Chapter 1: 1986: The Road Less Traveled
On Wednesday morning, October 15, 1986, John L. Weinberg, the venerable senior partner of Goldman Sachs, had a long list of phone calls to make. Before the morning was over he needed to telephone thirty-six men and one woman. His conversations would be brief; good news travels fast.
He started early, hours before the official list would be published. Thomas W. Berry would be first and Garland E. Wood last; alphabetical order was the rule. This was the phone call each vice-president on his list had waited years to receive. Each would reach for the receiver hoping Weinberg was about to extend an invitation to the most exclusive club on Wall Street -- the partnership of Goldman Sachs. Weinberg's simple statement, "I would like to invite you to join the partnership," was for most the reward for a decade of grinding hard work. No one had ever refused the honor. Thirty years earlier, Weinberg's own father, the legendary
Sidney Weinberg, had issued him the same invitation.
John Weinberg, with help from the eight other partners who comprised the management committee, had vetted hundreds of vice-presidents in the biannual selection process. They had deliberated for two agonizing months while speculation among the troops grew. For the hundred or so in "the zone," the inside term for those actually in contention, everything was at stake -- prestige, recognition, riches. As Weinberg traveled through the alphabet, some of the dozens passed over would shut themselves in their offices, while a few would storm out of the firm's headquarters. Envy and frustration would cause one or two people to resign, but the vast majority would take the disappointment in stride, hoping for another shot at a partnership two years hence.
Those telephoned that autumn morning were being offered not only vast wealth but virtual lifetime employment as well. John Weinberg himself had spent his entire career at the firm, beginning in 1950; Robert E. Rubin and Stephen Friedman, two of the more senior members of the management committee, had been with the firm for twenty years. Their tenure was not unusual. Moreover, few partners had ever been asked to leave; graceful and bittersweet departures almost always capped lengthy and prosperous careers. Barring any missteps, the young men and woman answering Weinberg's phone call could expect to retire with a nest egg worth tens of millions of dollars.
Yet those selected knew that after years of grueling sixty-, seventy-, or even eighty-hour weeks spent on trading floors, in clients' offices, or on airplanes, the real work was only now about to begin. The partners of Goldman Sachs in 1986 owned a $38 billion business, and running it was, and still is, an all-consuming job. Partnership meetings are held on weekends; vacations and sleep are routinely interrupted with conference calls whose participants span the globe. Partners felt free to call each other whenever they needed to know something about another's business. "When you made partner suddenly you had to return eighty other phone calls," says one retired partner. "Partners were much less respectful of your privacy than employees would be."
The partnership class of 1986 represented change. At thirty-seven, it was twice as large as any previous class. The all-white, all-male partnership had invited into its ranks the first African American and the first woman in its history. The pressure on Wall Street firms to become more diverse was considerable, and Goldman Sachs was one of the last to bow. Almost all partners had spent their entire careers with the firm, yet this class included two former managing directors from rival Salomon Brothers and a famous professor from MIT.
For the first time, existing partners had been unfamiliar with some of the candidates. The firm had grown and specialized. Its four divisions -- equities (stock trading), investment banking, fixed income (bond trading), and J. Aron (currency and commodities trading) -- had been separated into dozens of specialized departments, many members of which had very little contact with employees from outside their own department. Partners had been forced to trust the recommendations of their colleagues. Impersonality had crept into the process.
Perhaps the most atypical feature of the class of 1986 was the number of partners elevated from the ranks of salesmen and traders. Goldman Sachs's traditional strengths lay in the field of investment banking, in raising capital for large corporations or arranging mergers and acquisitions. Despite some areas of excellence, particularly in stock trading, Goldman Sachs did not have the trading prowess of a firm like Salomon Brothers. In 1986 top management determined that this would change.
Weinberg's anointed officially joined the partnership on Monday, December 1, 1986, the first day of the firm's new fiscal year. Only five days later, the management committee that so recently had bestowed this honor proposed to take it away. At the annual partnership meeting held in New York, Steve Friedman and Bob Rubin, who would be appointed co-vice chairmen the following year, announced that the firm was considering selling itself to the investing public.
In an abrupt break with one hundred seventeen years of history, the management committee was proposing that Goldman Sachs become a public corporation. No longer would the partners own their firm; no longer would they run it unencumbered by outside influences. Stockholders would own much of the firm's capital, and a board of directors, presumably with outside members, would rule on issues of policy. Partners would find themselves as employees, albeit extremely wealthy ones, of a large corporate entity. The management committee believed that in order to expand into new businesses, additional capital of a more permanent nature would be required. The pressure to sell the firm had only increased as each of Goldman Sachs's major competitors had undertaken a public sale or merger with a larger entity. Now the management committee unanimously recommended that the partnership vote for an initial public offering. Not one of the thirty-seven new partners, who had far less to gain than longtime partners from the windfall that would be created by such a sale, thought this sounded like a good idea.
The partnership had never before openly entertained the notion of a public offering, although behind closed doors the management committee had discussed and dismissed the idea many times. In the late 1960s, Sidney Weinberg had considered it briefly and sent his top lieutenant Gus Levy to canvass the partners. It would be the first time the idea was shot down. In 1971, the management committee had decided to incorporate, going as far as printing up new business cards before changing their minds and leaving the private partnership in place.
On the morning of December 6, the partners convened in the large meeting room on the second floor of 85 Broad Street, the firm's three-year-old headquarters in lower Manhattan. For days rumors had circulated but the official agenda had not been disclosed. The management committee members had been lobbying their partners, trying to line up support before the meeting. Many of the new partners were nervous; it was their first partnership meeting, and they had little idea of what to expect. Much was at stake; the future of Goldman Sachs would be decided in the next thirty-six hours.
The members of the management committee were seated around a table on a stage at the front of the room, while the ninety-five remaining partners sat facing them. Weinberg had positioned himself some distance away from his fellow members; this action sent out what many remember as a very strong signal. During the formal presentation he said almost nothing.
Most members of the management committee spoke, but when Rubin and Friedman, who were already widely regarded as heirs apparent, stood to present their vision of the future, everyone listened more closely. Goldman Sachs would be a great global firm, they told the audience, a worldwide wholesaler of investment banking services. The firm would be transformed into a trading powerhouse, one that would challenge top-ranked Salomon Brothers, which was operating with considerably more capital. Risky, capital-intensive activities like trading (some of it for the firm's own account rather than as an agent for clients), much of which was under Rubin's management, and principal investments (long-term strategic investments made by the partnership in operating companies), Friedman's latest brainchild, could not be operated easily with the firm's existing partnership capital. Earnings would be more volatile in these new businesses, and to remain competitive a fortified capital base would need to be built.
Then the issue of unlimited liability was addressed. "What would happen if we hit a bump in the road?" those on the management committee asked. In a private partnership none of the assets of partners are shielded from liability, and the individual partners are exposed down to the pennies in their children's piggy banks. Large trading losses or lawsuits could pose a threat to the firm's capital and ultimately its existence. The actions of a rogue trader could spell personal bankruptcy (one year later a lone trader would singlehandedly lose Merrill Lynch $300 million). Although 1986 had been a very successful year, the firm had suffered a few large bond trading losses, and some partners had grown concerned. Sexual harassment and racial discrimination suits, with ever larger settlements or awards for damages, were becoming increasingly common on Wall Street. Fifteen years earlier, when Penn Central railroad, a Goldman Sachs client, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the firm had been plagued by lawsuits, the dollar amount of which threatened to exceed the partnership capital. It had been a frightening experience.
