From the archive: Meet Malcolm Turnbull

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In November 1998, Euromoney charted the extraordinary career of Malcolm Turnbull, now the prime minister of Australia, from trial journalist, lawyer of 'last resort' to Goldman Sachs banker.

Malcolm Turnbull, Chairman of Goldman Sachs, Australia

by Philip Eade

Malcolm Turnbull 1999-R-600
Malcolm Turnbull, pictured at the Great Australian Referendum Debate in the late 1990s 

Malcolm Turnbull - lawyer, writer and, more recently, investment banker - seems to have the knack of profiting from difficult times. In 1987 he co-founded an investment bank four months before the world financial markets collapsed.

The crash had caused much of corporate Australia to become disillusioned with their existing financial advisers, leaving the door open for Turnbull. "A new bank like ours, which had given no bad advice (only because no one had asked for it) was able to offer a fresh prospective. We got off to a good start."

Now a little over a year after joining Goldman Sachs Australia, the award of a partnership means that Turnbull once again stands to benefit from a financial slump. In this instance, the worldwide stockmarket crash has prompted Goldman to postpone its flotation, thereby entitling Turnbull and the other new partners to receive a share of the proceeds when it does eventually take place.

Turnbull has managed to squeeze an extraordinary amount into his 44 years. He became famous in Britain and beyond in the late 1980s as the lawyer for Peter Wright in the Spycatcher case. Soon after Turbull had founded a law firm in 1986, the retired British spy Wright was looking for someone to defend the publication of his memoirs. Turnbull became, as he modestly puts it "the lawyer of last resort".

Turnbull was born on October 24 1954 in Sydney. His father was a "hotel broker", his mother (Carol Lansbury) a novelist and later professor of English Literature in New Zealand. His parents separated when he was nine, after which his father brought him up. While doing a combined arts and law degree at Sydney University, he worked on newspapers in his spare time. He was a full-time journalist from 1975 and after a year as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in 1978, worked for The Sunday Times.

In 1980 he returned to Australia where he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. That year he also married Lucy Hughes, the niece of the art critic Robert Hughes; they went on to have two children.

Turnbull practised as a barrister in Sydney for two years. Then, in 1983, his father was killed in an aeroplane accident. Thinking he needed, as he recalls, "a nice quiet twelve months in a corporate backwater" while he sorted out his father's affairs, Turnbull took a job as general counsel of Kerry Packer's Consolidated Press Holdings.

The job was anything but quiet. Soon he was busy defending Packer against accusations of impropriety levelled at him by a Royal Commission. And then came the Spycatcher case. "It was a very big news story," he recalls. "Every trial lawyer has a bit of an actor in them - the spotlight's rarely unwelcome." But it also dawned on him that it was going to be difficult to better it. "I realized I had got as much fun out of the law as I was likely to get," he says. So by 1987, before the case had reached its conclusion, Turnbull decided that his professional future lay elsewhere. Investment banking, he says, seemed "more creative, more lucrative, more interesting".

The bank that he founded in July 1987 with Nicholas Whitlam (ex-State Bank of NSW) did well out of advising companies on restructuring after the crash. With limited capital, Turnbull & Partners, as it became, was essentially an advisory boutique, specializing in telecommunications and media deals. It later broadened into venture capital, and Turnbull co-founded Ozemail, the largest Australian internet company and the first Australian firm to register an IPO on Nasdaq.

Turnbull was appointed chairman of Goldman Sachs Australia in August last year, bringing with him several colleagues from Turnbull & Partners. The office has some 30 people doing corporate advisory, fixed income and metals commodities trading.

"I think it has been recognized for some time that Goldman has been underweight in Australia. The firm's view is that it should grow incrementally rather than by acquisition, and to build deliberately so as to maintain the very strong culture of the firm." Goldman's spokesman adds that the firm's policy of organic growth means that lateral entry at a senior level, as has been the case with Turnbull, is extremely rare.

Turnbull has rather less time these days than in the past to devote to the Australian Republican Movement, of which he is chairman - although he did take two weeks of his annual leave to attend the constitutional convention. He also finds little time any more for his former recreations of riding and swimming. He now restricts his athletic pursuits to paddling a kayak around Sydney Harbour.