Adrian Jones: Wall Street 50 Keynote Interview

2012 Wall Street 50 Keynote Speaker Adrian Jones. Photo: Kit DeFever.

After eight years in the Irish military and eighteen with Goldman Sachs, Adrian Jones understands what it means to be an effective leader.  With his strong ideas about what needs to change in Ireland, he might be just the leader the diaspora needs.

Not many immigrants living in America are confronted with their country’s history on the way to work. But for Adrian Jones, a Roscommon native who has lived in the U.S. for 23 years, Ireland’s past is part of the morning commute.

When he gets off the ferry that takes him across the Hudson River from New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and their two sons, to Manhattan’s Battery Park, Jones is faced with a meaningful juxtaposition. New York’s Irish Hunger memorial, a naturalistic and beautifully composed monument to the devastating effects of famine in Ireland, sits just beyond the waterfront. Above it rises 200 West Street, the sleek, demure and thoroughly modern headquarters of Goldman Sachs, the investment banking and securities giant where Jones is a managing director in the Merchant Banking Division and co-head of its Americas Equity investing business. In this position, he identifies various opportunities for his division’s Investment Committee and monitors the progress of funds and companies in which Goldman and its clients have invested.

When we met in June, in a conference room on 200 West Street’s quiet, light-filled top floor, Jones reflected on the coincidence of his office’s proximity to the memorial (the building was completed in 2010; the memorial has been there since 2002). “There’s a famine museum, Strokestown, just a few miles from where I grew up. It’s a fabulous place, and I think anyone who visits Ireland should go. It was the house of a landlord, Denis Mahon, who was assassinated by some of his tenants during the famine. [Mahon’s killing didn’t halt the evictions, and eventually over 11,000 tenants were evicted from the estate.] It was a brutal time in that area, and the famine was the seminal event in Irish life over the last 300 years. When I pass the monument every day, I see his name and it brings it all together for me.”

This is fitting for Jones, who exemplifies both the possibilities of the modern immigrant success story and the enduring concern for one’s homeland felt by many Irish living in America. At 48, he is calm and collected, with a posture and a no-nonsense attitude that indicate his background in the Irish army. In conversation, his expressive face reveals a lighter side, especially when talking about his family, a recent 30th reunion with his cadet school colleagues, and taking his older son, Danny, to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Dublin.

Born in 1964 into a farming family, Jones, the eldest of seven siblings, learned early on what it means to work hard and be responsible. At a young age he was introduced to marketing, buying and selling at cattle marts with his father. There was little money around for higher education, but Jones was an excellent student. At seventeen, he earned a cadetship in the highly selective Irish Military College, which he describes as the most formative experience of his life. “It was basically zero-tolerance for anything other than excellence. The model was built around putting maximum pressure on us both physically and mentally, and testing us individually and as teams.”

Two years later, as a junior officer, Jones began university at the National University of Ireland, Galway, majoring in economics and political science. His studies, combined with a trip to the U.S. in the summer of 1984, helped set him on the course of his future career. “It was a very interesting time over here, and that trip triggered a real interest in economics and markets,” he recalled. Jones had another reason to be interested in the U.S. – during his time at college in Galway, he met Christina, an American from Maine, who was doing her junior year abroad. The young couple married while Jones was still in the army, and lived in Ireland while he completed his duties.

Eight years in the military provided Jones with skills and a perspective that have served him well, both personally and in the corporate world. As cadets, he and his classmates studied tactics and military theory for several months in their classroom in the Curragh, and were then sent to the Wicklow Mountains to put what they had learned into practice. “You would be called upon to assemble a team on the spot, and the one choice you could make was who would be your second in command,” Jones explained. Though he didn’t quite realize its significance at the time, a pattern soon emerged in terms of who was chosen for that responsibility.