Goldman Sachs's capital was inherently unstable. In any given year a substantial group of senior partners with large capital stakes might retire, taking their money with them, and the drain on the firm's resources could be debilitating. If it happened in a year when the firm performed poorly, as it would in 1994, for example, the results could be extremely damaging. By inviting outside investors, in the shape of stockholders, to join the firm, its capital base could be strengthened and its risk dispersed. Friedman and Rubin strongly supported the proposal. Their boss John Weinberg did not.
For many in that room, John Weinberg was Goldman Sachs. He had been with the firm for almost forty years, and for eight of those had shared the top position with his friend John Whitehead. But Whitehead had left Goldman Sachs and was serving as deputy secretary of state in the Reagan administration, and, at sixty-one, Weinberg was on his own. A portly gentleman with close-cropped white hair, thick jowls, and a kind face, over the years he had inspired unswerving loyalty and total devotion. Weinberg's leadership, now in its tenth year, was unquestioned and absolute. He had kept politics out of Goldman Sachs. Under Weinberg the firm retained the feeling of a family business, and the dueling egos and unrestrained greed that had plagued and even destroyed some of his competitors was not tolerated. Only two years earlier, Lehman Brothers, a first-class name in investment banking and a onetime partner of Goldman Sachs, was crippled by a power struggle at the top and had been forced to sell itself to the conglomerate Shearson American Express.
By 1986 the relationship between Goldman Sachs and the Weinbergs -- John and his father, brother, son, and nephew -- extended back seventy-nine years. The emotional bond was strong. Weinberg believed passionately in the value of the partnership, in its role as the contributing factor in the firm's success. While the management committee presented a united front, many who heard the presentation doubted Weinberg's commitment to the proposal. Goldman Sachs had just closed the books on one of its most profitable years. Through the early 1980s the firm's return on equity had risen as high as an astounding 80 percent, and many partners realized that this level of profitability was unprecedented and unsustainable. The stock market was buoyant and new issues were selling well. If the firm were to go public, it would have to seize the moment. In 1986 the press was full of uncannily accurate prognostications of the gloom and doom to follow. Any knowledgeable observer could see that Wall Street was at the giddy heights of its perennial cycle and it would not be long before the inevitable downturn began. Acceding to the management committee's unanimous wishes, Weinberg agreed to set the ownership issue before the partnership.
The presentation made to the partners that Saturday morning has been described as, at best, uninspiring and weak. Others have called it haphazard and half-baked, emphasizing that its quality was far below that of presentations the firm routinely gave to its clients. Most agree that it was an amateurish effort; what was presented was little more than a concept. Partners were given written reports that outlined the proposed structure: Overnight they would be transformed into managing directors and paid a multiple of the value of their investment in the company. Veteran partners, already very wealthy, could triple their net worth overnight.
One partner who was present remembers that the numbers, in the parlance of the business, did not "foot"; those in the audience who checked back and forth between the many exhibits in the presentation package found that the numbers did not add up and they jumped all over the inconsistencies. In various scenarios, the analyses showed how the partners' capital would grow over time if the firm remained a partnership. But many of the assumptions were questioned and investment banking partners challenged the valuations underlying the proposal. Projections of the firm's earnings as a public corporation were ridiculed. In a business where almost all of the assets go down the elevators and out the front door each night, who could guess what would be left after the firm transformed itself? Calculators came out as partners estimated what their take from the initial buyout might be, but more fundamental questions remained unanswered: What would the company be worth? To whom would shares be sold? On what kind of schedule would the partners be paid? The audience was not impressed.
By afternoon, an impassioned debate had erupted. A partnership is a much more personal organizational structure than a corporation, but even Weinberg was surprised at the level of emotion unleashed. Most of these men knew each other well. The partnership was a small, intimate organization -- a fraternity in the very best sense of the word -- in which no one was above criticism and the more senior partners regularly challenged their leaders. What was taking place this day was open and honest conversation. Partners screamed and cried, Weinberg remembers; it was a cathartic exercise.
The newest partners could not have been expected to embrace the proposal, since for them it was a financial step backward. The dividing lines between generations of partners had always existed, but now they would be drawn in the sand. Most of the members of the class of 1986 were still in their thirties, and being a partner of Goldman Sachs was a job they had aspired to since business school. The money was not bad, of course, but for some the psychic rewards were even more important. There was a sense of affiliation, of belonging to a select group with a hallowed history and a common purpose. The newest partners had worked for, and expected, a lifelong career with the firm, and they had no interest in giving up their shot at the future.
The partners' capital at the time was a little more than a billion dollars and all members of the class of 1986 received a .32 percent stake. If the firm had been sold in 1986 each new partner would have walked away with between $3 and $3.5 million, and while that is not a bad payday it is important to consider the alternative. In its proposal the management committee had predicted that the firm's return on equity would decline to and stabilize at 40 percent, a level of return yielded by few other investments anywhere. The management committee was suggesting the transition to a public company because of the long-term growth opportunities they envisioned. But it was precisely this growth potential that would cause the very newest partners, with little invested in the company, to want to maintain the partnership. And at the end of perhaps a decade, when members of the class of 1986 had increased the size of their partnership stakes, the firm could still be sold. Of course the risks were great -- a stock market crash was in fact less than a year away -- but the potential for building substantial wealth was obvious to all.
A powerful contingent of banking partners, whose businesses did not require additional capital, remained unconvinced of the firm-wide need for greater resources. The merger department, which generated huge profits from the fees earned in successfully bringing companies together, was breaking profit records every year and hardly needed help. Many banking partners had not signed off on the vision of the future -- expanded trading and increased principal risk -- that Friedman and Rubin had presented. "I'm not sure how much they [the investment bankers] were listening either," one partner recalls. "They thought it was a terrible idea going in, and nothing was said there that would convince somebody [otherwise] who thought it was a terrible idea. If you went in with an open mind you might decide one way or the other. But if you went in totally against it, and with good reason -- a firm belief in your mind that the partnership culture was in fact the essence of the firm and that this would not just be a different way of capitalizing the firm but would completely change the firm -- then you would be looking for alternatives" [to going public]. Some, like former senior partner John Whitehead, believed that limits on capital were not necessarily a bad thing. Two years before he had remarked that "Everybody here knows we have restraints on capital. Capital should be a restraint. It helps you make selections. You have to make choices. We can't do leveraged buyouts and arbitrage -- or we can do a little of each." Six months earlier the firm had taken an equity injection from Sumitomo Bank in Japan, and many bankers felt that additional sources of private capital could be located if necessary. This would be the best of all possible worlds, they reasoned -- the partners' capital enhanced, their control undiminished.
A number of very senior partners, despite their own economic interests, took issue with their management committee colleagues. A few stood up and spoke emotionally and at length about the value they placed on the partnership -- what it had meant to them personally. The partnership had a family feeling, which was something many were loath to part with. A partnership at Goldman Sachs was a sacred trust, they argued. The partners were custodians of a great lineage extending back to 1869. Didn't this legacy belong to the next generation? What gave the current partners the right to sell?
The arguments from the audience appeared very one-sided. Those opposed stood up to make their points, while those in favor sat quietly, relying on the management committee to uphold their side of the case. Some who spoke raised the notion of privacy: Goldman Sachs did not report its earnings, and the partners liked it that way; few wanted to proclaim to the outside world just how much money they made. The firm had operated for many years under a veil of secrecy. Business decisions were not analyzed in the press, personality conflicts were not discussed in the trade magazines, and lifestyle features in glossy magazines complete with pictures of second homes and second wives were not part of the Goldman Sachs ethos.
