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Profile: Robert Hormats of Goldman Sachs asks: 'What are we going to leave our children?'

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-01-21

A conversation with Robert Hormats -- vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International and a celebrated figure on that global circuit peopled by American economists with worldwide visibility -- brings to mind a towering figure of another era. John J. McCloy also hailed from New York's financial community. A close adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and assistant secretary of war during World War II, Mr. McCloy was among the so-called "Wise Men" who made private fortunes and yet devoted large portions of their time to public service.

"An individual from the New York private sector who also has experience in Washington -- such an individual has always had a useful role to play in American life, in policy making, in shaping our country's financial future," Mr. Hormats told The New York Sun yesterday. "While Washington and New York are separated by just a short Shuttle flight, there's often a gap between what politicians there see, and what Wall Street sees."

And his role, the veteran investment banker said, is that of a "bridge builder."

It is a role that has its provenance in the late 1960s when, 27 years old and barely out of graduate school, he got a job as a senior staff member for international economic affairs on the National Security Council. In that capacity, Mr. Hormats acted as senior economic advisor to Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, General Brent Scowcroft, and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski. He still speaks warmly of them, but especially of Dr. Kissinger who, Mr. Hormats said, "taught me the importance of being able to work with diverse people, and to listen carefully."

Listening carefully is one characteristic that Mr. Hormats says is essential for success, whether in business or politics or just about any other endeavor.

"You can learn from everyone," he said over green tea at The Four Seasons restaurant. "I've found that almost everyone I've met -- from a boss to the person who comes to clean the office -- has something to contribute. Being able to listen to people enhances your ability to work better with them. In business, as in life, it doesn't necessarily help to be a Long Ranger. You have to work with others, and you have to be able to respect people, even those with sharply differing views."

That, as much as anything, explains why Mr. Hormats is a highly respected figure on both sides of the aisle in Congress, where he's called on to testify on issues ranging from globalization to educational reform. It also explains why he's sought after on the lecture circuit, earning fees of up to $20,000 a speech. And it explains his prominence at blue chip institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations.

In all these forums, Mr. Hormats can be counted on to make clear, cogent presentation on issues of the day, employing a formidable battery of statistics and also a historical perspective. In fact, history is something that is a living presence for him: his office on Wall Street gives him a spectacular view of New York Harbor and Ellis Island, where his grandparents landed 100 years ago as immigrants from Eastern Europe.

"I often think of the view they must have had of New York as they sailed into the harbor -- a city of opportunity," Mr. Hormats said. "New York has always been a very welcoming society for immigrants, a place where they can make their dreams come true."

His own dreams were fashioned in Baltimore, where he grew up. But New York has been home since the early 1980s, after his years in Washington where he not only served on the National Security Council but also helped prepare eight economic summits. He was assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs in the Reagan Administration, and before that was deputy trade representative as well as senior deputy assistant secretary for economic and business affairs in the Carter Administration.

With credentials like that, little wonder that when Mr. Hormats speaks, other people listen carefully. And these days, he is particular vocal about improving America's educational standards, especially because, as he put it yesterday, young Americans need to be better prepared to compete in a world of rapid innovation and globalization.

He is concerned, too, that global terrorism could lead to economic disruption -- one reason why, he said, it is vital that America "listen to other countries" and work cooperatively with them in fighting that scourge. And he's concerned about getting affordable health-care for everyday Americans.

But when someone achieves the stature of a Robert Hormats, it is natural that he starts to think and talk about a legacy.

"The morality of a generation is judged by its legacy," Mr. Hormats said, eruditely paraphrasing the late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "Are we leaving our children a better society, an America, a better world? Or are we leaving them a world burdened with debts that we generously shifted to them?"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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