“You saw over time that there was a subset of the class who were consistently better than the others. They just worked harder, they were better organized, they were more focused, and they were able to apply what they had learned in the classroom more effectively in the field. The interesting thing was that it wasn’t always the people you initially thought it would be – not the loudest guy, the funniest or the smartest, but the ones who you just knew could be relied on. It was an important moment for me, seeing that.”

After graduating from Galway, Jones worked in the army in various capacities ranging from providing armed security (Ireland’s national police force is unarmed) and border security to confronting the internal threat of terrorism from the IRA. He was based in Cork and then in Dublin, where he earned a master’s degree in economics at night from University College Dublin.

For seven months from 1987 to 1988, he served as part of the peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, fulfilling Ireland’s commitment to the United Nations. He was 23 and learned a lot.  Along with soldiers from Africa and Northern Europe, the role of the Irish soldiers was to prevent Hezbollah from attacking the Israelis, and to protect the civilians caught in the middle when the Israelis launched an onslaught into Lebanon.

It was there, faced with the task of commanding both new recruits and seasoned veterans, that Jones fully learned what it means to be a leader. “One of the things you learn very early on in the army is the extraordinary power of teamwork versus people working for themselves,” he said. “In Lebanon, my role was, first of all, to achieve the mission and to protect the other men, but also to get the most out of them. There was a lot I didn’t know, so there were a lot of challenges along the way. As a leader, you have to ask yourself certain questions. Are you fair? Do you have mutual respect for the people you’re working with? Are you consistent? Are you honest? And you develop your style. You learn to deal with pressure, to deal with people, to achieve the right balance between ego and the objective. All that has been very helpful for what I do today.”

Jones left the army in 1989 with the rank of lieutenant and returned to civilian life. He was 25 and ready to branch out from the military, but understood that he would likely need to look abroad. “Ireland was a pretty depressed place at the time. There was very limited opportunity to find an entry-level position in business unless you were really well-connected and part of the inner sphere, and I clearly wasn’t,” he recalled. “I qualified for a green card, and I was at an age when I was ready to take a chance.”

He and Christina moved to Boston, where Jones found work at the Bank of Boston, in the derivatives sector. “I got to see enough of corporate banking, mergers and acquisitions, and private equity to know that was an area I found particularly interesting,” he said. He concluded that in order to get the positions he was really interested in he would need to get an MBA. He was accepted at several schools and chose Harvard.

Before his second year there, Jones was a summer intern at Goldman Sachs, and the following year, in 1994, he was offered a full time position with the firm in New York, as an associate in the Communications, Media and Telecommunication group. After some time in the Equity Capital Markets group, he got the chance to go to London, to work with the chairman of Goldman’s European business, Peter Sutherland (a fellow Irishman), an experience Jones describes as “very educational and hugely enjoyable. Peter is an extraordinary man. I learned so much working with him, and he has been a great friend to me since then.”

In 1998, still in London, he joined Goldman’s Merchant Bank, and then returned to the U.S. in 2002, as a managing director in the Merchant Banking Division’s Principal Investment Area. He was made a partner in 2004, and serves on his division’s Global Investment Committee. At the time of our interview, Jones had recently been promoted to co-head of the Merchant Bank’s Americas Equity business.

Deirdre O’Connor, an Irish Goldman Sachs colleague (and Wall Street 50 honoree) calls Jones “a quintessential Irish ambassador on Wall Street and beyond. On a personal level, Adrian has been a great mentor to me and was critical to my integration into Goldman Sachs. He is generous with his time, and many Irish graduates have been the direct beneficiaries of his invaluable career guidance.”

Jones’ role is primarily to work with his team in identifying attractive opportunities for Goldman Sachs to invest in, to work with those companies to help them become better (which can often mean bigger), and then, over time, to monetize the value that has been created. “The investors who entrust us with their capital expect that we will generate returns for them of 20%-plus per year. Ultimately, we need to be able to return them their money plus their appreciated capital,” he explained. “So, it could be that we take a public company private and eventually either return it to the public market or sell it to another company. Finding and evaluating the opportunities, presenting them to the Investment Committee, making the investment, working with the companies, and then realizing the value created, typically over a 5 to 8 year period. That’s what I do.”

