A Portrait of the $700 Billion Man as a Young Banker
Heidi N. Moore – The Wall Street Journal October 10, 2008
Who is Neel Kashkari?
We’ll get to that in a second. Here is who he is not: Neel Kashkari is not a wunderkind. He’s not an evil genius. He’s not a mastermind.
Kashkari, the 35-year-old interim head of the Office of Financial Stability, has been the source of great worry. Many fear he’s too young and too inexperienced to handle the task of rebuilding the nation’s financial system.
Of course, Kashkari may just have the job for a few months. Paulson made clear he will appoint somebody and try to get the new person confirmed in November, and that person would transition into the next administration.
Forty-five days isn’t a long period in normal times, but in this crisis it’s an age. To get a better understanding of him, Deal Journal spoke to people who knew Kashkari well in his childhood and during his time at Goldman Sachs to find out the character and working style of the man who is managing the nation’s bailout.
Here’s the portrait that emerged: Kashkari is smart, dutiful, detail-oriented, and takes orders well. In the parlance of investment banking, he is a good “execution guy”: He leaves strategy to the bigwigs. But if you give him a project, he will prioritize, delegate and finish it.
These people report he has an amiable manner and is a good, intent listener. He doesn’t make waves and never dominates a discussion; he thinks before he speaks and he lets people express themselves. He is particularly good at presenting complicated ideas and leading team projects that depend on gaining cooperation from others. Those include the Sunrayce project to build a solar car as well as his work on the space telescope. “Neel is just plain good, with a high standard of ethics,” said Dr. Surinder Bhardwaj, a Hindu community priest who is a close family friend to the Kashkaris in Ohio. “This is a responsibility that requires the interest of the nation as a whole, and requires a very strong base of morality, which he has.”
Kashkari comes from a small, tight-knit community of Indian Hindus in Ohio, where his parents had a high profile in the local community. His mother, a pathologist, was known as a community resource. “She’s a good listener and helps guide people out of stressful situations,” said Dr. Bhardwaj. “They are very compassionate people, his parents, and maybe that’s where he’s getting his value system from.” Kashkari’s father is a retired engineer with a bent to public service, particularly in West Africa, where he spearheaded efforts to bring electricity and clean water to poor villages. Kashkari met his wife, Minal, in college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. They were married in a traditional Indian ceremony in Chicago where participants remember the bride being carried in on a festive palanquin and Kashkari, busy even then, taking the time to put each guest at ease.
Kashkari first worked at Goldman Sachs during the summer between his two years at Wharton, and impressed well enough to get a full time job after graduation. Academically, Kashkari was not outstanding, said a person familiar with the matter, but he appealed to Goldman’s recruiters because, as a former engineer, he was different than the usual aspiring investment banker. Kashkari’s head – shaved bald even then – also differentiated him from the reigning Goldman aesthetic, sometimes mockingly referred to as “The Borg” by rivals. “Everyone at Goldman has a full head of hair and went to prep school and Dartmouth and played lacrosse. That’s not Neel,” said an investment banker who knew him.
Goldman’s investment bankers were most impressed by Kashkari’s science background. His experience working on the James Webb Space Telescope for NASA contractor TRW gave him a comfort with technological jargon that would help Kashkari communicate with technology-company executives. Kashkari also spoke passionately of his entry in a car competition, the 1997 Sunrayce event in which Kashkari’s team built and raced a solar-powered car. His team didn’t win, but it did earn kudos. While other bankers at Goldman would often discuss their project du jour or details of a presentation even in their off-time, Kashkari often discussed cars and the Sunrayce experience.
When Kashkari returned to Goldman Sachs after business school, he worked with senior bankers advising companies in the software sector. As a junior banker, he did not have many responsibilities of his own; it was his job to prioritize and execute on the tasks given to him by others. (In many ways, that has also been Kashkari’s job at Treasury, where the strategy has been set by Hank Paulson.)
Kashkari did well enough that his bosses gave him an obscure sector to research and cover : information technology software, which included antivirus-program makers. The sector included many tiny companies that rarely hired or needed investment bankers, and Goldman Sachs did not have meaningful relationships with the leading companies. Kashkari impressed colleagues with his technical skill. Much of his job, however, was building relationships, a task that, in the world of investment banking, takes years. Although a few mergers and financings emerged from his work, many were not publicly disclosed because of their small size.
After Kashkari had spent only a couple of years covering IT software, the head of Goldman Sachs’s technology group, George Lee, recommended him to Paulson, who had then moved to Treasury.
“I never thought I’d see him in government,” said one banker who knew him. “He enjoyed being a banker and the respect that was conferred on him as being a Goldman banker.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Comment – October 13, 2008
This web site reserves judgement on Neel Kashkari and whether the rescue package succeeds. So although we don’t necessarily concur with the above profile, or any of its conclusions, we feel readers need to know more about a man who has seemingly come from nowhere to occupy such an important post. Ed
Last updated 15/10/2008