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Authors: Greg Smith

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Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story

BOOK: Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story
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To my mother

It was June 12, 2000, and I was sitting in a conference room at 125 Broad Street, thirty stories above Lower Manhattan. I was twenty-one years old, and it was the first day of my summer internship at Goldman Sachs. An intern named Josh was standing at the front of the room, red-faced, getting absolutely grilled. He was trying to explain risk arbitrage, but was floundering badly. What I didn’t know at the time was that his dad was a billionaire and one of the most powerful financiers in the world. But this was Goldman Sachs, and it didn’t matter who your dad was. You had to prove yourself like everyone else.

Welcome to Open Meeting: a form of boot camp for the seventy-five summer interns in the sales and trading program and a venerable tradition at the firm. A partner would stand at the front of the room with a list of names and call on people at will with questions on the firm’s storied culture, its history, on the stock markets. Rapid fire. You had to be alive, awake, informed. Two people cried that summer under the interrogation. But there was no way around it: if you wanted a full time job at Goldman Sachs—less than 40 percent of the class would make it—this was a test you had to pass, over and over and over again.

An intern’s performance in the Open Meeting was one of the three criteria the firm used to determine who would receive offers after graduation to come work at the world’s most prestigious investment bank. During this ten-week internship, you also needed to find and cultivate a “rabbi” who would want to hire you. And you’d have to shine in the meetings and get your rabbi while walking the fine line between being competitive and being nice. Partners were always looking to see whether an intern had the makings of a “culture carrier,” Goldman-speak for someone who is able to deal with clients and colleagues in a way that preserves the firm’s reputation—one that has made it an incubator for senators, treasury secretaries, and central bank governors.

Interrogation and humiliation were not things this meticulously selected group had tasted very often. I was surrounded by the sort of superachievers that people whispered about and pointed at in Ivy League dining halls—the ones who got perfect scores on their SATs, graduated from high school at age fifteen, swam in the Olympics, played chess at the master level for relaxation, and, oh, yeah, Mark Mulroney, whose dad had been prime minister of Canada. But even for these superachievers, this was a tough room. Do well here, and you would be on the path to a career where even the average middle manager makes $250,000 a year and exerts some power and influence.

I was a pharmacist’s son from Johannesburg, South Africa, and had never heard about investment banking until I got a scholarship to Stanford University and came to America for the first time.

Also flanking the whiteboard with Josh at the front of the room was another intern presenter named Adam, who would later become one of my best friends and go on to manage billions of dollars at a hedge fund. But at this moment, at the height of the Internet bubble on Wall Street, these two interns were under severe fire. Adam was flushed, too, but maybe it was just the thrill of the moment. An applied math major, he was crushing it; he knew his stuff cold. Josh, on the other hand, was an English major, and completely out of his depth.

There were two Open Meetings a week, held after the day’s work on the trading floor was finished, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The ninety-minute meetings were usually run by (in order of rank) a partner, a managing director, or a tribunal of three angry vice presidents, sitting imperiously at a table at the front of the room. Depending on the personal style of the people in charge, the meetings could be brutal. They were always intense.

Open Meetings started at 6:00
P.M.
on the dot—not 6:01 or 6:02. There were always three or four interns who got there at 6:03 or 6:05; they were almost always made to wait outside. If too many people arrived late, we would all have to come in at five the next morning for a makeup meeting; the partner would also show up at 5:00
A.M.
Once again, if you arrived at 5:05, you were made to wait outside. This rule was strictly enforced. There were people who just couldn’t get there on time, and it reflected poorly on them.

The interns sat behind long tables arranged in rows. On the tabletop in front of you, you’d place a pad of paper containing your preparatory notes. At the head of the room, the person in charge, armed with a list of all the interns’ names, would kick off the meeting by cold-calling people—just picking names at random. Out at the rows of tables, every intern was praying,
Please, don’t let it be me
.