But with the rewards of partnership come considerable risks. All partners, regardless of their stake, left the bulk of each year's earnings with the firm, to be withdrawn only after retirement. In any given year, if the firm were to lose money, some of those gains could be wiped out. Partners took home an 8 percent draw each year against the amount they had in their capital accounts (the amount of the firm's profits they had accrued but left invested with the firm) and a salary. (In 1997 it was about $300,000.) One partner in the early 1980s asked for a $60,000 loan to do some improvements on his house at a time when Weinberg and Whitehead were each receiving a salary of $85,000. The partner was told to take it out of his salary. "Now how the hell could I do that? My salary isn't that large," the partner responded. He was cash constrained perhaps, but partners are far from poor. The class of 1986 needed only to look at the more senior partners to see what financial possibilities existed in the partnership format. When a list of the one hundred highest-paid professionals on Wall Street was published in 1986, Goldman Sachs partners filled twelve places.
Fundamentally, Weinberg did not believe that anyone was entitled to cash in on the firm's legacy. With $1 billion of capital and the intangible value of a first-class banking franchise (the firm's good name, its established businesses, and its client relationships), Goldman Sachs might have sold for $3 billion. The firm's value at any given moment is the sum total of the contributions hundreds of people have made for more than a century. Yet the entire economic value of this legacy, worth as much as $2-3 billion, would accrue to those who owned the firm at the time of an initial public offering. In 1997 Weinberg recalled the 1986 meeting: "I always felt there was a terrific risk, and still do, that when you start going that way you are going to have one group of partners who are going to take what has been worked on for 127 years and get that two-for-one or three-for-one. Any of us who are partners at the time when you do that don't deserve it. We let people in at book value, they should go out at book value."
Although Bob Rubin strongly supported the proposal, on some level he too may have had doubts about transforming Goldman Sachs into a large public company. Two years earlier, commenting on Lehman Brothers's merger with Shearson American Express, he had said, "Wall Street has been a highly entrepreneurial arena. Lots of venture dollars are organized here. Leveraged buyouts come out of Wall Street. The merger wave, without regard to the question of whether it is a good thing for society, comes out of Wall Street. Can that entrepreneurial spirit remain alive in units as large as American Express? If not, can Wall Street remain a highly entrepreneurial world? And if it doesn't, does it make a difference? Will this source of energy diminish?" Friedman had concerns as well and did not relish the notion of running a public company, but he supported the proposal wholeheartedly, certain that the firm needed downside protection and an increased capital base with which to compete.
For every person seated in that room going public was a multimillion-dollar question, yet some had more at stake than others. The partners with more seniority, whose stakes were worth between 1 and 3 percent of the firm's capital, would find their bank accounts enriched by many tens of millions of dollars; at least ten partners had stakes that would be worth at least $50 million in a public sale. Weinberg, it was widely estimated at the time, stood to make more than $100 million if the deal went through. A contingent of older partners was very interested in selling the firm. If the firm went public the amount they would take out upon retirement would be two or three times larger than what they would receive if the firm's structure remained unchanged. With Wall Street approaching its peak, for some aging partners with high percentages this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cash out. They were determined not to let it pass.
The night before Saturday morning's presentation the worldwide investment banking division held its annual dinner, a celebration of the year's achievements and for the division one of the biggest events of the year. Since rumors had been circulating about the nature of the following morning's meeting, the new banking partners found themselves besieged by those just under the partnership level. There was little support from the troops for going public, and the newest partners came under heavy pressure to vote against the proposal. All the vice-presidents in the room wanted their shot in the coming years, and they let their recently elevated colleagues know it.
Saturday's meeting lasted all day and was adjourned without a decision. Partners were told to disperse, meet among themselves, and carefully consider the weighty issue before them. At the partners' annual dinner dance held at Sotheby's auction house Saturday evening, there was one issue on everyone's mind. Each partner was engaged in a balancing act, an internal struggle to weigh the different factors that would affect his vote. Personally most partners wished the firm to remain a partnership; yet a judgment needed to be made as to whether the firm required a larger and more stable capital base in the near future. And then there was raw self-interest, a very personal calculation of the optimal way to enhance one's wealth. The group was to meet again on Sunday, and a decision would be made.
Without its partnership Goldman Sachs would take the first step toward becoming indistinguishable from every other firm on Wall Street. Instantly the firm would lose its ability to focus on the long term, as quarterly reporting requirements and the demands of outside stockholders would have to be reckoned with. Goldman Sachs's success in attracting and holding onto some of the most talented people in the industry might also be diminished. Without the incentive of partnership to offer young MBAs, the firm might no longer be able to pick from the absolute cream of the crop. The partnership gave Goldman Sachs a very real edge in recruiting, and the motivation it provided was unmatched at public companies. People stayed at the firm, despite being bombarded by lucrative offers from competitors, often with stock options attached, hoping one day to receive an offer of a partnership. Most partners feared that as a public corporation Goldman Sachs would find it difficult to maintain its special culture. Concern ran high that the emphasis on teamwork, low staff turnover, and an unswerving focus on clients might all come under attack if the firm was forced to meet short-term economic targets. Finally, the family feeling and collegial atmosphere might be threatened by the more formal management structure required of a public corporation.
On Sunday morning some members of the class of 1986 met to discuss the issues among themselves. Although out of strict economic self-interest they were all opposed to the management committee's proposal, they felt a weighty responsibility to do what was right for the firm. After some discussion, the presentation by the management committee was deemed to be unconvincing, and there was talk of the group voting against the proposal as a block. Their numbers and the forcefulness of their opposition could assure the motion's failure. But when the group began preparing a formal presentation outlining its disagreement with the plan, Steve Friedman joined them. Many remember that he was angry, and he made it clear that there would be no block voting; this was a matter for consideration by the entire partnership, not for any interest group to decide. Each partner was to represent his own views and those alone. One member of the group stood up to defend the gathering, telling Friedman that he would have been proud of them, as the discussion had focused on the interests of the firm as a whole. Some of the new partners described this dressing-down as frightening -- after all, members of the management committee like Friedman determined partnership stakes, promotions, responsibilities, and virtually every aspect of their partnership careers, now only six days old.
When the partners filed back into the second-floor meeting room, most still believed that there would be a vote. The management committee, and Friedman and Rubin in particular, had expressed their strong support for the idea of going public but had never forcefully pushed the idea. This contrasted sharply with the way other partnerships had gone about selling their firms to larger corporations or the investing public. When Salomon Brothers had sold itself to commodities trading giant Philip Brothers Corporation five years earlier, Salomon's executive committee had presented the idea to the partnership as a fait accompli. There were speeches by those in power and a question period for the partnership that lasted one hour. Those on the executive committee had the power to vote the merger into place on their own, and consulting the general partnership was a formality. Unlike Goldman Sachs's two days of soul searching, the Salomon Brothers meeting, which began in the evening, was so short that it left plenty of time for a celebratory dinner that same night. At no point did those Goldman Sachs partners listening to the management committee's presentation feel that the issue was being railroaded. Rubin and Friedman wisely stepped back and listened.
They got an earful. Two of Sidney Weinberg's sons were in the room that day. John, the younger of the two, was seated silently on the stage, while his brother, Sidney Weinberg Jr., known to everyone as Jimmy, was in the audience. In 1967, Jimmy had come to his father's firm in mid-career, after years with Owens Corning, to head up Investment Banking Services (IBS), the new business development arm of the investment banking division. IBS was set up to carry on the work of Sidney Weinberg, and it was fitting that his eldest son was at the helm. Now Jimmy felt he needed to have his say. When he stood up to speak, his authority far outstripped his position. Jimmy told the group the proposal made no sense. Goldman Sachs had a heritage, and he was on the side of preserving it. He reminded the partners of their stewardship, of their responsibility to the next generation. He would feel uncomfortable reading about the partners in the newspapers, of having the details of their financial situation made available for public consumption. People stared in amazement: On the face of it the issue seemed to have pitted brother against brother. But after Jimmy spoke, it was all over. No vote was ever taken.
