A Goldman Partner’s Odyssey From Karachi to Wooing America
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. signage is displayed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg)

A Goldman Partner’s Odyssey From Karachi to Wooing America

Omer Ismail knows some people can’t believe he was chosen to sell America on Goldman Sachs.

He talks of his first years in the U.S. as a Muslim man from Pakistan after the Sept. 11 attacks -- learning firsthand about strangers who look askance at people who look or sound like him. He keeps reminders in his desk, like a news clipping raising alarm about a link between his hometown and a plot to bomb Times Square. The headline blares: “THE KARACHI CONNECTION.”

Ismail has long pondered the daunting challenge of changing perceptions. Now, as Goldman leans harder into an unlikely strategy, he’s the man tapped to transform the famously fierce Wall Street bank into a friendly face for Main Street.

“Let’s be real, I don’t look like a typical Wall Street, a typical Goldman Sachs executive,” he said in a July speech. “I sometimes get a second look when I tell someone I am a partner at the bank.”

A Goldman Partner’s Odyssey From Karachi to Wooing America

The 41-year-old is taking over as head of the budding consumer-banking division, Marcus, which Goldman’s top brass swears has grown far beyond an experiment into a pillar of the firm’s future structure. He faces challenges on two fronts: Help win over colleagues who are still wary of catering to consumers, and persuade consumers to trust Goldman Sachs.

It’s quite a pivot. A decade ago the bank was the envy of Wall Street, printing record profits. But years of sedate markets and stiffer competition eroded returns and forced it to consider new frontiers.

The broker-in-chief of complex deals now also peddles savings accounts, credit cards and loans to everyday Americans. It’s gone from bumptious investment bank to debt collector during a raging pandemic, asking a Texas judge in September, for example, to help recoup $7,697 from a used car salesman.

Some Goldman elders remain critical and suspicious of the moves, especially at a time of belt tightening. One senior partner bemoans the cash drain and says just because Walmart makes money selling whole milk doesn’t mean Goldman should too.

Solomon’s Bet

Chief Executive Officer David Solomon is staking his success on this rebrand of Goldman Sachs. He’s installed a trusted lieutenant, Stephanie Cohen, to help oversee consumer and wealth divisions. Widely viewed as a contender for the CEO post one day, she’s expected to shepherd the consumer group more closely after grumblings that its previous heads -- Eric Lane and Tim O’Neill, who also led a larger money-management arm -- paid scant attention.

Goldman got the consumer business off the ground by poaching an outsider, senior Discover Financial Services executive Harit Talwar, effectively importing the consumer DNA that it lacked. For Goldman’s first four years in the business, Ismail, a career Goldmanite, served as Talwar’s guide to the company.

Now the ambitious insider’s star is on the rise, with Ismail succeeding Talwar atop a division that’s turned from a sinkhole of money to churning out growth. It’s scaled past $1 billion in annual revenue, and analysts are watching for signs it will go on the M&A prowl to bulk up.

“There were always going to be questions of ‘Are we ever going to make money?,’” Cohen said in an interview. “We are way beyond the point of generating our first dollar of revenue. We have a base and it will only continue to grow.”

‘Organ Rejection’

Ismail grew up about as far as one can from Wall Street. He attended a prominent school in Pakistan at the same time as Hollywood star Kumail Nanjiani, then in 1998 left for Dartmouth College. As editor of the campus newspaper, his job included coaxing another student -- Mindy Kaling -- to file her cartoon strip by the daily deadline.

But for his career, he went to Wall Street, seeking an employer that could navigate the byzantine U.S. visa system. He sandwiched a Harvard Business School degree between two stints at Goldman.

He has a way of disarming even senior leaders who intimidate others, according to Eric Muller, a former partner who lured him back from Harvard. That was instrumental when Ismail was picked to formulate a plan for what became Marcus. He’ll need that trait and thick skin to run such a counter-cultural group inside the investment bank.

“If you’re not tough in that seat, you are going to get destroyed at Goldman,” Muller said. “Standing up that business inside of Goldman is not easy. You had high risk of organ rejection.”

A $10 Tip

Ismail’s only prior foray into retail was running a pair of fast-casual joints with his wife, which they hoped would take off as a Chipotle for South Asian food. The venture didn’t last long, but it did get a shoutout in Barack Obama’s weekly address for lifting its minimum wage after his wife wrote to the president.

Now his remaining tie to the restaurant business is the Subway franchise his parents run in Albany, where he sometime doubles up as delivery man when he visits. One such trip last year yielded a $10 tip. Wall Street’s flashy ways haven’t changed him much, according to Ismail’s friend Tom Hoare, a former George W. Bush White House aide.

“He’s the kind of guy who would buy a pullover in a discount store on sale and brag about it,” Hoare said.

Goldman, though, needs someone who relates to consumers. Ismail’s most delicate balancing act will be to take Goldman deeper into Main Street, even as it navigates the inevitable blowbacks from missteps and mistakes. That was the No. 1 fear among top executives when it weighed prospects for the new business.

A furor over its AppleCard last year, set off by a social media post alleging gender discrimination in approval decisions, put the harsh spotlight on Goldman. Executives insist its systems aren’t systematically biased. More recently, Goldman has been lighting up court dockets in pursuit of unpaid loans. After initially pledging not to send debt collectors after customers, it changed its mind. Some borrowers are hitting back, accusing Goldman of unfair debt-collection or credit-reporting tactics.

And even as the bank has had blowups elsewhere -- like the 1MDB scandal shepherded by its investment bankers -- nothing poses quite as much risk to the bank’s reputation as its dealings with everyday Americans.

Ismail is well aware that Goldman has work to do on its image.

Another clipping filed away in a manila folder in his desk is a newspaper cartoon from the wake of the financial crisis. A caricature of Osama Bin Laden rubs his hands with glee and shares his plan to profit from the ruin and destruction of America. To which another man turns around and asks, “Are you with Goldman Sachs, too?”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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