A poker player since his teens, Gorman has been comfortable placing bets on some major acquisitions, with Morgan Stanley clinching deals to purchase Eaton Vance and E*Trade.
This is part of a series of profiles of top executives in the wealth management industry.
Lawyer and management consultant turned Wall Street titan James Gorman has led Morgan Stanley since January 2010 when he succeeded John Mack as the bank’s chief executive officer.
The Australian American executive has also been Morgan Stanley’s chairman since January 2012.
Born in Melbourne in 1958, Gorman is the seventh in a family of 12 siblings, two of whom died at the age of four. “I think it brings with you a little humility when the whole world isn’t focused on you,” he said during an appearance on the “How Leaders Lead with David Novak” podcast in April 2022.
In a such a large family, he added, “You learn to respect others a lot more. I think, you’re just forced to, otherwise everybody just smacks you down.”
While growing up in Australia’s second largest city, Gorman made trips to his paternal grandfather’s home in the outback. “It had flesh-eating spiders and the toilet was outside — there wasn’t an inside toilet, there was an outside shed,” he told Novak during the podcast. “You had to go outside with a little flashlight, and man, were you worried about those spiders.”
“We slept in bunk beds,” he added. “We used to hit the bunk bed with a cricket bat every night in case there was a snake in there.”
Gorman was educated at Melbourne’s prestigious Xavier College before attending the University of Melbourne, where he graduated with bachelor of arts and bachelor of laws degrees.
Following graduation, he joined the law firm Phillips Fox and Masel. In 1985 Gorman moved to the U.S. to attend Columbia University, graduating with a master’s in business administration in 1987. While at Columbia, he wrote a weekly letter to his family in Australia, a practice he continued for many years.
After his MBA, Gorman stayed in the U.S. and embarked on a career in management consultancy with McKinsey & Co., where he served as a senior partner.
He moved into the financial industry in 1999, when he joined Merrill Lynch, becoming the company’s chief marketing officer. Between 2001 and 2005 he led Merrill’s U.S. and, later, global private client businesses.
In 2004, Gorman passed his U.S. citizenship test. “I figured if you live in a country long enough, you want to be a part of the political process and you sort of owe it to your hosts. They’ve accepted you. Why wouldn’t you accept them?” he told the Financial Times in 2015.
In February 2006, he joined Morgan Stanley as president and chief operating officer of the firm’s global wealth management group. He was named Morgan Stanley’s co-president in December 2007 and led the 2009 joint venture with Citi’s Smith Barney that created Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.
On the “How Leaders Lead" podcast, Gorman described the climate in 2010 when he became CEO. “Right as the financial crisis was happening, we had a huge trading blow,” he said, explaining that around that time, Morgan Stanley lost a third of its total capital on one trade. “I sort of limped through the crisis and then my predecessor John Mack turned it over to me right after it.”
“We were fragile, honestly, [there were] a lot of people betting against our survival — the stock got down to a little over six dollars,” he added. “The first order was really just build some stability back into it and get rid of the dangerous stuff — build some stability and then figure out where to go from there.”
Gorman, who enjoys walking to and from Morgan Stanley’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan and his home, also in Manhattan, described during the podcast the strain he was feeling during the financial crisis. “I was walking home at night, a lot, and I started just throwing up on the street. I thought at the time, ‘That’s weird, like, I’m not feeling stress, I’m a very calm guy,’ but clearly my body and my mind weren’t in the same place. Something inside me was saying, ‘This is enormous pressure and we in the stomach don’t like it.’”
Gorman said he then started working out a lot and became very fit. “I just got real balance back in.” Famously, his fitness regimen has included boxing.
A poker player since his teens, Gorman has been comfortable placing bets on some major acquisitions, with Morgan Stanley clinching deals to purchase Eaton Vance and E*Trade for $7 billion and $13 billion, respectively.
In 2020, he was appointed an Officer of the Order for Australia for “distinguished service to the finance and banking sectors through executive roles at the national and international level.”
In June 2021, Gorman’s comments on New York remote working grabbed attention as the financial industry wrestled with pandemic pressures. “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office, and we want you in the office,” he said at the Morgan Stanley Financials, Payments & CRE Conference.
He qualified his comments during an earnings call the following month. While in-person work is the best way for people to provide and receive mentorship and develop their careers, Gorman said, flexibility will be provided when required.
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