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Eight career and life lessons from Goldman Sachs’ new co-chair of investment banking

Alexander Dibelius has been elevated to the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs investment bank, away from his previous role heading up the bank’s German operations. In English-speaking nations, he’s a relatively anonymous figure, but in Germany he’s as close to the celebrity, rock star banker as it gets.

Whether Dibelius’ move is the next step on the career ladder or a drop down from his role as head of Germany and Austria is still a hot topic in the local press. However, his career is something of a lesson in how to negotiate the shark-filled waters of investment banking.

1. CFA or MBA is not always the way

Most people getting an investment banking job in London have relatively conventional degrees like economics or maths from top tier universities. They may have a Masters in Finance, they may also have an MBA. Dibelius took an alternative route.

Abitur are the German equivalent of A-Levels and he sailed through with the highest possible mark (1.0) before studying medicine at the universities in Munich and Freiburg. Of course, GP wasn’t a glamorous enough vocation. Instead, until 1987 he worked as a heart surgeon at the university hospital in Freiburg. The great start of an illustrious career in medicine? No...

2. A second career at McKinsey

Working as a heart surgeon to most people would be considered an top notch career, but Dibelius became frustrated with its routine nature. Inspired by a 1984 article in which a German magazine described McKinsey as being a home for the “ice cold elite” he set about moving across to consulting. He secured himself an internship at McKinsey and eventually got a full-time job in 1987. As if to prove his elite status, he managed to get promoted to partner after only four and half years.

3. Goldman Sachs, the third choice

His first job in banking, naturally, was at the elite institution of Goldman Sachs, where he started in their Frankfurt office at the ripe old age of 30 – when most investment banking traders start considering alternative careers. This was 1993, and again demonstrating his propensity for rapid career progression (or perhaps its reflective of the size of Goldman’s German operation) he made it to a managing director in M&A by 1998. In the same year, he secure a prime advisory role on the takeover of Chrysler by Daimler for the bank and as a reward was a promotion to partner before the year was up. In 2002, he was bumped up to lead Goldman’s German and Austria office, along with Wayne Moore. Not one for sharing, he was made the sole head of Goldman’s operation in the region by 2004, and remained so until this week.

4. Why M&A is a mere stepping stone

M&A generates only a small percentage of revenues for investment banks, but this is not the point, according to Dibelius. It’s the way to get connected to the right people. “It helps to build up a relationship with our clients and this leads often to follow-up deals”, he once said. “In 80% [pitching] did not lead to a transactions. We invest in relationships.” He is undoubtedly in with the right people – it’s rumoured that he acted even as a counsel for chancellor Angela Merkel.

5. If you’re successful, flaunt it

Dibelius spends his work life in Frankfurt and London, but never gave up his links to Munich where he was born in 1959. There, in the borough of Bogenhausen he bought a piece of land – exactly where the German novelist and Nobel-Prize winner Thomas Mann owned a villa before World War II. Of course, Dibelius felt the need to pay through the nose to reconstruct Mann’s villa, which is where he now lives.

6. Always try to keep your personal life out of the media

In 2003, Dilbelius married his wife Angelika, eschewing a pre-nup and telling himself he was a romantic – a rare example of bad judgement. Ten years later, when the marriage hit the rocks, he went through a high-profile divorce, which involved a lot of mud-slinging. It emerged that he bought a house in London through a holding company in the Caribbean – not strictly illegal, but certainly frowned upon in full tax disclosure terms. More pressingly, it started to threaten his personal fortune – estimated to be €300m. In the end, they settled out of court, so there’s no clarity on what Dilbelius lost through the divorce.

7. If you’re in the game, win

Angelika is thought to have secured a lot from the divorce settlement and is one of the worst defeats of Dilbelius’ life. He doesn’t make a habit of losing. Friends, or at least people who know him, say he has to win at everything, even if it’s of no consequence. One example is the fact that he takes part in the Burda Ski at the end of the World Economic Forum in Davos – an event he regularly wins.

8. Know your priorities

There are signs that Dilbelius is taking his foot off the gas a little. His new girlfriend, Laila Maria Witt is a mere 31-years-old – 24 years his junior. A couple of months ago, they had a baby girl and this appears to be have been the turning point. These days, he’s more inclined to work shorter hours, stop meetings on time – something unheard of previously. Maybe he’s finally decided to take it easier.

AUTHORFlorian Hamann German & Swiss Editor

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