Share via Email Suzanne Nora Johnson is a rarity: Not any bank, mind, but the awesome moneymaking machine that is Goldman Sachs, the elite Wall Street firm that last year made more cash out of advising on mergers and acquisitions than any of its rivals. Every morning, Johnson is in Goldmans' New York office before seven, after a short drive from her Manhattan home.
Wall Street is a demanding and fiercely competitive place with long hours, interminable meetings and office politics not for the fainthearted. But Johnson seems relaxed in her plush office overlooking the city as she sips from a glass of sparkling mineral water, scans her email and fields the occasional phone call.
Johnson is involved in policy and strategic decisions across the organisation and is said to be a favourite of Hank Paulson, Goldman Sachs's chairman. But given that investment banking is notoriously clubby and male, one assumes life hasn't always been easy. Had she ever encountered sex discrimination? But if you are asking whether I think that there should be more women in top positions, not only in banking, but across the board, the answer is yes. But it is also due to the prevailing culture: Perhaps they are too busy juggling their many different responsibilities, at work and at home.
She has long been a supporter of 'inclusiveness'; she would like at least half of those interviewed for Wall Street jobs to be women. She has sympathy with the Norwegian government, which has told companies listed on the Oslo exchange they face being shut down unless their boards are composed of at least 40 per cent women. According to the writ, women are denied top jobs in Dresdner's London and New York offices.
DKW strongly denies the allegations. Johnson studiously avoids commenting on the case. She was born in Chicago to middle-class parents. Her father, a doctor, and her mother, a housewife, had five children. Johnson was bright and after leaving the University of Southern California she went to Harvard Law School, where she impressed her teachers and was popular with colleagues. From there she went to work for a law firm, Simpson Thacher and Bartlett, but defected to Goldmans in at the age of It was during the Third World debt crisis and I found myself engrossed in the work.
But I have been fortunate, working with kind and considerate people, and getting the breaks. Along the way she got the Goldmans 'bug'. Goldmans is a bank that prides itself on combining red-toothed capitalism with teamwork - even rivals recognise that the formula is hard to beat.
The story still does the rounds about how, after a conference late at night, bankers from a variety of firms left in taxis, while Goldmans staff donned tracksuits to jog back to the office together. The display of ostentatious wealth is frowned upon - Paulson is said to wear a cheap Japanese watch, while his predecessor, Steve Friedman, carried his papers in a carrier bag. But graduates joining Goldmans go through a rigorous process, having as many as 30 interviews - and even if they jump through all the hoops, their superiors look to cull the weakest in the first 12 months.
But the bank has been remarkably successful in retaining staff and most have held on to their shares - about 45 per cent of Goldmans' equity is today controlled by employees. Let me put it this way - if you had a pack of "alpha personality" dogs, they would tear each other apart - but at Goldmans, you have an alpha organisation made up of alpha individuals, working together; it's quite something. For example, what does she look for in other people before promoting them?
There were some infamous cases of analysts recommending shares in order to win lucrative advisory work for their corporate finance departments. These days, research departments have to be separated from the rest of the bank by Chinese walls.
But if there are more scandals, commentators believe that the banks may have to hive off their research arms altogether. Johnson is reluctant to get drawn into that debate. She prefers to talk about changes in working practices that have swept the industry: In some ways, Johnson appears vaguely surprised that she has ended up working for a bank in the Big Apple - 'growing up in Chicago, I would never have guessed that my life would have turned out the way it has.
Johnson has used her position at Goldmans to serve on the boards of universities and research bodies such as the Carnegie Institution of Washington. She is clearly not without a social conscience. Later this month, Johnson is off to the Davos economic summit to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful. How much does she worry about the future? But by nature, she sees the glass as half full.
After all, how many successful pessimists do you know? Joined Goldman Sachs in ; became vice-chairman in investment banking division in , rising to head of global healthcare business; promoted to head of global investment research in ; senior vice-chairman since