Remembering Jim Wolfensohn

by | December 7, 2020

We humans live short lives, and few of us will be widely remembered for long. This is as true for the proverbial ‘masters of the universe’ from the financial realm, as for anyone.  Still, there are always a few exceptions, like John Pierpont Morgan, Sigmund Warburg, the Rothschilds and Paul Volcker. Now we can add to this illustrious group, James Wolfensohn, who died a few weeks ago at age 86.

Jim was born in Sydney, Australia, of humble origins. He made his way to Harvard Business School and into the top ranks of global finance, most notably at the boutique bank that bore his name. Jim was in his time a modern Renaissance man and archetypal citizen of the world, an Olympic athlete, a philanthropic leader, a classically trained cellist, a World Bank President and a US Diplomatic Envoy.  

The finance leaders of Jim’s generation came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, when banking was largely boring, and became leaders in the 1980s and 90s, practicing their craft as central actors in the dynamic rise of the capital markets driven by the Reagan and Thatcher de-regulation boom.

Recently, numerous newspapers published obituaries of Jim, largely focusing on his ten years as President of the World Bank and leadership Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.   

I remember Jim differently, as a human, a mentor and as my banking partner. In the decades I spent working for him,  it was always his principles, not his titles, that struck me most.

Reach High

Jim was a pinnacle player, as both an Olympic fencer and in business. In 1987 Jim recruited Paul Volcker to his then tiny boutique investment bank, James D. Wolfensohn, Inc. when Paul left the Chairmanship of the US Federal Reserve Board.  The financial press was abuzz that a figure so large as Paul would join a firm so small as Jim’s. 

In 1990, as a young Associate at Jim’s firm, I wrote an opinion piece for the Financial Times about how the then newly proposed European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) could be an opportunity to make rule of law and human rights a requirement for loans to Central and Eastern European countries.  These were former Soviet satellite states that would soon be admitted to the forthcoming European Union. 

I showed a draft to Jim, who asked, “why don’t you call Jacques Attali?” Attali had just been named the first President of EBRD.  Calling such an important person had not occurred to me, and seemed pretty outrageous. But I swallowed hard and took his advice. To my surprise, Attali took the call and helped me.  For the rest of my career, I remembered the lesson to reach higher than you might think you can. 

Know Everything, Especially the Facts

Jim was voracious about knowledge and valued it above all else.  To brief Jim on a company or deal was to walk right into his most greedy inner sanctum and be interrupted at every turn, the way a Supreme Court Justice might interrupt counsel at oral argument.  He was counting on your having answers. His main tool was grill and drill. He would dissect your every nuance. It was always exhausting, but it made us better.

Similarly, Jim was practically a schoolmarm about written work.   Most senior bankers hardly read draft presentations but Jim proof read them.  A power point slide reflecting brilliant financial and strategic insight would be lambasted if the headline had a grammatical error, or if the argument did not easily flow.  Put simply, Jim believed that the facts dictated how we should give advice, and to be loose with even one fact was unforgivable. This meant that often, our advice to a client was to pass on a deal because the facts didn’t support the investment thesis – even though as bankers we were only paid for doing deals.

Tell the Truth, Especially to Yourself

Jim loved to say to clients, “we are telling you the unvarnished truth.”

In his autobiography Jim noted that friends had warned him that his assignment as President Bush’s Special Envoy to the Middle East was a fool’s errand, “that I was being used by the United States and Israel, and behind my back, Bush and [national security adviser] Elliott Abrams made fun of me.” Jim understood the impossibility of the appointment and that he was a kind of camouflage for State-led diplomacy.

To those who have known him, Jim was famously thin skinned. But honest accounting mattered, and so he accounted honestly on his mission. He did not try to make it more than it was.  In Jim’s telling he worked tirelessly in his envoy role, and in due course when it became clear his mandate had been broadly framed in public but in practice would be quite limited by State and White House channels, he said to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “I’m seventy two years old. I have been negotiating at a reasonably high level for forty years.  I know when I am in and when I am out, so please don’t tell me I am in.”   He then supported the Secretary’s requirements,  played out each task the Administration wanted him to handle, demurred where his role was curtailed, and gracefully exited his role when he could – and then chose to not speak to the press.  He understood how to accept limits with candor and grace.

Put Other People First

I still marvel at the heady experience of being Jim’s partner. One day Warren Buffet came in to be briefed on a deal we were handling.  Another day it was Mitt Romney. None of that seemed odd to us. Being small and doing big things in workmanlike fashion was the ethos Jim cultivated. 

