8.10.1 Micheal Wolfensohn

The Journey

IBIBS shall be presenting the journey taken by a number of successful Australian Investment Bankers.

James Wolfensohn: banker to the world

The man who did OK is looking forward to returning home.

Somewhere along the Murrumbidgee lies a farm where sheep, cattle and cutting horses are raised. It has been owned for the past 14 years by a New Yorker who has spent all of 50 hours there – and 50 years out of his native Australia.

Jim Wolfensohn has lived most his life stateless – a man wedded neither to a country nor a culture. Along the way, he has made tens of millions as an investment banker at the gilded firms – Schroders in London and Salomons in New York – has run the World Bank, and played cello on the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall, alongside Yo Yo Ma, and in Washington with U2′s Bono.

Finally, in his 70s, he has almost silenced the inner voice which clamours for approval – or as he puts it – his addiction to be told he had done OK. He’s banished the hollowing insecurities of an upbringing in Edgecliff, Sydney, as the second child of a stoic mother born in Belgium, who loved music and literature, and a British father who struggled for money and a sense of worth in a country to which he never warmed.

Now, as he approaches his 77th birthday, Jim Wolfensohn looks and sounds like a European, more a rumpled Peter Ustinov – a man of the arts, a raconteur, a music lover and philanthropist who toiled to rescue Carnegie Hall and its concerts – and less the New York investment overlord who once saved the Chrysler car company and was paid many millions by large corporations and the wealthy for his investment advice.

There is the retrospection that comes with age. Very soon he will travel back to the Murrumbidgee and see for the first time the new house on his 1200 hectares. Last week he regained the Australian citizenship he’d been forced to renounce in 1995 – only an American could head the World Bank.

The man who made Australia’s 1956 Olympic fencing team has rediscovered his old sport and wants to represent Australia again in the over-70s world championships.

He’d never wanted to give up his Australian citizenship. ”I feel a great affinity for Australia,” he says. The works of Aboriginal artists from Papunya in the Northern Territory are among the paintings that hang on the walls of the Wolfensohn and Co. offices on New York’s Avenue of the Americas. Near his window, 29 floors above the frantic streets, sits a model of the airy Murrumbidgee farmhouse.

He waves off the Herald’s suggestion of lunch at the fabled Russian Tea House on 57th street and instead settles for a sandwich at Pret A Manger, a lunch-on-the-fly joint that does a passable latte.

We are really here to talk about his latest work – the autobiography he says he wrote because he wanted to leave his children something he’d never had; a record of the events that shaped his parents’ lives. He is anxious to know what I make of it and confesses the old insecurities bred in a tiny red-brick apartment in Edgecliff are with him still.

”I am quite convinced that it’s a lousy book and no one’s going to be interested in it. If I get a good review, I will think, gee, that is surprising. See, I have protected myself on the downside by thinking that it’s going to be a failure, so I am prepared for failure,” he says.

Unconvincingly, he adds: ”I know, objectively, that is absurd.”

It is. He has avoided the self-serving account of his life that might have been expected from a banker who can still pick up the phone and call most who matter in America. The pain of a childhood fraught with insecurity is on those pages, and the aches of the father who, believing he’d led a mistaken life, relentlessly drove his son to be what he could not.

Wolfensohn’s experiences as a child left a legacy of self-doubt and fear of financial insecurity. The book does not hide what he calls the lost years when his own deal-making, as he traversed the world on his private jet, eclipsed the progress of his three children. Nor does it mask the tensions it created in his marriage – later resolved – to his wife, Elaine, who was grounded in the arts and education, not the ornaments of wealth.

It seems inevitable that the hard-scrabble of his upbringing and the uncertainties of life with a father who died believing all his big decisions were mistakes were the currents that led the son to a different life. He recalls: ”A lack of money is all consuming; not because you are money grubbing, but because the issues of survival and choice become hugely limited by the practicalities of life. That’s what I grew up with and in a way it was the stimulus, but it was never the love of money. It was the desire to have the possibility of doing what I wanted to.”

His father pushed him into university at just 15 – a burden Wolfensohn found overwhelming. He was suddenly among older students, he didn’t know how to study and he found himself struggling desperately: ”I knew damn well that I wasn’t doing any good. I sort of got used to failing … just getting over the line.”

But he succeeded and eventually got a junior position in what was then Sydney’s leading law firm, Allen Allen & Hemsley. He finished his law studies part-time. Soon afterwards came the first of several seemingly minor incidents that would, because of his own insecurities, cause Wolfensohn to drastically change his life.

Working with an abrasive American lawyer flown in to handle a huge commercial damages case, Wolfensohn – in his mid-20s – was caught off-guard when the lawyer, in court, asked him for some figures. When Wolfensohn fumbled, the American snapped: “Why the f— don’t you go to Harvard Business School?”

It stung like a whip. Immediately, he applied to go to Harvard and was accepted. It set him up for the career in investment banking that would bring him wealth and fame far beyond the aspirations for his life that he would write down at the start of every year.

”Going to Harvard was almost an accident but it was a wonderful accident,” he says. Doors opened – not just to the emerging investment banking industry but also to America’s richest families. At Harvard, Wolfensohn began his long friendship with the Rockefellers – a link that led him to greatly admire America.

”Its not a question,” he says, ”of whether you are a Wolfensohn or a Rockefeller. The beautiful thing about this country is there is an ease by which you can move between financial classes which does not exist in England. There was always a certain barrier there. The thing I revere about this country is that you can deal with people as people, regardless of their wealth. I could today call up Warren Buffet or whoever is the richest person in this country – I know most of them – for a coffee.”

One beautiful childhood memory is the sound of his mother’s music. He later studied music in Sydney and toyed with the idea of becoming a musician. Money again was the problem, ”so I wasn’t able to dream about that”.

Wolfensohn still has his private investment firm – two of his three children are involved in the venture – and he advises the US banking power house Citi. But these days, he says, 70 per cent of his friends are musicians. He’s found a synergy with them: ”The leading musicians regard the world as their stage. They are not committed to a single country … I identify with them.”

He has owned a Guarneri cello – now worth up to $2 million – for more than 20 years. He has lugged it all over the world, sitting it next to him on aircraft, for hotel room practice. He is now trying to unbundle his working commitments and dreams of more time to play his cello or to listen to nothing in the Wyoming wilderness, where he has a home in the forest.

He’s thought about how he should treat advancing age: ”I think what you have to do is not continue to try and live as though you are what you were. The only person I know that does that is Henry. Henry Kissinger. And Henry has managed, because of his luminous quality, to keep up-to-date with every leader and every leader wants to go see him. Henry has done it. And I haven’t because I was never Henry Kissinger.”

Then he glances at his new certificate of Australian citizenship: ”They’ve put me down as Sir James Wolfensohn because of the KBE I’ve had for 15 years. Now, isn’t that funny?”

Copyright Fairfax – Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/business/james-wolfensohn-banker-to-the-world-20101008-16c2r.html#ixzz1h1NWree6

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