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The lesson of an Australian giant – James Wolfensohn

Beyond the finance pages, Australia may have been a little slow this week to acknowledge and celebrate the life of one of its greats – James David Wolfensohn, December 1,1933 – November 26, 2020.

The obituaries have steadily mounted but it is merely skimming over his life to record that he went from a modestly middle class Sydney childhood and Sydney Boys High to become an Olympic fencer, a master of global investment banking, philanthropist and president of the World Bank for a decade, among other things.

Combine the Washington Post obit with Jill Margo’s AFR feature and you have a better idea of what you might have missed.

I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing him several times back in Business Sunday days, including during the chaos of the Crash of ’87 and the immediate aftermath of 9/11. From those interviews, ranging in place from the Channel 9 Sydney studios to the cold roof of a New York skyscraper to his Manhattan brownstone home, I would like to add two small contributions to what those who knew him better have recorded.

Firstly, what stuck with me most was his insight and concern that the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks could cause a recession that would kill and impoverish vast numbers of people.

He translated the cold statistic of GDP numbers into human cost. A global slowdown of so many points would mean X million people would not rise out of poverty, Y million people would fall back into it – and therefore Z million would die.

That was a little of Wolfensohn’s constant humanity, humanity that was also present in other ways through his love of music, his hospitality and graciousness.

Kerry Packer was among his clients. Channel 9’s then-chief, Sam Chisholm, heard James Wolfensohn was in Sydney and provided the introduction for an interview.

That was good. What was fine though was that, on subsequent trips to New York for various stories, this Master of Universe would somehow find time for us and our rather insignificant little Australian audience.

The second thing wasn’t something he said, it was what he did.

Banking certainly made James Wolfensohn very wealthy, but he could have become much wealthier, obscenely rich perhaps,  if he had continued to concentrate on finance instead of running the World Bank.

James Wolfensohn could have made himself obscenely wealthy, but he turned his skills to running the World Bank instead. Photo: Getty

You had the sense, just as a journalist with a passing knowledge of him,  that he was someone who could feel that enough could be enough.

That contrasts with the multiplying billionaire class for whom even vast amounts are never enough.

It reminded me of an international finance master I came to know from some committee work. He married an Australian and thus came to live here. He told me once he was always grateful for that, because in Australia he was able to reach a point when “enough was enough”.

He said that, if he had stayed in New York, enough would never be enough – there would always be pressure, a drive, to accumulate more. There’s always a bigger mansion to aspire to.

He was saying that there was something about Australia and Australians that made it easier to keep perspective about life.

For some silly parochial reason, I’d like to think James Wolfensohn’s Sydney childhood and youth helped him do that, too, as well as sharpening the talents Jill Margo writes about.

I’d really like to think we’re not losing that perspective, despite the incantations and policies that seem to be trying to drive us towards less balanced goals.

The odds of producing another James Wolfensohn are very long indeed – the finance world rarely comes up with them – but it would be warming to believe we could continue to produce people with a healthy share of that perspective.

A little more grace, a little less grasping.

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