I do not recall where Jim was the day Buffett or Romney came in to our office because he so often put his junior colleagues ahead of himself, giving them the limelight. He was not a jealous boss. He could be impatient and demanding, for which he would invariably later apologize, but when you reported on a success, he had a singular heartfelt response you could count on: “That’s wonderful!”  

Communicate Widely, Constantly and Personally  

Jim seemed to know someone on the board of every major company. That fact might make you think he breezed quickly through his daily business communications, but the opposite was the case. For Jim, every communication had to be personalizedThe notion of an email blast (had there been email then) would have been an anathema.  Every letter had to be personalized.  And there was a pecking order of communication – in person was best, phone next, written fine if you call to follow up.  In other words, the more personal the better. 

It was well known that Jim could charm anyone, but that misses the point. His finesse was one-part charm and three parts substantive insight, personally and sincerely delivered.  

Make Peace Where You Can, but Never Be Bullied

As a young banker in Australia, Jim was once roughed up by an older, powerful corporate raider falsely claiming Jim had acted improperly by advising a competing buyer, which Jim’s own firm had authorized him to do. Jim beat the raider to the courthouse with a well-orchestrated lawsuit which drew a quick end to the controversy.

Jim was not litigious, but he taught us to accept a challenge, even a threatening one, if you know you are right. Jim always sought out reconciliation as a first option, but he also knew when to stand up for himself.  This seems especially apt today, in our hyper transactional business and political culture, when legal rights are sometimes not respected unless enforced.  Seek peace, but defend your rights.

Give Back and Encourage Others To Do So

Upon being named a partner in the Firm, I discovered a requirement: partners were expected to sit on nonprofit boards and donate a meaningful portion of their earnings to charity.  And we all did so.

Jim’s view of philanthropy was simple – if you do not give back to improve the world, then you have missed the point of making money. The Talmud says that giving anonymously is the highest form of giving, and the next highest is any other form. Jim practiced both and got all his partners to do likewise.   

Remember Great Leaders, Including Great Mentors

Jim often spoke of great leaders and mentors, and was especially proud of his partner Paul Volcker, from whom he had benefited greatly. The last time I saw Jim in person was December 2019, just before the pandemic began, at Paul’s funeral in New York.  At lunch following the service, I noticed Jim at a small table eating quietly with Henry Kissinger, just the two of them – Jim in his 80s, Kissinger in his 90s. Jim, by then a stroke victim,  was seated in a wheelchair.  I assumed a catcher’s squat next to him to talk, as I wanted to be at his eye level. Soon another partner from our old firm had joined me, also squatting, which for men our age was not an easy pose.  

One of us asked Jim how he was doing, and Jim, still elegant in his crisp suit and tie, with his handsome shock of white hair, remarked with self-deprecation, “I am a forgotten man.”

I said, “Jim, we are at Paul Volcker’s funeral and you are having lunch with Henry Kissinger, and two of your former banking partners are squatting by you and hanging on your every word.  In what sense have you been forgotten?”  

And there it was, his winning smile, a twinkle in his well-practiced and charming gaze.   He knew that even with his foibles, he was far from forgotten – and that all around him, were people he had touched in his remarkable life.

Filed Under: Theme of the Week

About the Author

Marshall Sonenshine is Managing Partner and Founder of Sonenshine Partners. Prior to Founding Sonenshine Partners, Mr. Sonenshine was the head of Media and Aerospace M&A at BT Wolfensohn (the M&A division of Bankers Trust) and its successor, Deutsche Bank, where he was asked to serve as the Co-Head of global M&A. Prior to Bankers Trust, Mr. Sonenshine was one of nine partners at Wolfensohn & Company, a boutique investment bank whose partners included former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn. Mr. Sonenshine was part of the leadership team that sold Wolfensohn & Co. to Bankers Trust and that would oversee M&A at Bankers Trust, Alex Brown and ultimately Deutsche Bank.

For the past 30 years, Mr. Sonenshine has counseled hundreds of corporations globally on complex mergers, restructuring and strategic issues. He is a veteran adviser on countless flagship deals globally over the past quarter century involving companies as diverse as AIG, Bankers Trust, 1-800 Contacts, Dassault Systemes, Disney, Essilor, General Electric, International Lease Finance Corporation, KKR, Luxottica SpA, Madison Dearborn, The New York Times, Nokia Siemens, Proquest, Siemens, Sony, United States Shoe Corporation, Walgreens, and Wellpoint.

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