Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Wall Street go-to Banker

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker Ken Wilson was standing in the security line at Westchester Country Airport, north of New York City, at 6:45 a.m. last Thursday when he got a call. "Kenny, your country needs you," President George W. Bush told him, urging him to come work as an adviser to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson during the current financial turmoil. Messrs. Wilson and Bush are far from strangers: They went to Harvard Business School together, when Mr. Wilson was known as Kenny. Still, he paused before responding. "I felt it would be obnoxious to call him Mr. President in an airport security line so I just called him George," Mr. Wilson said. "I told him I was interested in the job but hadn't fully thought it through yet."

Unusual humility for someone so powerful. Reading about him, I got a feeling of regret: how come I never made that kind of impact? Not that I see myself being a high mucky-muck, but ... Maybe I shoulda gone to Harvard B-school.

Mr. Wilson, 61, will now retire from Goldman after 10 years at the firm. He says he will receive a nominal fee for this next gig. He returns Monday from a family vacation of flyfishing in western Canada and plans to start his new job as soon as possible. It will continue until January. Until recently, Mr. Paulson has leaned on Treasury Department Undersecretary Robert K. Steel for advice. But this month Mr. Steel left Treasury to run Wachovia, itself hard-hit by the mortgage crisis.

How is that for rotating doors?

It is perhaps no surprise that Mr. Paulson, once the CEO of Goldman Sachs, called on his former colleague. The two men met at Dartmouth College, and Mr. Paulson helped recruit Mr. Wilson to Goldman. Once a year, the two head to Andros Island in the Bahamas for a few days of bonefishing. In a nod to Mr. Wilson's influence, Mr. Paulson gave him an office on Goldman's 30th floor, a power alley that includes current firm Chairman and Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein.

Washington is already home to a number of Goldman alumni. In addition to Mr. Paulson, White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolton is a Goldman alumnus, as is Robert Rubin, Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton. Also, Mr. Steel was a senior executive at Goldman when Mr. Paulson ran the firm.

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