Howard J. Kessler
The Kessler Group
Founder and Chairman Emeritus

Biography

By his own admission, Howard J. Kessler wasn’t much of a student, but it wasn’t for lack of determination and work ethic. Throughout his four years at Temple, he worked part-time as a shoe salesman at Baker Shoes. His challenges in the classroom were due in part to having attention deficit disorder, which he was unaware of at the time. “But I was always able to use and understand numbers,” Mr. Kessler says. So, accounting was a natural fit. As an added incentive, he says, it was one of the few professions at the time where he’d be able to enter the workforce without a post-graduate degree. Before he could reach that point, life intervened. It was late 1968, and the Vietnam War was boiling over on the other side of the world. But the ramifications were felt stateside every day. Just before he was about to start his final semester, Mr. Kessler was accepted into the U.S. Army Reserves. He was promptly sent to Fort Knox, in Kentucky, to begin six months of basic training. There’s little about the experience that left a positive impression on Mr. Kessler, but, as a reserve, he was spared from having to fight in Vietnam. That September, he re-enrolled at Temple and earned his bachelor’s degree—with dean’s list honors. It was the one and only semester he was named to the dean’s list. Looking back, it’s clear that the Army changed him, matured him. “Before basic training, I’d never been out of Pennsylvania. It was truly a life-altering experience,” Mr. Kessler says. “When I returned home, I took school more seriously.” He was also able to focus more on schoolwork. Mr. Kessler went on to pass the notoriously difficult CPA exam in his first attempt with one of the highest scores in his region at the time. Though he gives most of the credit to his soon-to-be-wife, Michele, who helped him study and quizzed him relentlessly. In 1972, Mr. Kessler returned to Philadelphia after a brief stint in Washington, D.C., and became Chief Financial Officer of Teachers Services Organization, which was owned and operated by Jack Alter, the father of fellow Fox Centennial Honoree Dennis Alter. In 1978, Mr. Kessler ventured out on his own. He had an idea that would forever change the retail financial services industry. Together, with Maryland National Bank, Mr. Kessler launched the first affinity credit card program, which allowed a given organization the opportunity to offer its members and supporters a credit card branded with the organization’s logo. “It’s a simple concept, but I thought it would inspire more loyalty” than a bank-issued credit card, Mr. Kessler says. “When you have a card that shows you’re a member, you’re proud of that status, so you’re likely to use it more.” Turns out you are actually more likely to pay on time and pay off the balance. Credit cards were a relatively new entity in the early eighties, and Mr. Kessler had discovered a way to frame them that seemed to lower the risk for both the issuer and the user. The affinity credit card concept quickly caught on. Co-brand credit cards followed, from which airline miles and rewards emerged. Then: private label cards, like those issued by Neiman Marcus and The Home Depot. Mr. Kessler was a part of every evolution. In 1991, a subsidiary of Maryland National Bank was spun off as MBNA Corp., which rapidly grew to become the world’s largest independent credit card issuer. In 2006, Bank of America acquired MBNA for more than $35 billion. Today, nearly four decades after its founding, his Boston-based firm, The Kessler Group, stands as the leading authority of the payments industry, for which Mr. Kessler has generated billions over his career. The caveat to all that success: Mr. Kessler signed a non-disclosure agreement early on with MBNA that barred him from promoting his role in pioneering the affinity credit card. “Talk about a life lesson,” he says. “Although that humility proved to be the greatest gift because it made me focus on creating value rather than trying to brand myself.” In recent years, Mr. Kessler and his wife, who’ve been married for 48 years, are known even more widely for their philanthropy. They support a diverse range of causes, including Partners Healthcare (a not-for-profit, integrated healthcare system founded by Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital), the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the United Way, PBS, the American Ireland Fund, and the Palm Beach Zoo, among others. In 1994, they formed the Kessler Family Foundation, which primarily focuses its giving on educational, medical research, and human services endeavors in Palm Beach, Florida, and Boston where the Kesslers divide their time. For their efforts, Mr. Kessler has received a host of awards, including the United Way Emerging Corporate Philanthropist Award, the American Red Cross Lifetime Achievement Award and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. Despite all his accomplishments, Mr. Kessler continues to work hard but with a focus on new priorities: Staying healthy and active, and making a difference in the world.

Temple University Degree
Bachelor of Science ‘69, Fox School of Business

What I wanted to be when I was 20 years old
At that point in my life, I really just wanted to get through college so I could start earning a living.

Best piece of advice anyone ever gave me
It came from my brother, who reminded me: “No matter what you do, you need to work harder at it than everybody else.”