Synchrony CEO Margaret Keane On The Economy, George FloydJune 28, 2020
Margaret Keane, CEO of Synchrony—a company that financed $140 billion in purchases for American shoppers last year, via a range of credit card programs—has lived all sides of the debt equation. When she was 10, growing up as one of six kids in Queens, her father, a police officer, developed a costly and ultimately fatal illness that she says left her family burdened with thousands in medical bills. “We were getting calls to shut the electric off,” she says. “I don’t think you could ever forget that.”
She put herself through college working as a debt collector, earning $5.50 an hour, making 90 calls a day, while a student at St. John’s University. She excelled and ended up in the management training program at Citibank before rising to run Synchrony, where she now presides over an army of employees approving loans, and also collecting them when borrowers fall behind.
The ability of consumers to keep paying their bills will play an outsized role in the post-pandemic recovery. So far, Keane is not seeing a spike in delinquencies one might expect given the plunge in economic activity, though the stimulus is clearly aiding those bill payments. “The consumer is definitely hanging in there,” she says.
Keane, 60, recently joined TIME for a video conversation on the mindset of the American consumer, the impact of small business health on any recovery, and what corporations need to do to help address systemic racism in society.
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(This interview with Synchrony CEO Margaret Keane has been condensed and edited for clarity)
Your company was founded in 1932, another time of great financial distress, to help people buy appliances on credit. Now there are tens of million of Americans out of work. What parallels do you see?
What’s interesting about our company is the culture and the roots of how we came about was really during a time of crisis. And honestly, back in the day, when you think back, I know it doesn’t feel innovative now, but actually lending people money was a big deal.
What products were being sold?
Back in the ’30s, people would literally go to their local corner appliance store and pay weekly to get the appliance. You can imagine people weren’t working and GE wanted to sell appliances. So they came up with this idea, ‘Okay, how do we finance appliances?’ And that’s how the company started—GE wanted to sell appliances. Appliances were still relatively new for them. Having that at home was a big deal. It allowed the average American to have access to those kinds of luxuries back then.