The King David Schools boasts of a number of prominent alumni who have scaled to heights in their respective fields, but in the last couple of weeks, one particular graduate has grabbed the attention of financiers and laypeople worldwide. Former Goldman Sachs Exec Greg Smith has found himself in the limelight with a scathing op-ed that appeared in the pages of the New York Times, just as his letter of resignation landed on his former employer’s desk.
The grandchild of Lithuanian Jews, Greg Smith was raised by a middle class family in Johannesburg in the 1990s. He attended the King David Schools, and according to differing reports, excelled in school, sports, and, most critically, in his moral judgments.
“He was a remarkable young man, exceptionally intelligent with an integrity that is probably unequalled,” Elliot Wolf, the former headmaster at Smith’s alma mater, told Reuters in an interview. “[Greg was] an absolutely remarkable man with high principles. He was an asset to the school in every possible way.”
In his last year of secondary school, in 1996, Smith took eight exams and allegedly earned high honors in each class. School records indicate that math, Hebrew, English, Afrikaans, and accounting, were among the classes taken by Smith during his senior year. “Such has been the passion of the King David schools for 60 years, delivering an excellent general education together with the study of Hebrew, Jewish Studies and the living of the Jewish calendar and year cycle,” writes Rabbi Kacev, the General Director of the South Africa Board of Jewish Education, about the nature of King David’s curriculum.
Outside of the classroom, Smith was also recognized for his distinctive personality.
“He was a stand-up kid, he always did what was right,” said Rainer Sztab, head of the Gauteng Maccabi Table Tennis Club which Smith frequented during his youth. Despite his ethical and humble tendencies, Smith was ambitious and held hopes for a better future.
“He was a great guy and was clearly going somewhere,” added Sztab. “He came from a pretty ordinary family but really wanted to make something of himself and had said for some time he wanted to move to America.”
At the culmination of his high school years, Smith earned a scholarship to attend Stanford University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics in 2001, and moved to the investment bank Goldman Sachs following graduation. During his more than ten years at the bank, Smith held several different positions. When he resigned from the bank on March 14, 2012, Smith was the executive director of Goldman Sachs’ equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Though the position itself was not exactly at the peak of the corporate ladder, Smith’s op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” and published on the day of his resignation, gave him celebrity status among businessman and intrigued observers all over the globe. In a harsh yet poignant critique of firm’s day-to-day operations, Smith cited Goldman Sachs’ money-driven environment and stressed how ethics and acting in the best interests of clients had been relegated to monetary incentives over his years there.
“To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money,” Smith wrote. “The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.”
Aside from issuing a call for ethical corporate practices, Smith also explained from a business perspective how undermining clients’ interests was not in the best interest of Goldman Sachs’ long-term success. “I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its survival,” he explained. “Get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons.”
There has been much debate about the authenticity of Smith’s claims in the wake of the op-ed. Some have criticized his message, while others have taken offense with the way in which he aimed to express his views and sound alarm among his coworkers. People close to Smith, however, have stressed how he was a nice, considerate, and thoughtful individual.
“I interacted with Greg mainly during my ‘06 summer and from ‘07 to March ‘08, when I was physically in the NY [Goldman Sachs] office,” wrote Avneesh Singh Saluja, a former colleague. “I hold him in very high regard – he took care of us junior guys, gave us great pieces of advice, and in general came across as one of the more personable, friendly, and genuine guys on the floor.”
Some influential people within financial circles have also voiced understanding and sympathy with the grievances outlined by Smith in his piece.
“I thought the article was a reflection of Wall Street in general and ‘let buyer beware’” Henry Goldman III, the great-grandson of Marcus Goldman, the eponymous founder of Goldman-Sachs, told Business Insider. “It’s certainly something friends of mine have discussed ad infinitum.”