology and sociology, 1970; Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL, MA, public administration, 1976,
Career: US Department of Housing and Urban Development, intern, 1970–71, full time employee, 1971–80, Chicago deputy regional administrator, 1980–81, special assistant to the Chicago regional administrator, 1981–83; Chicago city government, commissioner of the department of housing, 1983–85, deputy chief of staff, 1985–87; Citibank, senior vice president of Residential Lending for Citibank, FSB, and government and community relations liaison, 1988–92; Diners Club, Government Business for Diners Club, senior vice president, 1992–95; Diners Club US, executive vice president of Corporate Card Sales, 1995–97; Diners Club North America, president and CEO, 1999–.
Selected memberships: Board member, Diners Club International Global; Citibank Canadian Board of Directors; board member, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys and Girls Club; board of trustees, National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation; board of trustees, Chicago Museum of Science and Industry; The Committee of 200, The Executive Leadership Council.
Selected awards: “Otto Wirth Award” for Lifetime Achievement, Roosevelt University, 2000; Volunteer of Year Award, Boys and Girls Club of Chicago, 1999; Urban Bankers Forum Pioneer Award, 1996; Black Achievers in Industry Award, 1995; “Woman of Achievement” Award, Anti-Defamation League.
Addresses: Office —Diners Club, 8430 W Bryn Mawr Ave, Chicago, IL, 60631.
communication, listening to different opinions, diversity,” she told CBB. “In the mayor’s office I worked with so many diverse people from CEOs of major corporations to foreign government officials to community organizations to private citizens. I learned to consider different viewpoints.”
In 1987 Washington died suddenly and Gaines decided to retire from city government. Citibank immediately began wooing her to take over their government and community relations department which oversaw the corporation’s involvement with community and civic issues including charitable donations and volunteer programs. Working for the city of Chicago, Gaines had been on the other side of that equation, approaching the corporation for support in the city. Though hesitant to make the leap to corporate work at first, Gaines recalled to CBB, “The recruiter from Citigroup said something to me that really made sense. ‘You have come to us with ideas about how we can contribute to helping people, lending in the city. Now you have the opportunity to make those ideas happen, to do the lending and give back to the city.’ I couldn’t argue.” She joined the worldwide banking leader in 1988 and according to Fortune, “Relying on her background in housing, she quickly moved up to senior VP in charge of residential lending.” In 1992 she joined Diners Club, a subsidiary of Citigroup, as the senior vice president overseeing government business for the credit card division. She next moved up to executive vice president in charge of corporate card sales for Diners Club US. Finally, in 1999, she was promoted to president and CEO of Diners Club North America. Her transformation from government employee to corporate leader was complete.
Diners Club is the country’s oldest credit card and has a loyal following among business travelers. “Diners Club is totally focused on the customer,” Gaines told Business Traveler. “For the frequent business traveler, Diners Club is a reliable travel companion, as it’s the only card that has both a superior product package and a superior delivery system.” The package includes a two-month interest-free payment period “because we know frequent travelers may not get reimbursed by their company in a timely manner or are simply on the road and don’t get their mail,” she told Business Traveler. Other perks include full rental car collision damage and wireless account information sent straight to cell phones and e-mail. Travelers appreciate these benefits and readers of Inside Flyer magazine have voted Diners Club the “Best Frequent Traveler Affinity Charge/Credit Card Program” five years in a row. For her role in the company Gaines was named one of the “Most Powerful Women In the Travel Industry” by Travel Agent Magazine.
Since taking the reins at Diners Club, Gaines has been credited with successfully integrating its North American business and broadening the card’s acceptance beyond strictly travel and entertainment to include retail and other business. She has also overseen the launching of two new credit cards including the company’s first revolving credit card product based in the United States. Another successful program she oversaw is Club Rewards which awards card holders with points for every dollar charged on a Diners Club account. Members can redeem the points for airfare, gift certificates, or personalized rewards of their choosing. “Recent redemptions have included a condo rental in Hawaii, Harley Davidson gift certificates, and real estate taxes,” Gaines told Business Traveler.
Gaines has relied on a few key principles in her successful operation of Diners Club North America. One of those is to be prepared. “Think about all possibilities when you go into a meeting and how you would deal with all potential outcomes, opportunities and issues,” she told Essence. She also strongly advocated the use of mentors. “They should be people you can reach out and talk to about anything you may be encountering in the workplace,” she continued. Gaines is also a firm believer in proving your mettle through action. She told Black Collegian, “My biggest corporate lesson is simple: Seize the opportunity to perform, and demand that you be judged by your performance. Extend that demand to all that you hire and inspire, and give your people the opportunity to perform and prove themselves to the benefit of your customers and shareholders.” Her philosophies have paid off, earning Gaines several industry accolades including the Urban Bankers Forum Pioneer Award, Citicorp’s Service Excellence Award, the Black Achievers in Industry Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from her alma mater Roosevelt University. Black Enterprise Magazine named her one of its “Top Fifty Blacks in Corporate America” and in 2002 Fortune magazine placed her at number 20 on its list of 50 “Most Powerful Black Executives.” Of Fortune’s famed list Gaines told CBB, “It was kind of humbling the little girl from North Chicago being included on this list. It was really great, but on the other hand, at the end of the day, what is most important is my daily activities. What I do at Diners Club and what I give back to the community.”
True to her earliest inclinations to “save the world,” Gaines is very active in charitable and civic causes. She is on the board of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Technology and Diners Club is a financial supporter of the organization. However, the group closest to her heart is the Dr. Martin Luther King Boys and Girls Club on the west side of Chicago. “It is in an area that needs quite a bit of assistance and Diners Club has sort of adopted the club. Our employees volunteer and I serve on the board of directors,” she told CBB. In this role Gaines is in a position to help make a difference in the lives of the 800-plus boys and girls that belong to the club, teaching them the lessons her parents first taught her. “You can be anything you want, just do your best.”
Business Traveler, November 2002, p. 34.
Essence, March 2001, p. 35.
“Lessons from 30 African Americans Who Have Forged Successful Careers,” Black Collegian, www.black-collegian.com/issues/30thAnn/successcareer2001-30th.shtml (July 7, 2003).
“Most Powerful Black Executives,” Fortune, www.fortune.com/fortune/blackpower/snapshot/0,15307,13,00.html (June 3, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography on July 23, 2003.
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