Geoffrey Boisi, the head of investment banking who would soon be seated on the management committee, summed up the events of the day. "We were not psychologically ready to be a public company," he says, "with all that it entailed. I found it ironical, being an adviser to corporate clients on equity offerings, our own blindness to what the impact was going to be on our own culture." Staying private cost some of the more senior partners tens of millions of dollars, and they accepted the decision with a note of regret. Others were relieved. No amount of money would compensate for the loss of the private firm to which they felt such dedication.
Many believe the proposal was doomed from the start, precisely because of John Weinberg's lack of enthusiasm for it. Despite the fact that Friedman and Rubin were managing much of the firm's day-to-day operation by the end of 1986, Weinberg's moral hold on Goldman Sachs was undiminished and his leadership absolute. Culture at Goldman Sachs was passed from one generation to the next and John along with his father Sidney had been the firm's two greatest culture carriers. Partners trusted Weinberg's motives completely; as Boisi said, "You always knew he would ultimately do the right thing." The proposal was too radical to embrace without Weinberg's unqualified commitment to it. In the assessment of one partner, Weinberg was either very brave or very smart -- brave enough to take a risk that the firm would go public or smart enough to know it would fail to do so.
The partnership would remain in place, and the question of capital was left unanswered. The management committee had been both correct and incorrect in its assessment. The firm would require additional capital to pursue the expansion plans of its new leaders, but the capital did not need to come from public sources. In time a Hawaiian educational trust, Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, and a group of private insurers would be willing to join Sumitomo in investing in the firm without receiving any management or policy control. Jon Corzine, a former co-chief executive, explains the miscalculation: "The two things we didn't fully consider were that we could bring in outside capital in a private format, and [that] if we performed well financially, we could retain significant capital. In any event, this firm always underestimates where it has the potential to earn. If there is a recurring theme in our thought process, it is that Goldman Sachs underpromises and overdelivers to itself."
Private capital would not come cheaply. In exchange for total managerial autonomy, over the next ten years Goldman Sachs's partners would cobble together a complex and costly capital structure. Through a combination of outside equity investors, limited partners, and employee investments, the firm would remain private but with a cost of capital in excess of what it would have had as a public institution. General partners -- those actually running the firm and working for it -- would find their stake of the firm's capital diminished over the period. In 1986, before the Sumitomo injection, general partners owned more than 80 percent of the firm's equity (with retired partners holding the remainder); by 1994 they owned less than one-third, although they were entitled to the vast majority of the firm's profits.
There is widespread disagreement about the effects of the December 1986 meeting. Many were elated, and more than one partner has said it was the moment he was most proud to be a partner of Goldman Sachs. A few, however, felt irreparable damage had been done, as personal greed bubbled up and open breaches between partners were aired. Yet the partners had not been asked to rubber-stamp a decision handed down from above. The senior management, as powerful as it was, had listened. For most present, a feeling of true partnership permeated the place; the partnership had reaffirmed its commitment to itself and everyone was on board.
Jon Corzine argues that much was accomplished at the two-day meeting. "I think there was something pivotal about 1986," he said in 1997. "I think the firm decided that it wanted to be a great global firm. And particularly in the post-Whitehead era, I think we reconfirmed that we believed in the global business strategy. We rejected the boutique alternative. The instincts of the organization were that, without knowing how we would be able to get the capital, there was a leap of faith that we could achieve our goals. I think it was instinctive, not a studied decision." There was an alternative route. The firm could easily have decided to cut back, particularly in its capital-intensive trading businesses, or put in place less aggressive expansion plans. These options were rejected.
In 1986 the plans for international expansion were still mostly just talk. The firm had a few foreign offices, one each in Switzerland, Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong. They were small and relatively unimportant. In the London outpost, a few hundred bankers, traders, and support staff labored in a rundown, unair-conditioned setting on one floor of an office building. The Tokyo office consisted of a few people in search of a banking license and a seat on the Tokyo stock exchange. Zurich was still a representative office designed to service a cadre of rich individuals with interest in U.S. investments. The firm's position in international investment banking was far from established; it ranked an unimpressive twenty-fourth in managing international bond issues outside the United States. But this was only the beginning.
Thus the decision was made to expand rapidly as a private company, to travel a different road from the rest of the industry, and few partners, past or present, many of them now managing directors at publicly traded investment banks, have suggested that a public company is a superior model for managing an investment bank. The partnership is universally credited with maintaining and nurturing Goldman Sachs's unique culture, which allowed the firm to attract and keep its most talented people.
Under Weinberg's direction, Friedman and Rubin set themselves the challenge of building the premier investment banking firm that would dominate every aspect of the business. It would be an astounding feat, one that no firm had ever achieved before. In 1986 there were many investment banks in contention for the top spot, and the outcome of the race was far from assured. If Rubin and Friedman failed, the critics would argue that the firm should have concentrated its resources, capital and human, on a few choice businesses and shared the risk with stockholders. If they succeeded the rewards would be unimaginable.
On the afternoon of December 7, partners streamed out of the meeting with the sense that the discussion had just begun. Further study would be needed; other avenues for seeking capital would be explored. As one partner said, it was like reaffirming one's vows, and the effect trickled down. The following day at the regular Monday morning meeting of the investment banking department, partners spoke to those assembled, rising to say how proud they were to be associated with the firm. "Those were some of the best years I ever spent here," said a partner still with Goldman Sachs, "in part because the whole place was uplifted with the rededication."
Twelve years later the partnership would, for what it believed to be the final time, face this nettlesome issue; it would, after much deliberation, decide to go forward with a public offering. By then the firm would have doubled in size, its capital grown fivefold, and its businesses would truly span the globe. But in 1986 there was little support for such a move, and while the management committee would regularly consider proposals for a sale, the partnership would not revisit the issue for a decade.
The firm faced its moment of decision in 1986 just as it reached the top tier of investment banks. Goldman Sachs had struggled for decades to rise above its competitors on the second and third rungs of investment banking, and by the 1980s it had achieved this goal through strict adherence to the firm's core values. Sidney Weinberg had lived them, senior partner Gus Levy had followed them, and Levy's successors, John Weinberg and John Whitehead, practiced and later codified them. Goldman Sachs believed in and observed the religion of client service, and its focus remained steadfastly on the long term. Simple as it sounds, the firm's success can be traced to its iron grip on these two values, along with the incentive structure created by its partnership.
"Close client contacts gave Goldman Sachs proprietary information which in turn allowed the firm to tailor products and services which would then earn them a premium," said Peter Mathias, a former vice-president in the area of professional training and development. Even today, as many of the businesses the firm is involved in have become driven by competitive pricing rather than personal relationships, Goldman Sachs maintains exceedingly close client relations. This enables the firm to respond quickly to changing client needs and stay abreast of the deluge of innovations generated in the financial industry. As Stephen Friedman says, not everyone can be the first with a new idea, but there is no excuse for not copying a good idea quickly.
Through its strong client focus Goldman Sachs has been able to control egos and monitor arrogance. The client, not the salesman, banker, or trader, is the focus of any transaction. The banker is there to do his client's bidding. When John Weinberg was running Goldman Sachs he would quickly put new salespeople in their place with words some still remember: Clients are simply in your custody. Someone before you established the relationship and someone after you will carry it on. Weinberg, a man who walks the talk, brought in some of the firm's most important clients and retained key client responsibilities during the fourteen years he ran the firm. Weinberg, like his successors, believed that Goldman Sachs existed to serve its clients, and that not even the senior partner is exempt from this responsibility.