Of the financial crisis, the Volcker Rule, which bans proprietary trading, has had the most enduring impact on his work. Before the rule, which was introduced in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act and scheduled to go into effect this summer, it was typical for Goldman Sachs to invest in funds alongside their clients at levels of 15 to 30%. The Volcker Rule has limited the amount that the firm can invest to 3%, which means that less firm money and more client money will be used. Jones describes the change as manageable. “Fortunately we’ve performed well for our investor clients. They liked very much that they were investing alongside us as a firm, but we’ve had a good investment track record for our clients and they understand that this is the law; it’s not a strategic decision we’ve made.”

When it comes to the media’s portrayal of Wall Street over the last few years, Jones was diplomatic if slightly guarded. Goldman Sachs was the target of some particularly intense aquatic life vitriol from Rolling Stone magazine, which called the firm “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.”

“This has been a really tough period for so many people, in this country and in other countries, and there’s a fair degree of anger out there,” he acknowledged. “I think a lot of it is understandable, at least some of it is misdirected, and there’s a great deal of blame to go around. There have been a lot of actors and participants, and everyone has learned from what we’ve gone through – individuals, governments, institutions, regulators, and absolutely Wall Street as well. All of that is going to be reflected in our working environment, in the economy, in how people behave generally.”

The reason for Jones’ return to the U.S. in 2002 was more personal than professional. While living in London, he and Christina had two sons: Danny, now 14, and Liam, now 13. When Liam was 2, he was diagnosed with autism. The family visited the States for diagnostic work, and it became immediately evident to them that the levels of care, awareness and support in the U.S. were much higher than those in the U.K. “When Liam was diagnosed we were told that the levels of prevalence were about 5 in every 10,000 kids. That was 10 years ago, and today the best data suggests that it’s as high as one in every 54 boys. When there was this perception that it was a rare and isolated occurrence, it was very easy for public health and public education bureaucracies to resist having to do something about it. A lot of those bridges were crossed much earlier here in the U.S. For instance, New Jersey is about the best place in the world if you have a child with autism.” They moved back to the U.S. and settled in Ridgewood, NJ, and Jones credited Goldman Sachs with being “amazing in terms of facilitating the move, absolutely remarkable.”

He soon became involved with Autism Speaks, the country’s largest autism advocacy and research organization, and has been a board member for many years. He also sits on the boards of the American Ireland Fund and the Galway University Foundation, and last year he worked with all three to address the lagging levels of autism awareness and quality of care in Ireland. “It’s very different in Ireland, and what’s happening over there in terms of cutbacks is exacerbating an already challenging situation,” he said. “We wanted to refresh the discussion.”

On behalf of Autism Speaks, he went to the Ireland Fund, and they agreed to underwrite the event, which became Ireland’s first-ever international conference on autism. “Jim Browne, the president of NUIG, is outstanding and has very strong views on the university’s role in Irish life, particularly life in the west of Ireland, and Galway is developing a terrific program for autism therapists,” Jones praised. “As soon as I raised the idea he immediately volunteered to host the conference.” The conference drew close to 800 people over the course of two days, and is now slated to become an annual event. Jones’ hope is that it will “really move things forward and improve the quality of care for kids and their families in Ireland.”

Dr. Browne commended Jones’ work with the university. “Adrian is a distinguished business leader and an important voice in the Irish diaspora, and we greatly value [his] commitment to serve on the US board of Galway University Foundation,” he said. “He has worked with us to establish the USNI Basketball Scholarship, which sees talented US students undertake graduate study in Galway. His role with the Business School led to the Executive MBA class visiting New York last June, where they participated in a range of executive education seminars at Fordham and Goldman Sachs. And through Adrian’s interest in autism, NUI Galway hosted an inaugural international conference on autism in January 2012. . . The second International Conference on Autism will be held in June 2013, and we hope that this will become a major established conference, attracting leading academics and clinicians in search of strategies to help the families of those living with autism.”

