Loyd Blankfein cleared his throat and moved away from the podium. Grasping a glass of water, he looked down at the long table where his top executives were facing the crowd at the Goldman Sachs annual shareholder meeting this spring. His chief operating officer, Gary Cohn, glanced up at him and discreetly rolled his eyes. Evelyn Y. Davis was still talking.
“What is the situation on Facebook?” she whinnied, in her extravagantly nasal Dutch accent. “The short-selling against clients. What is the story on that?” Blankfein had once found the octogenarian activist shareholder amusing, but that had long worn off. Since the financial crisis, she had come to seem like a personification of the public animus against his firm: willfully misinformed, impervious to reason, single-minded in pursuit of corporate blood. In particular, his own.
Once again, Davis was calling for his resignation: “Like I said, Lloyd, I have nothing against you perrrrsonally. But it is a verrry tough job. It’s very tough for anybody. And it’s proven too much for you. You tried your best, Lloyd, I know, but the circumstances are beyond anybody’s capabilities. I think you should leave after the meeting, if possible.”
“Thank you, Evelyn,” Blankfein said, putting down the glass. “I’ll take that under advisement.”
After the meeting, he gathered up his things. The board and shareholders would reelect him chairman by a landslide—97 percent of the vote. Not, he would later note, that you would see that information reflected in the media reports of the event, which would highlight the contributions of Evelyn Y. Davis, another shareholder who called Goldman Sachs “pretty much a disgusting place,” and the order of nuns who believed the firm’s compensation levels were a danger to “the well-being of the public at large.”
Blankfein tensed his shoulders and headed for the door. One by one, the reporters in the room gravitated toward him until he was surrounded. “I’m always afraid someone will come down from another planet and view all earthlings based on what they see here,” he said, attempting to head them off with a joke. But they were intent on eliciting a sound bite that could be made into a headline. What about the recent report that Blankfein was planning to resign, a reporter from Reuters asked. Why, another asked, given all of the pressure he was under, would he even want to stay?
“What?” Blankfein cracked, gesturing at the crowd that had him nearly pinned against the wall. “And give up all this?”
“It’s a fair question, why do you want to do it,” Blankfein says a few weeks later, sitting in a booth at the Three Guys Restaurant, a diner near 76th and Madison. He rubs his hand over his forehead, massaging the lines that scrunch together when he is thinking and contribute to an unfortunate resemblance to Austin Powers’s Dr. Evil. “It’s not fun a lot of the time,” he says. “But there’s a little bit of ‘for better or for worse’ about a lot of aspects of life, not just marriage. You can’t sign on for just the good parts. I mean, think of the warrior class, and the perquisites the warriors are given in, say, feudal Japan—and then, goddamn it, there’s a war! They’ve got to go up and fight. I mean, you can’t be the CEO without having to do what CEOs have to do in distressed moments.”
Dressed down in shirt sleeves and scuffed loafers, he doesn’t seem so much like the Devil, as Don Imus has taken to calling him, than someone you might meet at a bowling alley. He is pale and a little saggy around the middle, with no visible tail and a smooth pate where his horns ought to be. He is a product of Establishment-era Harvard, but his cadence owes more to Woody Allen–era Brooklyn, where he grew up. He cannot resist a one-liner.
“This is a tough job to decline or turn away from,” he goes on. “When things are going well, you don’t want to leave. Because you’re influential, it’s exciting. You get to work around very smart, motivated people. When things are going poorly, you can’t leave, because you get overtaken by your sense of responsibility. Your obligations to people whose careers you’ve sponsored, shareholders who have invested with you, board members who took that job because you’ve asked them to. That’s why I think my predecessors left only when they got opportunities they couldn’t decline. Hank Paulson and Bob Rubin both went into government. And, of course, Gus Levy died at his desk, which he also couldn’t decline.”
So, what would be his preferred method of retirement?