"Ego," Friedman once said, "was the seminal sin of the eighties on Wall Street." During his long tenure in the financial world, Friedman has watched dozens of his competitors' businesses killed by hubris born of success rather than by unsound business decisions or adverse market conditions. "If you are willing to turn down money and you keep your ego under control," says Friedman, "you can save yourself a lot of heartache in this business."
Greed, the second deadly killer on Wall Street, is best contained by focusing attention on the business five years hence rather than on the size of this year's Christmas bonus. Gus Levy's maxim -- "Greedy, but long-term greedy" -- became the firm's watchword. Partners reinvested almost all their earnings in the firm, so the focus was always on the future. Huge investments were made in new product lines and foreign offices years before the revenue stream to support them materialized. In the mid-1980s, long before the first American investment bank played a major role in a British acquisition, Goldman Sachs sent merger specialists to its tiny London office. Forced to justify their expensive expatriate existence, they cold-called clients and built a business from the ground up. No competitor has been able to seriously challenge the firm's early lead in the mergers and acquisitions business in the U.K.
John Weinberg never lost sight of the long-term interests of Goldman Sachs, even when it hurt. In the weeks following the stock market crash of October 1987, Goldman Sachs was staring at a $100 million loss on a single underwriting. Along with the other members of a syndicate, Goldman Sachs had agreed to underwrite the sale of 32 percent of state-owned British Petroleum for Her Majesty's government. When the U.S. stock market gapped down 22 percent in a single day, taking the world's stock markets with it, some of the other American underwriters got nervous and instructed their lawyers to review their commitments to see if there was a legal method for reducing their exposure. Weinberg never flinched. At a meeting of the syndicate members held to discuss their plight, Weinberg spoke forcefully to his fellow bankers, "Gentlemen, Goldman Sachs is going to do this. It is expensive and painful but we are going to do it. Because if we don't do it, those of you who decide not to do it, I just want to tell you, you won't be underwriting a goat house. Not even an outhouse." To Weinberg, even at $100 million (approximately 20 percent of the firm's 1986 earnings), it was an open-and-shut case. "I considered it a trading loss," he said, "but it was something that had to be done. If we were to stay in the business we had to do it." Other firms, like Morgan Stanley, withdrew for a time from the privatization business in Europe because of this unprofitable affair, allowing Goldman Sachs to garner an ever bigger market share.
By the mid-1980s, Goldman Sachs's dual strategy of focusing on clients and the long term was an unqualified success. The firm's capital, a modest $200 million in 1980, had grown to $1 billion in only six years, virtually all through retained earnings. During this period, the firm's return on equity reached as high as 80 percent, far outstripping the industry norm. In 1985 the largest U.S. investment bank, Merrill Lynch, had a return on equity of only 10 percent, while the more competitive Morgan Stanley earned 34 percent. At this point all of Goldman Sachs's capital was owned by its active and retired partners, for whom there were few better investments on earth.
As competitors folded or merged into vast corporate entities, Goldman Sachs found itself with the oldest major investment banking franchise in the United States. While useful in reminding clients of the firm's stability, the true value of this franchise lay in the length and depth of many of the firm's corporate relationships. Some of its relationships, like those with Sears, Goodrich, and General Foods, were now entering their seventh, and in some cases their eighth, decade. They had been nurtured by generations of bankers and handed down almost like family heirlooms. Devotion to the firm's clients, new and old, was considered inviolate and formed the bedrock on which the firm's investment banking division sat.
The firm's client list had not always been top tier, but three decades of intensive marketing to often uninterested prospective clients had shown results. In the biggest deals of 1986, the firm had helped General Electric purchase RCA and the British government sell British Gas to the investing public. Ford and Unilever had come to Goldman Sachs for advice that year, and the firm counted Monsanto, R. H. Macy's, and Procter & Gamble among its best clients.
The love affair with hostile takeovers that gripped corporate America in the 1980s drove many frightened targets into Goldman Sachs's experienced and unthreatening arms. The firm set itself apart from the rest of the industry by steadfastly refusing to represent any company undertaking a hostile raid. As a result, it often found the victims of such raids banging on its door for cover. Every senior partner had believed that representing hostile raiders would be bad for business -- the company being raided today might have been a client in the past or could become one in the future. While some competitors considered the firm's position sanctimonious, corporate chairmen trusted Goldman Sachs not to turn on them, and the policy was a boon to business.
Ultimately, the firm's high level of performance has been due to the singular dedication of its employees, most of whom believe that one day they might become partners. Steve Friedman has summed up the value of ownership by saying, "No one ever washes a rental car." The dream of partnership has served as an unmatched source of inspiration and a great lure for attracting the best people. When graduates of top M.B.A. programs in the 1980s and 1990s compared the relative prestige and long-term financial rewards of a Goldman Sachs partnership to a managing director position at one of the other top investment banking corporations, Goldman Sachs fared well. As a public company, loyalty and performance would have to be purchased the more conventional way, with stock options and each year's bonus.
The firm's culture, the sum of its shared beliefs, is legendary on Wall Street. This more than anything else sets Goldman Sachs apart from its competitors. Widely envied and copied, the firm is sometimes vilified for being too conformist. Yet there can be little doubt that the firm's culture has worked to remarkable effect. "The firm is run like fifty to sixty small businesses, and they have the latitude to do what they want," explained one current partner. "The way you gain prestige in the organization is from the success of your business. The economic and cultural interest is to cooperate." While other firms urge departments to work closely together, at Goldman Sachs the economics of the partnership inextricably tied the partners' fortunes together, cementing that which the culture encouraged. The interests of the partners, while diverging on some matters, were entirely coincident on the issue of profitability. There was one pot from which all partners drew their income. Partners' compensation was by and large tied to the overall profitability of the firm (individual share holdings were reallocated every two years, but in any given year, the percentages already set, a partner's compensation was a direct function of the whole firm's profitability). This contrasted with other organizations where managing directors can be well paid in a single profitable department while the remainder of the firm is performing poorly.
Culture is taken very seriously at Goldman Sachs. It begins in the recruitment process, long before a formal offer is extended. Brains are not enough. The first couple of interviews determine whether a candidate meets the firm's intellectual standards; the remainder, where far more candidates stumble, are used to determine "fit." It is a grueling process that tests endurance as well as aptitude. Those candidates who do not evince a scorching ambition, total commitment, and an inclination for teamwork are quickly weeded out.
In the 1980s each successful candidate endured long interviews with at least twenty vice-presidents and partners. Interviewers were drawn from all ranks of the firm, with Weinberg conducting more than his share. For years the culture thrived in part because the firm grew its own talent. Associates were recruited directly from the very top business schools rather than from competitors. Some candidates found this process repugnant, preferring more eclectic cultures where individual performance was applauded and assimilation was less important. But fitting into the firm's culture is essential at Goldman Sachs, and rugged individualism has no place. The message is sent down by example from the top. Geoffrey Boisi says, "If you can't sublimate your ego or work with others, you have a problem."
For many years the firm eschewed Wall Street's prevailing "star" system, under which a small cadre of very profitable bankers and traders was compensated well out of proportion to the rest of the organization. As the high-profile mergers of the day become front-page news during the 1980s, the men who put those deals together became public personalities and gave Wall Street a glamour it had not had since the 1920s. For many years Goldman Sachs resisted this trend, and those interested in personal glory were urged to find employment elsewhere. "If you say 'I,' you are being abrasive," explained one thirty-three-year veteran partner of the firm. Janet Tiebout Hanson went to college with John Whitehead's daughter and several years later was fortunate enough to land a fixed income sales position immediately after graduating Columbia Business School. She was determined to make her mark at the firm. "I had the great fortune of testing out a lot of things on John Whitehead in my first year," she says. "I kept sending him copies of my trades, these ridiculous little trades. I would sell somebody $20,000 worth of three-money treasury bills, which made the firm nothing, and I would Xerox a copy of the ticket and write across it, 'I did this trade.' When John finally called me one day, he said, 'Janet, at Goldman Sachs we say "we," we never say "I"' -- and he hung up. I never forgot that."