In turn, Jones is very passionate about his alma mater, where some of his siblings and both of his parents have studied. Jones is not the only one in his family to achieve big things; in fact, all of his siblings are remarkably successful. His sister Deirdre is a top plastic surgeon in Galway, having completed fellowships at NYU and Sloan-Kettering, specializing in post-cancer reconstructive surgery; Niall is a pediatric surgeon in Australia; Hugh and Eithne have their own businesses, in Dublin and Amsterdam respectively; Declan runs a property management company as well as the family farm; and Adrian’s youngest brother, Conor, who has an MBA from MIT, heads up McKinsey & Company’s business in Ireland.

Aside from what appears to be a family trait of determination and hard work, the credit lies with the examples his parents, Bunny and Pauline, set. “We were very fortunate to have two parents who were enthusiastic about education and encouraged us. I don’t think they necessarily pushed us – the focus was never really on grades – but they did emphasize the power of learning and knowledge,” Jones reflected. His father (who passed away in 1984) had left school at age 12 to work on the farm, but he provided a strong model for his children when, in his 40s, he returned to school at night and earned his diploma in social sciences at NUI Galway (Ireland’s current president, Michael D. Higgins, was one of his lecturers). Jones’ mother, a retired teacher, possesses that same curiosity and drive for learning. A few years ago, in her mid-70s, she returned to school and received a diploma in archaeology, also from Galway. This fall, she will begin a new course in history.

Despite living and raising a family in America, Jones still considers himself primarily Irish, and it’s the small but crucial things that he references in making that distinction. “I’ve lived almost half my life outside of Ireland, but I am definitely Irish in terms of the teams I support, the sports I watch, what newspaper and websites I read first. I check out RTE and the Irish Times pretty much every day. I definitely read a lot of Irish literature, and my wife says I watch way too many dark Irish movies,” he said, laughing. “Not having played American sports, as a father you’re also kind of struck by the limitations of what you can do beyond coaching soccer, which I’ve done for several years.”

He credits living on the East Coast, near the Irish hubs of New York and Boston, with allowing him to remain so close to his home country. “I think it is such a great place for an Irish person to live,” he enthused. “You’re not that far from Ireland and you have a great perspective from here. It gives you an appreciation of what’s special about Ireland, but you’re close enough that you can stay well informed and actually go back and stay involved.”

Jones has stayed very involved. He returns to Ireland at least once a year to visit family, but his commitment spreads much wider than that due to his work with the American Ireland Fund and the Galway University Foundation. He has also been a strong participant in the Global Irish Network (GIN), attending the Global Irish Forum (GIF) at Dublin Castle in October 2011 and interim conferences and events in New York.

Sean Lane, a Wall Street 50 honoree who has come to know Jones through the NUI Galway network in New York, spoke to his remarkable commitment to and passion for Ireland. “Despite his ongoing incredibly successful career on Wall Street, he has remained distinctly down to earth and is very Irish in many ways. He somehow finds the time to stay involved with a number of charities and Irish causes. He is soft spoken, unassuming, and always willing to provide a quiet word of excellent advice when requested.”

Jones admitted that it was very frustrating for him to watch the endgame of the Celtic Tiger play out from over here, particularly since he had a strong view that it had been largely avoidable, and that it had as much to do with attitudes as it did with actions.

“Over the ten years leading up to 2008, 2009, Irish people were very badly let down by their government and by their public servants,” he said. “You had a classic credit bubble that was allowed to build to epic proportions. There was a tremendous amount of groupthink, and it became an extremely difficult environment for somebody to go against the grain. I think one of the challenges of a very small country, particularly a cohesive, homogenous, small country, is that it is very difficult to speak out, particularly when there are so many vested interests who are focused on keeping things moving in one particular direction. And, unfortunately, that’s what developed in Ireland.”

