The venue was the Gotham Club -- an exclusive den inside the San Francisco Giants’ home stadium. It’s the ultimate man-cave.
It was here on an evening last December when roughly 100 women from the investment banking world gathered at an event billed as a leadership dinner. The caucus started as a small gathering a decade ago organized by Stephanie Cohen -- then an up-and-coming banker at Goldman Sachs, who was vexed by the chummy boys network that’s long dominated the business of guiding mergers and acquisitions.
Since then, the 41-year-old has charted a rapid rise inside Goldman Sachs, landing a seat last week on its most coveted decision-making body. Her elevation was the most noticeable in the group of four tapped to join the management committee, and not just because it’s comprised mostly of men.
Cohen is now the committee’s youngest, with the rare label of “ex officio” member. The bureaucratic asterisk is likely meant to avoid upsetting senior executives who’ve spent much longer trying to get on the panel, without luck. She’s about 10 years younger than the average man already on the committee, after becoming a partner just four years ago.
Since the start of this year, Cohen has held the weighty title of chief strategy officer -- leading a team that helps decide where the bank should pursue new lines of business or acquisitions of its own. When Goldman’s board gathered on the West Coast in late June, she gave a presentation on that group’s work.
This account of her ascent is based on interviews with people who’ve worked with Cohen, who asked not to be named discussing their interactions.
In mid-July, the company announced it will promote David Solomon to succeed Lloyd Blankfein as chief executive officer. Cohen’s elevation to the committee followed just days later -- strong evidence she has the incoming CEO’s confidence. She’ll be among seven women on the 33-person panel. Some inside the bank wonder whether she’s destined to rise even higher.
“A lot of investment bankers have the attention span of a gnat,” said Stephen DeFalco, who was the CEO of Crane & Co. before Goldman Sachs helped sell the company. “But she really got it. She dug into the bones of the deal and was very compelling.”
The sale of that company, which has been making parts of the U.S. currency bill going back to the 19th century, was among the last deals she worked on before moving to the executive suite.
Cohen is a Goldman Sachs lifer who started at the bank as an analyst back in 1999, spending time in New York and San Francisco. Unlike traders, who can shoot to prominence within Wall Street firms at a very young age, Cohen’s career tracked that of the typical banker, climbing to be managing director in the class of 2008.
It was during a stint in the conflict and business selection group that her work stood out, according to a person who worked with her at the time. The group, typically considered the killjoys within investment banking, have to tell senior bankers about the deals they can’t pursue -- a tricky task in the best of times.
She went on to a more traditional M&A role in the industrials team. Key deals there included Chrysler’s repayment of a loan from the U.S. government, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified discussing private information.
That meant Cohen had to work closely with the then-CEO of the Fiat-Chrysler group, Sergio Marchionne, sometimes camping out for talks in Detroit or paying visits to the U.S. Treasury Department. The delicate transaction was a milestone in the carmaker’s comeback after the financial crisis. It celebrated the repayment by handing employees buttons that said “Paid.”
In a sign of her rising stature, Cohen was selected to lead the creation of a new unit to service a critical client base for Goldman Sachs -- the private-equity firms, family offices and other strategic investors who are a force of their own in the deal-making world. Consequently, they can be prickly customers.
“Sometimes you have to tell people what they don’t want to hear, and she’s among the best I’ve seen when she gives advice,” said Eileen Nugent, a senior M&A lawyer who has advised on buyouts.
Cohen, who’s worked with large corporate clients including 3M Co. -- a relationship previously fostered by Solomon -- was named to the strategy post after Stephen Scherr, the previous mantle-holder, was tapped to build out the consumer-banking unit.
If her tenure there is successful, it could pave the way for Cohen to make history at the firm. Some there have earmarked her as a candidate to become the first woman to lead the investment banking division, the bank’s most profitable arm.
“It’s great for a woman to be achieving this level of success at Goldman and she’s certainly capable of going further,” Nugent said.