Goldman Sachs sets up likely heir apparent to CEO Lloyd Blankfein

Monday , March 12, 2018 - 2:20 PM

Jena McGregor

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Goldman Sachs named a clear front-runner Monday in the race for who will succeed the bank’s long-serving CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, announcing that David Solomon will become the firm’s sole president and chief operating officer and that its other co-COO and co-president, Harvey Schwartz, would retire next month.

The announcement did not offer details on the timing of Blankfein’s departure, but came just days after the Wall Street Journal reported that he could exit the firm as soon as year’s end. In a tweet Friday, Blankfein, who has led the Wall Street giant since 2006, said it was the newspaper’s, not his, as well as that “I feel like Huck Finn listening to his own eulogy.”

Analysts said the timing of the official announcement came as a surprise, but ended speculation that the bank could name two people to run the firm as co-CEOs or co-chairmen, which it has done in the past, and signaled to Wall Street that Solomon was the clear heir apparent. “A press release puts to bed the succession question in my view,” said Kenneth Leon, an equity analyst at CFRA.

It will also help squash the public parlor game over who will succeed Blankfein, which has drawn repeated headlines about the competition between Schwartz and Solomon.

“It was becoming a little too much like Washington, D.C., rather than Wall Street in how this contest was playing out, with one contender a black belt in karate and the other a D.J. in the Caribbean,” said Mike Mayo, an analyst at Wells Fargo who has a buy rating on Goldman’s shares, referring to Solomon’s hobby of spinning music under the name D.J. D-Sol in locations ranging from New York to the Bahamas. “It was overly public.”

Mayo said “no matter what the reason [for the timing], it’s a good move that the board made a decision and eliminated the uncertainty over CEO succession.”

The announcement also came less than a week after Blankfein’s prior deputy, former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn, quit his post as President Trump’s topeconomic adviser. When Cohn, who had previously been seen as Blankfein’s heir, decided to leave Goldman for the Trump administration, the firm named Schwartz and Cohn as his replacements in late 2016, setting up the recent race. A person familiar with the bank’s thinking said the board made a decision in late 2017 that either Solomon or Schwartz would be the successor and that the timing of the announcement to Cohn’s exit was coincidental.

In the bank’s statement, Blankfein thanked Schwartz for his work at the firm. Regarding Solomon, he said “I look forward to continuing to work closely with David in building our franchise around the world, serving our expanding client base and delivering strong returns for our shareholders.”

Mayo predicted that the CEO transition would happen next year, during Goldman Sachs’ 150th anniversary as a firm, when he said the firm should be better positioned for Blankfein to exit on top. The firm, Mayo said, has been particularly weak in its trading business and questions remain about its strategy to expand into consumer lending. Putting Solomon in the CEO seat suggests that his more client-facing background -- Solomon led the firm’s investment banking business for a decade, producing results Mayo said were “one of the best growth engines at Goldman Sachs” over the past 10 years -- is ascendant.

“You will have a banker at the top of Goldman Sachs, where it’s been a trader for the last 12 years,” he said, referring to Blankfein’s resume. Monday’s announcement suggested that “trading is still important but not as important at the top of the house.” Goldman’s shares were up more than 1 percent in afternoon trading.

Solomon, according to media reports, is described as an affable, strong manager who professionalized the firm’s investment banking unit and is known for his efforts to improve the working hours of its young employees and promote diversity and inclusion at the firm. In an interview during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference last October, where host Pattie Sellers called Solomon the firm’s “culture guy,” he said the firm had made progress on gender diversity in the firm’s ranks, “but we’ve still got a long way to go -- a long, long way to go.”

Clarity about a CEO’s succession is not only helpful for investors, said Noel Tichy, a professor of management at the University of Michigan, but for employees. “Getting political ambiguity out of the way is a good thing,” he said. “It creates all kinds of political coalitions. If employees don’t get the right answer from one, they can go and lobby the other. It’s not healthy for the organization.”


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