|27 Nov 2020|
James Wolfensohn was born on December 1, 1933. He was named after the famed James de Rothschild, for whom his father worked. In his formative years he was protected and promoted by what we would call today ‘helicopter parents’. Even as a teenager he felt as if he always depended on someone else and had something to prove. He entered High in 1944 as a grade-skipped accelerant at the age of 11. He found the transition to high school very stressful as he lacked the support that would be provided to accelerated students today. It was difficult for him to relate to his peers who were older and worldlier than he was, and his socio-emotional development was not aligned with theirs, so he became a keen observer of others’ behaviour, which became a great asset in his later business career.
He played tennis in his early years at High, coached at White City by the legendary Harry Hopman. He was selected as a member of the u13 state squad but dropped out after paternal pressure. James found his feet socially in the Great Synagogue Youth Group. He developed a supportive social network. At High, James found a love of music and performance that would influence the direction of his life. John Tingle wrote in The Record of 1949: “Jimmy Wolfensohn, who will be remembered as Ruth in the Pirates of Penzance last year, is to be highly commended for a brilliant and polished performance as the haughty Duchess of Plaza Toro,” in The Gondoliers. He later both personally donated and joined the boards of the famed Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Centre, which had fallen into difficult times via financial pressure and brought both back to their pre-eminent positions as centre of east cost performance.
The young James matriculated with a modest Leaving Certificate result and enrolled at the University of Sydney. In his first year, he played a lot of chess and frequented the Union Building, not attending lectures. This failure in first year was a turning point. “The fact that my parents couldn’t save me became my salvation.” Wolfensohn was mentored the next year by Julius Stone (Challis Professor of Jurisprudence and International Law) and his wife. They taught him the methodology that came to characterise his life.
Another important mentor for James was Rupert Blight who recruited him onto the University of Sydney fencing team. For five years he learned self-discipline and the pursuit of goals. By 1953 he was selected in the training squad for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, where he competed in the Australian Epée team. James also joined the Sydney University Squadron. He constantly sought opportunities to make social connections reprising the way his parents had made them for him. “I jumped at opportunities as they arose.” Being in the right place at the right time and getting personally connected with influential mentors, were signature social networking skills James developed.
Wolfensohn graduated with a BA, LLB (USyd) and worked at Allen, Allen & Hemsley. “I put in a tremendous number of hours and tried always to be one step ahead.” He moved on to Harvard Business School in 1957, where he soon met his future wife Elaine Botwinick, who he felt had “a marvellous sense of structure, culture and values”. (They were married in November 1961). After graduating from Harvard with an MBA, in 1959, Wolfensohn obtained a research and teaching post at the ‘International Institute for Management Development’ in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1960, he returned to New York as Director of Growth and Development at Rheem International.
By 1962 James and Elaine had settled in Sydney and started a family, with three children, Sara, Naomi and Adam. Wolfensohn bought a seat on the Sydney Stock Exchange so as to become a partner in Ord Minnett, specialising in mergers, acquisitions and debt raisings. He became one of three managing directors of Darling & Co (Australia’s first merchant bank), while lecturing at the UNSW Business School.
In 1967, Wolfensohn moved to London as a director of Schroeder, Wagg & Co., moving on to become President and CEO of Schrobanco in New York in 1970. He specialised in government bond trading and became Chairman of Schroders International in 1973. After being overlooked as Chairman of Schroders while working in London, Wolfensohn joined Salomon Brothers Brokerage House, where he helped save Chrysler from bankruptcy.
In the winter of 1975-76 both of James’ parents died. He credited his father for giving him a driving ambition and for inculcating life-forming values: “education, family, hard work, service and Judaism.”
In 1981, James set up his own firm James D. Wolfensohn Inc. to “advise on capital structures, mergers and acquisitions.” He played to his strengths, building human relations with clients and focusing intently on the job at hand. His skills were in “making people work well together.” He built a network of clients until he had to divest himself of his financial interests in order to serve as President of the World Bank in May 1995.
Wolfensohn served two terms as President (1995-2005). He tried to replace a culture of structural bureaucratic responses with one driven by ideals – such as the reduction of world poverty. He strove for institutional consensus on the main goals. He went to Africa to get the perspective of the Bank’s clients. He reduced the tensions between NGOs and the Bank. At the conclusion of his two terms the combined sovereign debt of the 31 countries targeted by the World Bank had been reduced from $106b to $40b.
Sir James led a concerted effort to fight corruption. Independent audits of World Bank projects were undertaken. One result was relocating Bank officials into client countries – 3,000 by 1999. After the December 1995 Paris Accord ended the war in Bosnia, the World Bank was given a role in reconstruction in the conflict zone. The operating policy ‘Development Cooperation and Conflict’ was developed to extend aid to conflict affected areas.
Wolfensohn launched the Comprehensive Development Framework in September 1999. His sponsored study ‘Voices of the Poor’, spent two years finding out what the clients of the World Bank needed. They wanted to gain a sense of wellbeing through better housing, health and community services and personal safety. Clients were asked to suggest poverty reduction programs to be assessed by the Bank. Poor nations were invited to co-design their futures.
Wolfensohn’s second term began in June 2000. There were still three billion poor people in the world. There were reconstruction projects in Afghanistan in May 2002, and in Sri Lanka and India after the Tsunami of December 2004. He opined that “my decade at the Bank was the reason for my life”.
He was appointed Special Envoy of the Quartet (USA / Russia / EU/ UN) to lead, oversee and coordinate international efforts in support of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. The withdrawal was implemented in August-September of 2005. Hamas won the elections in early 2006. Crossings were closed. US aid was stopped because Hamas would neither recognise Israel’s legitimacy as a state, nor reject violence against it. Wolfensohn resigned at the end of April. He was convinced that “without hope of economic development and improvement of human conditions, there would be no prospect of peace.”
Sir James set up in private practice again in New York as CEO and Chairman of Wolfensohn & Company LLC. He shared his time between New York and his family estate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
A defining feature of Wolfensohn’s career was his parallel involvement in his “social and cultural context.” He approached David Rockefeller to offer his services and was made Chairman of the US Customs House Trust. He demonstrated that philanthropy can be a great community service “with or without money.” James organised music concerts and attracted donors to restore the building as the New York Branch of the American Indian Museum.
He became a board member (1970) and then Chairman (1980-1991) of Carnegie Hall, playing his cello there on his 50th birthday. He was instrumental in raising the $65m needed for the iconic building’s restoration. He raised significant funds as Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, turning around its ailing finances, and being actively involved in its programming.
Wolfensohn valued his participation on the boards of charitable institutions as “a chance to meet people with broad interests who were ready to volunteer their time and talent for the benefit of the community.” James became a dedicated philanthropist with a goal of giving away 20% of his income. Despite being a US citizen 1980-2010, Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him a Knighthood for his contribution to the arts. In his acceptance speech for the 2017 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy he said, “if you have wealth, you have to share it.”
Sir James Wolfensohn was a Patron of the Sydney High School Old boys Union. He passed away on November 24, having been weakened by a fall earlier in the year. He was a significant figure on the world stage in international finance, high-level business advice and philanthropy. His notable attribute was his ability to bring people together in a common cause. His life-focus was on family, service and hard work. He will be missed.