For most of the firm's history, morale was high and turnover low. Between 1930 and 1990 Goldman Sachs underwent only two transitions at the senior partner level. Staff turnover in the mid-1980s was 3 percent, substantially below the industry average. This remarkable stability was invaluable in nurturing and maintaining client relationships and raising the level of trust and comfort among the partners and their employees. As of 1986, partners had left to serve in the government, to build their own homes, or to try their hand in academia -- but none had shown up in a comparable position on Wall Street.
"You cannot just be an employee of Goldman Sachs," as one former human resources vice-president explained. "The firm demands that you be a contributor. No one can survive as just an employee." There is a single-mindedness that absorbs almost every employee from the moment he or she walks through the door. Total commitment to the firm is expected. It is this atmosphere that has challenged everyone who worked there and allowed people to give the performance of their lives. The message given to young employees from the very highest reaches of the firm is explicit: The firm is special, and you are special or you would not be here. In your career you will achieve great things. Teamwork, all employees are made to understand, will be rewarded in full. For many years this was done informally, but in the mid-1980s cooperation with other departments was included in formal performance evaluations used to determine compensation. Simply doing the job you were hired to do is not enough.
"People just got it," recounts a former vice-president who left for a major competitor. "Things got done two and a half times faster than anyplace else." Business conversations start at an unusually high level; the intellectual buzz is almost audible. Ancillary functions, often staffed at other firms by second-rate employees, are considered vital parts of Goldman Sachs, and a conscious decision was made to staff them with people of the same educational background and training as the revenue-generating departments. The legal, accounting, and compliance divisions view their role as facilitating business, not forestalling action. Their focus is commercial: to find the legal, acceptable way of transacting a deal. An idea hatched on a Friday afternoon by a group of traders sitting around a bag of microwave popcorn might lead to an early morning meeting on Saturday; the lawyers and accountants would check all the angles on Sunday, and by Monday morning the salesman would be ready to put a new idea before the client. It is a fast-moving organization stripped of as much bureaucracy as possible.
Partners own and run the company, so management is up close and personal. They sit on the trading desks, work on the deals, and labor as hard as or harder than their staff. Their focus is unmatched, their commitment unfettered. When the man whose millions are at risk is sitting five feet away, it focuses the mind. What greater motivation could an employee have? A simple "How's it going?" to a trader who is losing money can feel like the grand inquisition. There can be little doubt that the owner-manager role keeps everyone on track. Goldman Sachs's competitors, who had previously relegated ownership to a larger corporation or stockholders, spent the 1980s trying to recreate the partnership atmosphere. Employee stock ownership programs, bonuses tied to the firm's return on equity, and other incentive programs were tinkered with. John Gutfreund, then head of Salomon Brothers, viewed this as one of his own firm's weaknesses and tried to increase employee ownership of its publicly traded stock, believing that this would enhance collegiality and camaraderie. "Then there will be a community of interest that will change the interpersonal relationships again," he said. "Now they are dealing with other people's money most of the time. There's no relationship between them and the capital other than the fact that they have the use of a great amount of it."
Goldman Sachs's management structure was horizontal and the style loose. Usually there have been no more than two layers to the top, and the organization plan could best be described as fluid. An organizational chart of the firm, drawn for Rubin in 1986, shows a circle with the management committee in the center and the operational divisions around the circle. Each management committee member was in the center and in a producing circle, representing their dual roles. This was a far cry from the steep pyramids that depict most large banking organizations, where those at the top operate as full-time managers.
Goldman Sachs's partners grew up together. Their paths had crossed many times over their years as associates and vice-presidents, so by the time partnership came around very few were strangers. This engendered trust, which was essential, since to run their businesses partners must dip into each other's bank accounts every day. Most crucially, management did not need to closely monitor the staff -- the culture did it for them.
One of the most visible manifestations of the firm's culture is its emphasis on understatement. Bob Rubin carried a battered briefcase worthy of a law student on a tight budget; another veteran partner, Mark Winkelman, regularly rode the subway. Men of great wealth, the partners of Goldman Sachs deliberately discouraged its overt trappings even as the ostentatious 1980s descended, believing money is for bank accounts, not for flashing about. When a young trader at the firm was quoted in the New York Times
in April 1986 as saying, "There isn't anything I see in a store that I can't buy," the entire firm cringed.
Goldman Sachs's main office, three blocks south of Wall Street, is a monument to understatement. Built by the firm in 1983, the thirty-story concrete building gives nothing away. Like private English banks or the legendary headquarters of J. P. Morgan at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, the Goldman Sachs name does not appear on the front of its world headquarters. The sign above the door simply reads "85." Even the passes issued by security guards on the ground floor do not bear the firm's name, just the word "visitor." The cavernous, two-story lobby with brick floors and unadorned, unpolished marble walls has a cold, impersonal feeling. The firm's austere logo, a box around the words Goldman Sachs, is nowhere to be found -- there are no raging bulls here, no protective red umbrellas.
The building straddles Stone Street, blocking off traffic on both sides. Archeological excavations around the perimeter of the site undertaken during construction can be seen clearly; looking through the transparent floor one can see the vestiges of Governor Lovelace's seventeenth-century tavern and the remains of an eighteenth-century cistern. Inside the building, the wooden and brass elevators open on each floor onto unprepossessing dark wood-paneled reception areas with overstuffed camelback sofas, along with a chair or two. The firm's traditional decor has a timeless quality and has remained untouched for a decade and a half; there is nothing new or flashy here. Rubin would sometimes joke about the opulent settings of the firm's competitors. When he and Friedman, as co-senior partners, visited their counterparts at the large commercial banks, Rubin would glance around the spacious waiting room outside the CEO's office, with its valuable art and oriental rugs, and ask if Friedman thought they could squeeze a whole trading floor into the space. The emphasis at Goldman Sachs is on creating wealth rather than displaying it. There is nothing to betray that this is the center of one of America's wealthiest companies and the workplace of some of its richest men and women. Discretion is everything.
Even the partners' dining room, in many firms a small elegant restaurant, is little more than an upscale cafeteria. The emphasis is on simple healthy food; alcohol, let alone vintage wines or fine liqueurs, is rarely present at lunch. The views of New York's harbor from the dining room's thirtieth-floor location are the only spectacular thing about one of the most exclusive eating spots in the world. Underneath the Limoges china, Frette linens, and Christofle silver, some of the tables are chipped or peeling, and the battered walls need a new coat of paint. Speakerphones and soundproof ceiling tiles reinforce that this is a place built for work rather than relaxation. The employees' cafeteria is underground, in a room without windows.
In stark contrast to the otherwise somber surroundings is the firm's unusual art collection. Adorning the unremarkable offices, and all the more striking for it, is an eclectic selection of American art and artifacts that includes enormous weathervanes, daguerreotypes, bright modern paintings, and a wide variety of patchwork quilts. There is also an occasional kimono. In one reception area hang the wrought-iron gates from a nineteenth-century elevator. The criteria for this collection was only that it be interesting and inexpensive.
