John Whitehead, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs who was largely credited with the bank’s global expansion and investment banking dominance, died on Saturday. He was 92.
Truth be told, I knew little of the man until Monday, moving from obituary to obituary, unable to stop reading them. What he accomplished in his 92 years is dizzying. Here are some short highlights.
Whitehead grew up poor during the heart of the depression but helped put himself through college by successfully guessing people’s weight at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, according to the Financial Times. He served in the Navy, surviving invasions of Normandy, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and then went to Harvard Business School after the war.
He was the only person Goldman Sachs hired in 1947 – when it was far from a household name – making cold calls out of a converted squash court. He spent 37 years at Goldman, eight of them as co-head, building its M&A and equities underwriting businesses while opening offices overseas in cities like London, despite internal cries to remain domestically-focused. He wrote the 12-point list of business principles the firm still uses today.
He retired in 1984, accepting a job as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State within months and eventually negotiating arms-control agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev. Later, Whitehead became chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He didn’t take a salary, though he did donate $10 million to Harvard Business School in 1995 to start the John C. Whitehead Fund for Not-for-Profit Management.
In 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, he became chairman of the Manhattan Development Corp., tasked with rebuilding Ground Zero and the surrounding downtown area. Whitehead was founding chairman of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
Whitehead gave his time and money to the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the United Nations Association, the New York Boy Scouts, Haverford College, the Brookings Institution, the National Gallery of Art and the International Rescue Committee.
“In all of my interactions, he was a kind and thoughtful gentleman with his finger, heart and wallet in a lot of organizations and projects,” someone who worked with him in the not-for-profit world told me. “You don't read an obituary like this one very often. He left quite a mark.”
It certainly seemed so.
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Quote of the Day: “Young man, do you work at Goldman Sachs?” Yes, answered John Whitehead, adorned in a seersucker suit in the summer. “In that case, I would suggest that you go home right now and change out of your pajamas.” – Walter Sachs