He is supportive of Ireland’s current government and austerity measures, and believes that if people think the Obama administration inherited challenges, they should look at the Irish situation. When it comes to the government’s recent emphasis on reaching out to the Irish diaspora, however, Jones has some candid and important insights. He praised the Irish agencies abroad, commending how effective they have been at building relationships and getting the diaspora involved  – long before it was even referred to as the diaspora. The problems he sees began around 2009, during the late stages of the financial crisis, when “official Ireland – not the agencies but Dublin, government and public sector – started groping around the idea of the diaspora,” which resulted in the first Global Irish Forum, at Farmleigh. Jones was unable to attend the first GIF, but he has participated in every forum since, and has taken note of the underlying elements at play.

“It’s an interesting idea, but it needs to be handled delicately because I think Irish people, generally, are a little wary of their emigrants,” he said. “Emigration is so much part of Irish life. We speak very well of people who go away and do well. But we don’t like when those people come back and tell us how we could do things better. As Richard Harris tells Tom Berenger in [the film version of] The Field,  ‘Be a good Yank. Turn around. Go home.’ There’s an element of that in Irish life, and it’s very understandable.”

The other issue Jones highlighted is a contrast in focus and approach. For decades now, by necessity, Ireland has focused mainly on the E.U., but, Jones believes, the vast majority of the diaspora who can be of help right now are in the U.S. and the U.K. “You have a challenge in that you’ve got public sector, European-focused official Ireland trying to figure out how to engage with private sector, U.S.-based ex-pats,” he explained. “And official Ireland seems to me a lot more focused on how to control them as distinct from how to leverage and enable.”

He traced this pattern through a number of events over the past few years, from the response to Irish America’s publisher Niall O’Dowd’s suggestion that he might run for the Irish presidency, to a minister from the previous government asking a room full of high-powered members of the GIN to be “cheerleaders for Ireland” and denying that anything was wrong, a week before the country formally requested a bailout.

The most surprising instance he mentioned was the offer made by Craig Barrett, the former chairman and CEO of Intel, to sit – without pay – on any state board in Ireland. “Any other institution in the world within 20 minutes would have signed him up, but Craig Barrett is still waiting to get a call from Dublin,” Jones said, his eyebrows slightly raised. “There’s a reason for that, and to me it comes down to the fact that Craig Barrett isn’t part of the Irish system, so he isn’t beholden to anybody. He’ll call it the way he sees it. I think official Ireland is anxious about that.”

Still, Jones is hopeful that the government will navigate a way to work with and enable the diaspora, that it will make use of the tremendous goodwill he saw from “a lot of very busy people” at the GIF in 2011. Jones is also realistic about what this would mean. He isn’t of the belief that there is anybody in the diaspora or the GIN who could provide a quick fix, change the rules under which Ireland is operating, or implement a brand new strategy. But he does think that the diaspora has the potential to do a great deal of good at the micro level. “There’s an opportunity to help shape future government policy and future regulation, to provide help in governance and oversight on state boards. They can contribute by helping the universities provide world-class education, by helping Irish entrepreneurs, by sitting on the boards of Irish companies and helping them expand into markets like this, which are brutally competitive and need local expertise,” he offered. “They can work with new immigrants – and there are going to be a lot more immigrants – to assimilate. There are huge opportunities like that for the network, but there has to be accountability and follow through.

“I’d like to see a more prominent role for those running global businesses from Ireland in driving the GIN initiative. These leaders face savage international competition every day; they know what needs to change in Ireland, and they understand the power of networks. They’re also in the business of getting things done.”

