Unrest at Goldman challenges Solomon’s fragile peace

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Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon is facing a new wave of unrest inside the Wall Street bank, threatening a fragile peace among its partners.

Solomon’s decision to accept a 24 per cent pay rise last week despite presiding over the bank’s worst annual earnings for four years has proved controversial, as has the staffing of new committees within Goldman’s investment banking and trading division.

The departure of a longtime lieutenant, Jim Esposito, known for keeping competing power centres in check, has also allowed simmering tensions to boil over in Goldman’s London office.

“Everything begins with Jim’s departure. Jim kept it all tied together,” one Goldman banker based in Europe said.

The turmoil comes just as Solomon appeared to have strengthened his position after 12 months of critical coverage of his leadership style and as Goldman’s share price edges towards an all-time high.

In early February, Solomon presided over a partners’ meeting in Miami Beach where he was described as visibly more relaxed than at the same event a year ago, when he had told partners that the number of leaks to the media about Goldman was damaging to the bank.

“Solomon is clearly not going anywhere,” one person familiar with the recent partners meeting said in the wake of the event. “He feels like he has the support of the board.”

Line chart of Stock performance in pct showing Goldman has outperformed most banking peers during Solomon's time as CEO

Now, however, Goldman is facing resignation threats from several partners, having already seen some high-profile bankers leave.

Beth Hammack, co-head of the financing group and one of the most senior women at Goldman who sits on the group’s powerful management committee, is leaving after 30 years at the bank and less than three years after she was passed over for the chief financial officer job.

Goldman treasurer Philip Berlinski, who has been talked about as another potential CFO candidate, is also in talks about potentially leaving the bank, said people familiar with the matter.

The recent unrest is particularly acute in Europe, where two other partners — Mark Sorrell, co-head of global mergers and acquisitions, and Gonzalo Garcia, co-head of European investment banking — have both threatened to leave after being excluded from a new investment banking operating committee in favour of their co-heads.

“All the wheels fell off the bus [on Wednesday] for GS,” one London-based Goldman banker said, adding that the “fallout is pretty bad at the moment — again”.

Goldman’s global head of communications, Tony Fratto, said: “I appreciate the interest in breathless gossip but people at Goldman Sachs are a lot more focused on delivering for our clients than sitting on committees.”

Created with the goal of giving the next generation of leaders a greater say in how the businesses are run, the committees have instead had a polarising effect.

Insiders suggest the way in which committee roles were handed out is indicative of a wider issue of telling up and comers that they are the future of the bank but ultimately failing to deliver on promotions.

“It’s a lot of promises to too many people and they can’t follow through on everything,” said one former Goldman investment banker.

The abrupt exit of Esposito, announced last month, also upset the balance, said several Goldman bankers. Esposito, who was based in London, was one of three co-heads of the investment banking and trading division.

Sorrell, Garcia and Anthony Gutman — the other co-head of European investment banking — all ranked below Esposito. Of the three, only Gutman, a prolific UK dealmaker but one who some colleagues describe as a more divisive figure than the affable Garcia, was picked for a place on the operating committee.

Russell Horwitz, Goldman’s chief of staff, pushed back on the notion of unrest in the UK team, saying: “I was in London this past week meeting with dozens of partners and I found everyone to be focused and excited about the opportunities ahead for the firm.”

Several Goldman bankers have complained privately that the board’s decision to give Solomon a 24 per cent pay rise last week — a bigger uplift than most of the rank and file at the bank — was “tone deaf”.

Goldman’s board said it was rewarding Solomon for paring back a lossmaking push into retail banking, re-emphasising the group’s strategy around its core investment banking and trading business and expanding in asset and wealth management.

Investors have also largely welcomed Solomon’s stewardship of the bank. He has pushed to make Goldman operate more like the Fortune 50 company it has become, rather than a looser collection of different businesses operating with more autonomy that it was under his predecessor Lloyd Blankfein.

That effort has helped to boost the stock, which has outperformed most rival banks under his tenure except for Morgan Stanley.

But one of the Goldman bankers in Europe said: “The share price is not representative of the sentiment inside the bank.”

Any senior departures also free up slots in Goldman’s partner ranks, with new members selected every two years and the next class due to be picked later this year.

The unrest inside the group is being watched closely by its alumni. A former Goldman banker said the investment bank has struggled for years to maintain the culture — and pay — that once made it the envy of Wall Street.

According to people with direct knowledge of the matter, several current partners have approached former Goldman bankers who have either set up their own investment firms or moved to boutique advisory firms seeking new opportunities.

But the former banker added: “Solomon’s mandate is one and only one: keep the stock price going up. He’s been incredibly successful at doing that . . . If Sorrell or anybody else leaves it won’t really matter. That’s just the new reality.”

Additional reporting by Ortenca Aliaj and Antoine Gara

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