I was nervous but ready. My strategy was to volunteer, very quickly, whenever I knew the answer to a question—then those running the meeting would be less likely to pick on me later, for an answer I didn’t know. Some people seemed totally unfazed by being called on; but several, male and female, seemed undone by the experience:

VP
(pointing): Okay, third row, second seat over. Stand up and state your name.

INTERN
(standing slowly): Brynn Thomas, Brown University.

VP
(firmly): Tell me about Microsoft stock. What is our house view? What does our research analyst think?

INTERN
(caught off guard): Um, I think we like it. Uhhh…

VP
(now angry): Come on, you should know these answers cold. Microsoft is one of the biggest and most important companies in the world. How can you not know this stuff?

INTERN
(uncertain and scared): I’m sorry. I’m thinking…We have a buy rating?

VP
(with voice raised): What is our price target? What are the catalysts coming up? How has the stock been trading? Come on.

[The Intern can’t take the heat, and nothing comes out of her mouth. She starts to tear up and runs out of the room.]

The Open Meeting was an interrogation chamber where the meeting chairs tried to push you to the limit, to test your knowledge on a number of fronts. First and most basic was your market knowledge. You might be asked, “Where is the S&P 500 trading?” or “Why was crude oil down three percent today?” or “Why did Alan Greenspan lower interest rates?” There was no cut-and-dried way to prep for what they were going to ask.

The second category was Goldman Sachs history. I was relieved when they asked questions like “When was the firm founded? By whom? Who were all the senior partners from 1960 until today? Who is the current CFO of the firm?” I knew it all. I’d learned that Goldman had had some iconic leaders—such as Sidney Weinberg, the man who engineered the initial public offering of Ford Motors; and John Whitehead, who, after retiring as co–senior partner, served in the State Department and was the chairman of the New York Federal Reserve. I knew about its many admirable policies. For example, for many years, the firm never advised on hostile takeovers because it believed this to be bad business that would significantly detract from its clients’ trust.

The third category of questions at the Open Meetings aimed to test our knowledge of current management and our understanding of the business. The meeting leaders would fire out the questions: “How does a trader quantify risk? What does a derivatives salesperson do? Who are the two managing directors who run the Credit Derivatives Trading group? What’s the difference between market making on the NASDAQ and the NYSE? Which partner runs the Emerging Markets group globally?”

The point of the meetings, we gradually found out, was to teach us how to behave when we were on the phone being grilled by a tough client—and Goldman had a lot of very tough clients. The biggest mistake you could make in an Open Meeting was to fluff an answer and then try to wing it. The people who did that were often the people who ended up crying.

The most intimidating meeting leader was a senior VP named Valentino Carlotti. Val was a walking contradiction: very harsh in the Open Meetings—some of the moderators would joke around, but not Val—yet, one on one, a terrific guy. At times during the summer, he even went out with groups of interns. One evening, he came to a nightclub with us. What this showed me was that he wasn’t being a dick just to be a dick. He was acting that way because management felt that by being tough on the interns, they could train us to be truthful, resourceful, collaborative—all the qualities they wanted in people who made the cut and became first-year analysts. These were also the qualities that clients appreciated—truthfulness being at the top of the list. Clients do not appreciate your making things up. They want to know the truth.

What Val hated most during the Open Meeting was any sort of fudging. The best thing to say if you didn’t have an answer was “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” The point was to teach us that when we were on the phone with an angry client, that person didn’t want us to make up an answer—he wanted us to know how to get the answer and to call him back within five minutes. If you didn’t have the answer in an Open Meeting, you had to bolt out of the room, take the elevator downstairs, run across Broad Street, race up to the trading floor, and hustle back with a response before the end of the meeting. Since the main part of the internship was trying out on different desks on the floor, this was where our skills in relationship building were tested. You needed allies, people you could run to in a pinch: the “rabbis” I mentioned earlier. You couldn’t just ambush some senior VP who was in the middle of something. “Get away from me!” might be the most polite thing you’d hear from him.

