Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Where Have You Gone, Goldman Sachs?

Poignant piece adapted from the book What Happened to Goldman Sachs: An Insider's Story of Organizational Drift and its Unintended Consequences by Steven Mandis:

I  first met John L. in 1992, early in my time at Goldman. I was a financial analyst in M&A and was asked to make a video on the history of the department. John L. could not have been more jovial and humble. He told me that his father had once fired him in the 1950s for what seemed a minor offense -- without the proper approvals, he had committed a small amount of the firm's capital to help get a deal done for a client -- and how, lesson learned, he had groveled to get his job back. Sharing that he liked Chicago, where I was born, he advised me to work with the head of the Chicago office, Hank Paulson, because I would learn a lot from him and it would allow me to fly from New York to see more of my family, something he emphasized was important.

Goldman partners reinforced the importance of the values by their actions; they didn't need to be specifically mentioned because they were understood by watching. The way these CEOs and partners acted, dressed, and behaved reinforced unwritten norms or uncodified principles. The men at the top wore Timex watches and not Rolexes (and this is before Ironman watches were fashionable). Partners did not wear expensive suits or drive fancy cars (most drove Fords because it was such a good client and many partners got a special discount). They lived relatively modestly, considering their wealth. It was simply not in the ethos to be flashy but rather to be understated, with Midwestern restraint. The unwritten commandment to keep a low profile was not, until rather recently, violated casually.

I do not want to wax nostalgically about the good old days. I did on occasion observe vice presidents and partners acting in a way that might not be considered in the best interests of clients, though those were exceptions to the rule. For example, I was tangentially helping a team led by a vice president in selling a company, and when the final bids and contracts were due from all the potential buyers, only one buyer had submitted a bid, and the price was less than the amount our client was willing to sell for. It seemed to be a delicate situation, because we had little negotiating leverage to persuade the only potential buyer to pay more. Also, the bidder was a good client of Goldman's. However, the vice president called the sole bidder and said, "We had a number of bids" and told the bidder that to win the auction, he would have to raise his bid. I questioned him, and based on his facial expression and the tone of his response, I don't think he appreciated my inquisitiveness. He pointed out to me that he had said "a number of bids," and "in this instance, the number is one."

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