Obituary: James Wolfensohn was a giant on the global stage

Don WoolfordAP
James D. Wolfensohn speaks with Bono from the rock band U2 in 2000.
Camera IconJames D. Wolfensohn speaks with Bono from the rock band U2 in 2000. Credit: Ami Vitale/Getty Images

International financier and multimillionaire, Olympian, cellist, A-list networker, president of the World Bank and Middle East peace envoy — James Wolfensohn was a modern renaissance man.

It’s doubtful if any Australian, except Rupert Murdoch, has had greater global influence. The title of Mr Wolfensohn’s autobiography said it all: A global life: My journey among the rich and poor, from Sydney to Wall Street to the World Bank.

James David Wolfensohn, who died yesterday aged 86, was born in Sydney on December 1, 1933.

He attended Sydney University where he got an arts and law degree, a fencing talent that took him to the 1956 Olympics, and a position with leading law firm Allen Allen and Hemsley.

By Mr Wolfensohn’s account, a turning point came when he stumbled over some commercial terms and his senior colleague snapped: “Why the hell don’t you go to Harvard Business School?”

He did, and from that point investing became his focus. It was there, too, that he met his future wife, Elaine Botwinick.

US President Bill Clinton along with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn in 2000.
Camera IconUS President Bill Clinton along with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn in 2000. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After a stint in Europe he returned to Australia and was soon a partner in the brokerage and investment house Ord Minnett.

He started earning seriously big money when he became head of corporate business with Salomon Brothers in New York. He was at the centre of the Chrysler bailout, the then-biggest financial rescue in corporate history.

After five years he left, a wealthy man, to start his own corporate finance business.

His first tilt at becoming president of the World Bank was unsuccessful and instead Mr Wolfensohn focused on his boutique investment company which attracted big clients, including, from Australia, Westpac, Lend Lease, BHP and Westfield.

His forays into venture capital didn’t all have happy endings. He and Kerry Packer had been friends for years and were in various partnerships. According to Mr Wolfensohn, after Mr Packer’s near-fatal 1990 heart attack, there was a falling out, and “the rift was total. I never spoke to Kerry again”.

In 1995, after an hour-long interview with president Bill Clinton, Mr Wolfensohn got the job he had sought 14 years earlier, and for the next decade was president of the World Bank.

Mr Wolfensohn is widely regarded as one of the bank’s most influential and controversial presidents.

With his energy and endless travelling, often to some of the world’s most desperate countries, he was a tonic to an organisation some felt had become too inward-looking.

Mr Wolfensohn’s interests went beyond business.

Music was always a great love and he became a competent cellist who performed at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Mr Wolfensohn never lost his affection for Australia and at the age of 76, after a change to US law to accommodate dual citizenship, regained his Australian citizenship.

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