Merrill Lynch's mer ouster of Stanley O'Neal will be seen as a seback in the steps made by African-American CEOs over the last eight years, but it will only be temporary, say those who follow such progress.
Black Enterprise magazine tracks rising talent, and editor Alfred Edmond says that while dismissals might seem like "watershed events" because there are so few black CEOs, over time this will be seen as part of the "ebb and flow."
Merrill said Tuesday that O'Neal will retire, effective immediately.
In addition to O'Neal, Edmond says Time Warner twx CEO Richard Parsons is widely expected to step down in the months ahead, leaving just five African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. The growth in their numbers, especially among the mega-company Fortune 100, has been noteworthy considering that in 1995 it was major news when offbeat ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's named Bob Holland CEO. Since then:
•In 1999, Fannie Mae fnm made Franklin Raines the first African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
•Three months later, American Express axp named Kenneth Chenault its next CEO. He took over in 2001.
•In 2002, Parsons became CEO at Time Warner.
•O'Neal followed at Merrill in December of 2002.
•In 2005, Aylwin Lewis became CEO of Sears Holdings shld after it acquired Kmart.
•In 2006, Ronald Williams took over at Aetna aet. In January 2007, Delphi dphiq promoted Rodney O'Neal to be CEO of the giant auto parts company, which has been in Chapter 11 since 2005. It expects to emerge early next year.
Include James Bell, interim CEO of Boeing ba for four months in 2005, and there have been eight black CEOs of the largest 85 U.S. companies by revenue since before Raines was ousted in 2004. However, there is only one other African-American CEO among the remaining Fortune 500 companies, Clarence Otis at Darden Restaurants dri, No. 404. John Thompson, CEO at computer software company Symantec symc, isn't far behind at No. 515.
The "depth and breadth" of the talent pool is such that in 10 years the loss of one or two black CEOs will no longer cause a conversation about decimating the ranks, Challis Lowe says. She is Dollar General's human resources executive vice president and a board member of the Executive Leadership Council, whose mission is to groom African-Americans as they move from college to CEO.
CEOs don't hold jobs for life, Edmond says. He predicts more hirings and firings, leaving about 15 African-American CEOs at Fortune 500 companies in 10 years. And although CEOs like Chenault didn't have role models as they rose in their careers, behind them is a generation that will benefit from them, he says.