While Salomon Brothers drew up plans for a palatial tower overlooking Central Park in 1986, and Drexel Burnham Lambert moved its most profitable traders to their own offices in Beverly Hills, Goldman Sachs squeezed more staff into a smaller space. Instead of buying more real estate and calling in the architects, when the firm's New York headquarters became crowded, management initiated a "space optimization" program. As soon as Steve Friedman discovered the cost savings of having the staff sit closer together he quickly had the extra chair removed from each cubicle, saying it had been used only as a place to set folders and hang raincoats. He estimated that reducing the size of the staff's workspace had saved the firm at least $50 million annually, and he bragged about the cost savings inside the firm and to the press.
Every Goldman Sachs office, whether in London or Tokyo, looks almost exactly alike. The same long, dark wood trading desks and the same ergonomically correct chairs are imported into any location where the firm sets up shop. Partners' offices, slightly down at the heels and showing their age, reveal remarkably few splashes of personality. A mild shabbiness seems to be almost a status symbol. If all the firm's partners were told they had to change offices in ten minutes, most could easily pick up their tastefully framed family photos and a few souvenirs of past accomplishments (mostly newspaper announcements of successful deals, sealed in Lucite), grab their papers and floppy discs, take their jackets off the back of the door, and go. Goldman Sachs partners sometimes have been characterized in the press as "the men in the gray suits," as wholly lacking the high-profile public personalities of some of their competitors.
Goldman Sachs's culture is not without its detractors. Many have argued that the collective focus has quashed innovation and original thought. As one partner summed it up, "We wouldn't be the ones to figure out how you make money in Japanese equity warrants," one of the most profitable businesses of the early 1990s. Friedman, one of those whose goal was to increase the firm's receptivity to new ideas, acknowledges that in the 1980s innovation was a weak point for the firm. "Why should Goldman Sachs have been so much later than other firms in getting into derivatives? Why should we have been so much later than Salomon in getting into the mortgage business or in developing a capital markets group?" he asked in 1997. Goldman Sachs set the standard, but it did not set the pace. Even admiring competitors remarked on the firm's lack of creativity: "I love competing against Goldman because it's like going against Ohio State [in football]," says one Morgan Stanley banker. "They're predictable, they're not adaptable, and they're very, very good. You know it's going to be a hard contest, but you know how to compete against them."
Over the years, the unwillingness to create stars and to compensate extraordinary contributions financially has driven out some of the firm's entrepreneurial talent; some of these men have shown astounding creativity and enjoyed successful, headline-generating careers elsewhere. While the firm made a big push to increase its creativity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was fighting the weight of its own culture. As one former vice-president says, "I never got the sense even to the last day I was at Goldman Sachs that they really wanted you to be extremely creative. What they wanted you to do was do the ordinary things extraordinarily well." Others strongly disagree, claiming that by the mid-1990s the firm had a well-deserved reputation for creativity and innovation.
The interviewing process has been criticized for producing clones -- bright, loyal foot soldiers with sharp minds and conformist natures. One partner who disagrees explains that the all-important interview process was seeking candidates with "brains, humor, motivation, a sort of restrained audacity, confidence, and maturity." One overzealous interviewer, however, asked Stanford female undergraduates whether they would advise a friend to have an abortion in order to save her career. The interviewer received a stiff reprimand, but the point had been made that one was expected to make sacrifices for a Goldman Sachs career.
Flashes of individuality have been tolerated in very brilliant or highly profitable employees but frowned upon in the masses of those who have been merely extremely bright. One trader who had made more than $50 million for the firm in his first year regularly appeared at the office in jeans and cowboy boots. When he began to lose money, he was asked to put on a suit.
Collegiality, one of the firm's greatest strengths, was taken to such an extreme within the partnership that even in 1994, when it was clear that risk management in some areas of the firm had developed problems, many partners felt unable to comment. When one young trading partner asked a member of the management committee who he knew was critical of what was happening why he did not speak out, the older partner reminded him that partners live in glass houses; if he were critical at this juncture what would happen to him when his businesses hit a rough patch?
By the late 1980s there was some recognition at the top that in fact the culture of the firm was changing. The number of employees had tripled from 2,000 in 1980 to 6,000 in 1986, creating enormous strains on the informal process of acculturation. It was increasingly difficult to create the same sense of belonging in an organization in which half the people had been there for less than two years. One member of the management committee, recognizing the problem, said at the time, "Everyone is uncomfortable with the rate of growth. We all feel that if we don't keep expanding, we'll lose our position. But if we keep growing at a certain rate, we'll lose control." A confidential study that consulted members of the management committee and other long-serving partners was commissioned by the firm in 1988 and revealed some of the partners' concerns. (The report was excerpted in the New York Times.
The firm has declined to release its entire contents, which presumably paint a broader and much more flattering picture. Goldman Sachs spokesmen have protested that the version of the study leaked to the newspaper was only a preliminary brainstorming effort, and that the comments were taken out of context -- the study itself was, they say, overwhelmingly positive -- but have never said that the quotations that appeared were inaccurate.) As one of the rare unguarded glimpses into some of the partners' true thinking, it provides insight into cultural issues at the time:
- "We've seen a lot of change within the firm -- growth, international business, bringing in people from the outside, etc. It's brought a lot of things with it. Things like more backbiting, comments made about other people and other activities, and they affect what it's like to work here."
- "We get people who are excellent when they get here. They do however have an inflated sense of self and an enormous need for recognition."
- "Goldman Sachs used to be paternalistic. Now we're more businesslike. We've become tougher in a more competitive world. Some would even say we've become ruthless."
- "In the old days, when you became a partner, you would feel free to give your wallet to another partner to hold for safekeeping. I do not think it is that way today."
- "The vision of the future is as a public company."
Many believe that Goldman Sachs's future rests squarely on its culture. Bill Buckley has been with the firm for twenty-two years and is now a managing director, and co-head of Private Client Services (PCS). For years this department has been the closest thing Goldman Sachs has had to a retail business, one that served high-net-worth individuals rather than institutions. Buckley feels that culture has been and will be the key. "Our firm's culture is the most sustainable competitive advantage that we have," he says.
I also believe that we have the best people, but the magic is in the combination of outstanding people and a strong culture. This means that, through PCS, our clients are working with professionals who prefer to work in teams and are connected to many others throughout the firm. For example, a PCS representative may be up at midnight calling a colleague halfway around the world to check on an opportunity for a client. As a result, our clients have all of Goldman Sachs working for them. It's very hard to maintain a special culture, but if we can, I really think that we will be ahead of everybody else. Not only will clients get the best service, but we will achieve a superior market share. Goldman Sachs's culture was something we were always proud of, but ironically it is even more of a tangible competitive advantage today. I am convinced of that.
The firm's culture was nurtured by its partnership and sustained by the incentive structure created by its owner-managers. It would be impossible for it to remain the same if Goldman Sachs transformed itself into a public corporation.
"Nineteen eighty-six," Institutional Investor
magazine proclaimed, "was the year they sold Wall Street." During the five preceding years John Weinberg had watched his major competitors incorporate, merge, or simply cease to exist. It began when Salomon Brothers sold itself to Philip Brothers in 1981. The trading muscle and formidable capital of the combined operation proved matchless. The Salomon Brothers partners became multimillionaires, and their firm, by the mid-1980s, went from strength to strength. This turn of events was not lost on the partners of Goldman Sachs just across the street. Then Lehman Brothers sold itself to Shearson American Express in 1984. In 1986, Kidder Peabody was acquired by conglomerate General Electric, and in 1981, Dean Witter was acquired by Sears. Bear Stearns went public in 1985. While all of these mergers looked as though they would create daunting competitors, most would in time encounter difficulties and would ultimately unravel.
