Being Goldman Sachs’s Brains May Make Viniar Irreplaceable CFO
David A. Viniar, the finance and risk-management overseer who some investors deem more essential to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) than Lloyd C. Blankfein, may not be replaceable. At least not by one person.
The longest-serving chief financial officer of any major Wall Street firm may find his multiple roles distributed among two or even three deputies when he eventually steps down, according to two people with knowledge of the firm’s internal deliberations. While Viniar, 55, told an analyst in May that he has no immediate plan to leave, he has held the CFO post since March 1999, has amassed more than $254 million of Goldman Sachs stock and has endured some of the most withering public scrutiny the New York-based company has ever faced.
Investors are more concerned about Viniar’s eventual successor than they are about replacing Blankfein, 56, the chairman and chief executive officer since 2006, said Roger A. Freeman, an analyst at Barclays Capital. Viniar has played a key role in overseeing funding, risk, technology and relationships with investors through Goldman Sachs’s May 1999 initial public offering and the financial collapse of 2008.
“David’s the brains behind the operation -- the institutional knowledge that guy has is just unmatched,” said Freeman, who has a “neutral” rating on Goldman Sachs shares. “It’s difficult to imagine that there are many people that can juggle as many balls as he does seemingly effortlessly.”
David Wells, a spokesman for Goldman Sachs, declined to comment on what might happen to Viniar’s role.
Line of Succession
Some executives at the firm are skeptical that any single successor would be as adept as Viniar in handling all those functions, the people said. Viniar, who joined Goldman Sachs’s investment-banking department in 1980, was promoted to CFO after serving as deputy chief financial officer under then-CFO John A. Thain. Before that, Viniar oversaw the firm’s treasury and controllers.
Controller and Chief Accounting Officer Sarah Smith, a British citizen who joined Goldman Sachs in 1996 from KPMG LLP and has been a partner since 2002, is one of the leading candidates to succeed Viniar, according to people familiar with the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity because succession planning is private. Her duties include managing about 1,500 controllers around the world who make sure the firm’s business complies with financial and regulatory requirements.
Looking for Clues
Another candidate is Treasurer Elizabeth “Liz” Beshel, who joined in 1990 and was promoted to partner in 2006, the people said. She is Viniar’s closest deputy and the person trained by him to handle the firm’s financing and liquidity needs. Beshel, 42, married Samuel Robinson, a Goldman Sachs managing director who works for Vice Chairman J. Michael Evans, in June 2010.
“I’d definitely be looking to see who they put in front of investors,” said Freeman, who hasn’t met either Beshel or Smith. “It would be fair to assume they’re on the short list.”
Under U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules, Smith already qualifies as one of Goldman Sachs’s 12 “executive officers” who are required to file reports with the SEC about any stock purchases or sales. Beshel’s role doesn’t require her to make similar filings.
Goldman Sachs, the fifth-largest U.S. bank by assets, has become much larger and more complicated while Viniar has been finance chief. The firm, which went public two months after he became CFO, has more than four times the assets it held at the end of 1998 and has almost tripled its employees, according to company filings.
The firm has also had to adapt to its 2008 conversion to a bank holding company, placing it under Federal Reserve supervision, and is facing new regulations imposed by the Dodd- Frank Act and capital requirements set by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision.
The CFO role at Goldman Sachs is already broader than at some other companies. The entire administrative side of the firm -- known as operations, technology and finance or by its nickname “The Federation” -- all report to Viniar.
“When you think about both risk management and technology rolling up to the same person, to me that seems like a strategic advantage,” Freeman said. “If you split up his role into two or three people, it would be essential -- for it to work the way it has under David -- that the two or three people that replace him have to work essentially as one person.”
Viniar played a role in Goldman Sachs’s decision to reduce the size of its bets on subprime mortgages and related derivatives in late 2006. While the move led politicians and regulators to accuse the firm of misleading clients about the risks in mortgage-related investments, it spared Goldman Sachs from the losses suffered by competitors.
“As always, the clients who bought our long positions or other similar positions had a view that they were attractive positions to purchase at the price they were offered,” Viniar said in his April 27, 2010, testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “As with our own views, their views sometimes proved to be correct and sometimes incorrect.”
Documents released by the subcommittee showed that Viniar convened a meeting with the mortgage department’s leaders on Dec. 14, 2006, after learning that the group had lost money for 10 consecutive days. Viniar instructed the team to cut their positions in mortgages and derivatives and to “be aggressive distributing things,” according to e-mails released by the committee.
Viniar has said Goldman Sachs was better at managing risk than competitors because it was more disciplined about marking all of their holdings to market. He has also been a proponent of requiring financial institutions to hold more cash or other easy-to-sell investments and of making them keep more capital as a buffer against potential losses in less-liquid assets. He said in February that Goldman Sachs made the mistake of owning too many hard-to-sell assets before the financial crisis.
“It was a good lesson learned,” he told investors at a February conference sponsored by Credit Suisse Group AG. Goldman Sachs’s problems stemmed from “our investing and buying more illiquid assets than we probably should have.”
A Bronx native, Viniar graduated with an economics degree from Schenectady, New York-based Union College in 1976 before getting a master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School four years later. His donations enabled Union College to build the $3.2 million Viniar Athletic Center, according to a 2005 article on the college’s website.
Viniar owned 1,715,282 shares before the IPO, a company filing showed, which were worth $120 million after the stock’s first day of trading. As of March 7 this year, Viniar owned 1,887,329 shares, according to the firm’s proxy. Those are worth $254.8 million based on the July 7 closing price of $135.01.
Since 1999, Viniar received about $107 million in salary and cash bonuses in addition to stock and options, company filings show. He also received more than $30 million in distributions from Goldman Sachs-managed funds, filings show.
“Mr. Viniar indicated the time for him to consider retiring would not begin until a sense of calm has been restored in the operating environment,” Jeffery Harte, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill & Partners, wrote in a note to investors on May 18 following a meeting with Viniar. “We sensed that his desire to see Goldman through ongoing regulatory and market changes was pervasive on the executive committee.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Christine Harper in New York at email@example.com
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