At the end of every Open Meeting, the moderator would assess how it had gone. Had he heard some good answers? Had he seen some good initiative from people who’d had to go find the answers? There were a few times that summer when the leaders thought a meeting had gone terribly, and it was the same as if too many of us had shown up late: they would bring us back the next morning at 5:00—or sometimes in the evening, making us cancel a social event—to teach us a lesson.

The meetings were hard, but there was something about them I enjoyed. I liked the fact that the firm took its culture so seriously; I liked that we were learning to be so serious about giving clients correct information. This is what the Open Meeting instilled in us: Don’t make things up; don’t exaggerate. Just be up-front. If you don’t know something, be very skillful at finding it out, and that’s good enough. And if you make a mistake, admit it—immediately. (This is something Goldman still tells its analysts: if you make an error, especially when you’re trading, the worst thing you can do is not admit it. Failure to come clean will always turn the mistake into a much bigger monetary loss, and it will also ruin your credibility with clients.)

Two days before each Open Meeting, the whole intern class would get together to study. Each person would tackle a different area of the markets; then we’d prep one another and come up with various possible questions. Getting grilled like this, twice a week for ten weeks, brought us all together as a team. And teamwork was a value highly prized at Goldman Sachs.

I knew that we were being indoctrinated, handed a full cup of delicious Kool-Aid, but it was fine with me. I’d been a true believer before I ever set foot in the building. I might not have been dressed for the part, but I felt I had as much a right as anyone to compete for a job at Goldman Sachs.

———

During the summer of 2000, if you had asked me who the Brooks Brothers were, I would have answered, “The ugly kids who used to live down the street.” The day before my junior year at Stanford had ended, I’d gone to Macy’s in Palo Alto and bought a new wardrobe: eight shirts, three pairs of pants, and one blue blazer with gold buttons. I still had a couple of business suits from the previous summer, when I’d interned at the Chicago office of the brokerage house Paine Webber. My favorite was a light gray
Miami Vice
–style one with a shiny finish, almost like sharkskin. It had worked just fine for Chicago, but I had just enough sense to know that it wouldn’t fly at Goldman Sachs.

Still, I cringe now at the memory of some of the dress shirts I bought that day: two were dark brown, one was black, and one was dark green; almost all had stripes in a different shade. Not exactly Goldman Sachs style. Wall Street, like so much of what I’d experienced since coming to America, was literally a new world. I had arrived at Stanford in August of 1997 from Johannesburg with a great love for the United States, developed from American movies and TV shows. Tony Danza and
Who’s the Boss
had found their way to South Africa in the 1980s, and had taught me much of what I needed to know.

I grew up in Edenvale, a middle-class suburb of Jo’burg, the eldest of three siblings: my brother, Mark, was a year and a half younger than me; my baby sister, Carly, nine years younger. My mom was a housewife, and my dad worked long hours to support us, but money was tight, especially with three kids attending private school—the King David School, an expensive Jewish day academy where all the students (many of them from wealthy families) wore uniforms: for the boys, khaki safari suits in the summer and blazers, blue ties, and gray flannels in the winter.

In eighth grade my best friend Lex Bayer and I made a pact to try to get in to college in America, a place we’d never been but had thought about a lot. Unfortunately, the rand-to-dollar exchange rate was five to one, and our parents—Lex’s family was in much the same economic situation as mine—couldn’t begin to afford to send us. Like Lex’s brilliant older sister, Kelly, who’d gone to Stanford on a full scholarship four years earlier, we needed major financial aid—something that seemed almost unimaginable. We worked toward this goal for five years, borrowing Kelly’s dog-eared SAT practice test books and prepping each other for both the American standardized tests and the statewide South African exams. Lex and I finished high school as co-valedictorians and were both amazingly lucky to be among the thirty-two people, out of the three thousand international students who applied, to receive full scholarships to Stanford.

BOOK: Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story
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