The biggest blow to Goldman Sachs's existence as a private partnership came when archrival Morgan Stanley sold itself in 1986 to the public for 2.76 times book value. In an initial public offering worth $254 million (20 percent of the firm was sold), Morgan Stanley partners became managing directors, personally enriching themselves in the process. While First Boston and Merrill Lynch were becoming more formidable rivals, for the bankers at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley was the competition, the firm most admired and feared. Morgan Stanley's partners decided to sell because they believed the firm could no longer operate as a partnership as it ventured into riskier businesses like leveraged buyouts and merchant banking. Many at Goldman Sachs grew concerned that Morgan Stanley would pull away in the race for the top, that its new access to capital would translate into access to opportunity.
Goldman Sachs, too, sold a bit of itself in 1986. The roots of the transaction took hold the year before when one morning a man who refused to identify himself telephoned Ann Ericson, John Weinberg's secretary. Would Mr. Weinberg, he asked, be in the office on a Tuesday, three weeks hence? Unable to confirm Weinberg's schedule, Ericson said she did not know, and the caller, without leaving a name or identifying trace, said he would ring back. Two weeks later the same unidentified caller contacted Ericson to confirm the date, and this time she indicated that Weinberg would be in the office. When the appointed day arrived two Japanese men, a speaker and his interpreter, appeared in Weinberg's office. The man who spoke only Japanese identified himself through his assistant: I am the president of Sumitomo Bank, Koh Komatsu told Weinberg. I came here in disguise to see you. Komatsu had tried to hide his tracks. From Tokyo he flew to Seattle, Washington. There he changed planes for a flight to Washington, D.C. From Washington, he boarded the shuttle to La Guardia. He felt certain that he had made the journey undetected. Weinberg, surprised by this clandestine behavior, then told him that every banker and lawyer in the country goes back and forth from New York to Washington on the shuttle; it was hardly the place to hide.
Weinberg was baffled by the visit. He had no way of knowing that Sumitomo Bank had long been interested in gaining a toehold in the U.S. investment banking market and had been looking at Goldman Sachs. Sumitomo, at that time the world's third largest and Japan's most profitable bank, had hired top consulting firm McKinsey and Co. to advise them on the best way to enter the market. McKinsey had recommended an investment in Goldman Sachs as the ideal mechanism.
Never in its long history had Goldman Sachs taken outside equity. For Weinberg personally it would be a difficult decision. He had fought with the Marines in Japan during World War II and had helped liberate a prisoner-of-war camp shortly after the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Komatsu had been a naval officer, his destroyer sunk by American forces. Weinberg was at first unsure about the alliance, but in fairness to his partners he let the negotiations proceed.
As Weinberg listened to Komatsu's proposal he was amazed. The valuation given to Goldman Sachs by Sumitomo was far above the firm's own. Komatsu was offering cash, an equity injection, in return for a share of the profits. The deal was almost too good to be true. By offering to make a $500 million investment in exchange for 12.5 percent of the firm's profits, Sumitomo was implicitly valuing Goldman Sachs at $4 billion -- four times book value. Morgan Stanley had just floated itself at under three times book value, and other publicly traded investment banks were selling for less. The deal, it was stipulated, would be conducted in total secrecy, with Goldman Sachs acting as its own investment banker.
It was a big step, and Weinberg, ever cautious, proceeded slowly. Goldman Sachs had no urgent need for the capital and was in no rush. Sumitomo wanted to learn about American investment banking. Its plan was to send dozens of trainees to sit with Goldman Sachs employees and learn the business up close. The firm and the Federal Reserve balked; if the relationship was to be established it would have to be at arm's length. The Fed also decreed that Sumitomo's investment could not rise above 24.9 percent of the partners' capital. If Sumitomo invested in Goldman Sachs, it would be as a nonvoting limited partner. Weinberg set out to explain to the new investor why it was in Sumitomo's best interest for Goldman Sachs to remain entirely independent. "I'm not being tough," he said. "You're going to end up with an eighth of Goldman Sachs's equity. We have to be the master of our own destiny. It not only has to be that we are, but it has to be perceived that we are by the financial community. Because if we're not, we will lose our reputation, our clients, and our position in the investment banking industry." The Federal Reserve Bank approved the deal on the grounds that it was a passive investment, that Sumitomo would not gain any control over Goldman Sachs, and that the two firms would not work more closely together either by exchanging employees or by increasing the amount of business they did with each other. Both agreed to the terms the Federal Reserve stipulated, and the investment was made in fiscal year 1987. The firm never regretted the move; the relationship proved both pleasant and profitable.
Weinberg's confidence in the value of his firm came in part from its competitive position in 1986. While there can be little doubt that the firm was among the very best investment banks, its stature should not be overstated. The firm was sixth in the amount of corporate debt it underwrote in the United States in 1986, behind the perennial number one Salomon Brothers and the upstart Drexel, both of whom were more opportunistic and innovative. While Goldman Sachs was struggling to establish its fixed income business, Drexel and Salomon were making headlines. Both firms had pioneered major advances in fixed income products. Salomon Brothers had broken new ground when it packaged and securitized first home and later automobile loans. Drexel had done the same with low-grade corporate debt, known unflatteringly as junk bonds. By innovating and establishing an early presence, these two firms had been able to dominate large and highly profitable areas of bond trading. The rewards had been substantial. Both firms had iconoclastic, entrepreneurial cultures that allowed new ideas to develop and flourish. Both were willing to take risks with their capital, their franchises, and ultimately, in the case of Drexel, its good name in order to make a huge leap in profitability. Referring to the firm's massive fixed income business in 1986, one member of the management committee now concedes, "Soly was eating our lunch."
Salomon's presence in Tokyo dwarfed that of Goldman Sachs, and the firm found itself in the uncomfortable role of having to play catch up. Having teamed up with Credit Suisse, First Boston dominated the very visible and highly competitive Eurobond business in London while Goldman Sachs trailed far behind all of its major American and European competitors. The commercial banks were breathing hard down the necks of their investment banking brethren. Had they not become consumed with their own loan troubles, first in Latin America and later in domestic real estate, they would have become more formidable competitors earlier. While Goldman Sachs was in an extremely strong position in 1986, there were others who, if they had played their cards right, could have overtaken it.
Yet the firm's caution was not difficult to understand. By 1986 much of Goldman Sachs's competition was protected by the shield of incorporation, but a private partnership had no such defense. Junk bonds and bridge loans were not things you would want to buy with your own money. If the firm entered these businesses in any major way, the leadership believed that it was wise to share the risk with public stockholders. While the notion of becoming a public company was not received warmly by the partnership in 1986, Friedman told those gathered at the meeting that no responsible management could fail to look at it again -- it was an issue that was not going to go away.
Six weeks after the momentous meeting of December 1986, outside events intervened. The insider trading scandal slowly engulfing Wall Street had had little impact on the firm over the course of 1986. Even when Ivan Boesky, the best-known arbitrageur in the business, was arrested and pleaded guilty to insider trading, the firm was not overly concerned. Still, out of prudence, it began an internal investigation. Risk arbitrage was a business invented by Goldman Sachs, and the firm was one of its savviest practitioners. Goldman Sachs was naturally involved in many of the same deals as Boesky; if there was a problem the firm was determined to locate it. Months of dissecting mountains of complex paperwork revealed nothing, however, and as the year ended the partners felt Goldman Sachs had no role to play in the growing scandal. No one could guess that only weeks later one of the firm's own partners would be arrested. For years the case would consume the attention of top management. The notion of selling the firm would be shelved until Goldman Sachs cleared its name and restored its reputation -- a reputation that had first taken shape just four blocks north on Pine Street more than a century earlier.
Copyright © 1999 by Lisa J. Endlich