Updated from Tuesday, March 31Goldman Sachs ( GS) shares have come roaring back from their November lows, but the firm's image may have taken a hit after it suffered several setbacks in recent days. Three executives heading Goldman's quantitative investment and quantitative research divisions left the firm on Tuesday, according to several reports. And, as TheStreet.com reported Monday, Byron Trott, a vice chairman of Goldman's investment banking division and a favored banker to Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK-A) Chairman Warren Buffett, is leaving the firm. Other senior Goldman executives are also leaving, including former president and Co-COO Jon Winkleried. Goldman rivals like Morgan Stanley ( MS) also have lost key players of late, so the firm is not alone amid the upheaval in the executive ranks. That said, Goldman also recently fell out of its perennial top spot in several first-quarter rankings of M&A advisors. Still, the company does not seem overly concerned about the recent events. "The firm and our people understand the importance of the Goldman Sachs brand, and we work hard to protect and enhance it," said a Goldman spokeswoman. Most observers seem to think Goldman is on the rebound, even as they acknowledge the firm has taken its lumps. "Public perceptions were super high and so have come down -- particularly for specific individuals who are alumni -- but Goldman Sachs has actually gained in strength -- people additions and capital -- and the environment is much improved," says Charles Ellis, author of The Partnership, a history of Goldman that sees the company in a mostly favorable light. As TheStreet.com observed in December, a talent exodus from Goldman Sachs seemed like the greatest near-term threat to the company's dominance. But so far, at least, most observers say it is unlikely that a series of senior departures could seriously harm the institution.
"It's not necessarily the case that losing these people is a negative thing. It makes way for innovation and new ideas," says Deborah Riviera, head of Wall Street recruiting firm The Succession Group. Others, such as Paul Worthington, head of strategy for branding firm Wolff Olins, view the departures as a troubling sign. "You have people who are fried, who are starting to question what they're doing and they can't necessarily offer the kind of relationships they need to offer to their customers. So if I was recommending a course of action to Goldman Sachs right now, my number one course of action would be to focus on your own people." Interbrand Corp., a global branding consultant, takes things a step further, citing a recent survey it conducted. Interbrand New York CEO Andy Bateman declined to give many details about the survey, but says it showed consumer views of Goldman have worsened more than those of any other company in the banking sector. And while Goldman does not do business directly with consumers, Bateman says Goldman is making a serious mistake if it thinks it can ignore consumers' views. "Their customers' customers are consumers -- are the public, and their sentiment among the public is villainous," Bateman says. Goldman does well in most surveys. It was 15th in Fortune magazine's 2009 "Most Admired Companies," a survey of businesspeople. Goldman is in many ways a victim of its own success, Bateman says.
"In some ways they were the iconic symbol of Wall Street. They were the undisputed heavyweight, and therefore had the further to fall, and fall they did." Financial companies that did well in the survey include American Express ( AXP) JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) Bank of America ( BAC) and TDBank ( TD) Some of these are Interbrand clients, which Goldman is not, but Bateman says Interbrand won't disclose who its clients are. Goldman's bad rep appears to owe a lot to former CEO Hank Paulson, whose handling of the crisis as Treasury Secretary in the Bush administration has drawn widespread criticism. The firm has also been dragged down by its association with AIG ( AIG), having received billions in federal bailout money that went to the insurance giant. Nonetheless James Bell, senior partner at Lipincott, another firm that helps large global companies with their brand image, believes Goldman is in still good shape from a public relations perspective. "I still believe that Goldman is the brand-jewel in the financial services category. Yes, they have been tarnished, but certainly not in the same way as its current and now-defunct peers. Everyone really needs a private sector knight to help pull us out of this and I think Goldman is the most logical candidate," he says.