CEO succession: Getting sentimental about Goldman

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As Wall Street praises the departing Goldman Sachs CFO, questions about the CEO succession start to loom.

The announcement that David Viniar, CFO of Goldman Sachs, will be retiring next year prompted a bizarre, rather sentimental reaction across Wall Street.

Analysts, including Meredith Whitney and Glenn Schorr, expressed their sadness that the longest-serving CFO on Wall Street won’t be speaking with them regularly any more, praised Viniar’s career and said how sorely he will be missed.

Viniar has been with Goldman some 32 years, and as CFO guided it through its initial public offering in 1999, its glory days in the early 2000s, the financial crisis, and now its on/off position as public enemy number one.

A man of few words, Viniar has, however, always been seen to have things under control at Goldman Sachs. His relatively aloof and sometimes secretive attitude has earned him little public interest, yet his oversight of and insight into Goldman Sachs means a large void will be left. In addition to being CFO, Viniar oversees risk management, operations and technology – meaning many pairs of boots need to be filled.

When Viniar moves to the board, replacing him in all his roles will be Harvey Schwartz, who at 48 is 10 years younger than Viniar and is a co-head in the sales and trading division. Schwartz has overseen the largest revenue provider within Goldman Sachs, but even in the conference call announcing his new position, he said filling Viniar’s shoes would be challenging. He lands the role just when the firm’s profits are sliding and its chief executive is also on the way out.

Indeed, there now seems to be a changing of the guard at Goldman Sachs, and one wonders what will become of the firm in the new era. Lloyd Blankfein, whose departure was expected post-crisis, has remained in his CEO seat, but it won’t be for long. Like Viniar, Blankfein is viewed warmly by Wall Street for his lack of showmanship and ability to talk frankly in private, while being discreet and perhaps even vague in public. His recent public musings on politics have indicated that he might be angling for a position in policymaking in keeping with other Goldman alumni. His departure from the investment bank is expected to be announced within the next year.

The identity of Blankfein’s replacement is not clear. COO Gary Cohn, at 52, would seem an obvious choice and in keeping with the firm’s preference for playing conservative, but his feistier nature is a different tack to the Viniar/Blankfein quietly-does-it approach.

After years of being the target for vitriol, the realization that Goldman’s old guard is off has revealed a warm and fuzzy sentiment for its senior managers after all.