Jones places a strong emphasis on education as the most important thing for Ireland right now. “The competitive dynamic in which Ireland is operating has changed enormously in the 20 years since I left. Other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia, have read the Irish playbook, and we need to constantly be able to reinvent ourselves and re-test assumptions that have worked in the past,” he explained. “Ultimately, Ireland will be competitive if we can continue to generate high caliber graduates who can do world-class work, in Ireland or somewhere else.”

His advice for young people in Ireland today is, essentially, to not take the opportunities that they have for granted. “It might seem easy for me to say this because I don’t live there,” he acknowledged, “but I would say that Ireland has seen much worse times than this. Ireland today is a much better place than the Ireland I grew up in, even with all of these challenges that it faces now, economically. And you, as a young person growing up in Ireland, are better equipped than almost any of your predecessors to acquit yourself well in the world.”

Far from a ‘when I was your age…’ spiel, Jones’ advice is both refreshingly direct and optimistic. When he looks at Ireland, he sees the negatives and the financial challenges, and he appreciates their significance, but he also sees all of the positive changes that have developed since he left. “When I was growing up, there were two issues that dominated the news every day: Northern Ireland and the economy,” he recalled. “We had, nationally, very low self-confidence and we set low expectations for ourselves and for each other. There were still Irish jokes on British TV, emigration was really bad, and it was a very difficult time for Irish emigrants in Britain because of Northern Ireland.” Now, he sees a country that is undeniably hurting but still full of opportunities his generation knew nothing of.

“You have world-class employers and a work force that’s three times the size it was when I was a kid. You have peace in Northern Ireland and we have the best relations we’ve ever had with the British –  and that matters. Notwithstanding what we’re dealing with right now, there’s a sense of confidence. A few years ago that confidence had crossed the line into smugness, and now it’s being tested again. But I think Irish people are going to stay a much more confident people as a result of the progress that has been made,” he added.

When asked whether he would have the same take if he were still living in Ireland, Jones was quick to answer in the negative. “I actually don’t,” he said. “Because your perspective truly changes when you see things from a distance, and in many ways it’s a lot clearer. I suppose that’s the potential of the diaspora initiative; adding emigrants’ perspectives to the discussion and getting to better answers.”

From his vantage point here, with Ireland never too far away, Jones has certainly developed some ideas and opinions worth listening to. His success in finance, insights into Ireland’s problems, and his realistic views on how to tackle them mark him as a diaspora leader for Ireland at a time when leadership is badly needed.

Jones shared some words of advice that Goldman’s former CEO Hank Paulson gave him in 2004, when he called to tell Jones that he had been made a partner: “Be expansive in how you define your role.”

“He probably said that to a lot of people that day, but it resonated with me and I’ve come back to think about it many times since,” he said, modestly. “It sounds simple, but there’s a lot to it. Inside organizations – be it business or any kind of institution – there is always the risk of allowing others to define and limit your role, to constrain what you can do. But the fact is, you have a vote in that as well. Certainly play by the rules and be a good citizen within the institution, but always look for a situation in which you can add more, do more. Be creative and thoughtful in terms of how you can expand beyond your defined tasks.”

In the corporate world and beyond, that’s exactly what Jones does.

– – –

Endnote: Jones dedicates this article to the memory of Mary Jo O’Sullivan, who passed away as the magazine was going to press. Mary Jo was one of the first women to graduate from the Irish Cadet School, and was greatly loved and admired by classmates and friends for her courage and generosity of spirit.


One Response to “Adrian Jones: Wall Street 50 Keynote Interview”

  1. Dermot O'Neill says:

    Hi Adrian,

    I am part of the NUIG MBA class that is visiting Fordham University next week and I am looking forward to hear you speak.at the GUF organised event at the N.Y. Athletic club. Your experience in the military was of particular interest to me as I have a commission from the R.D.F. while serving in Dún UÍ Mhaoiliosa in Renmore, My late father Lt.Col Billy O’Neill served in Renmore and you may have come across him in your time in Galway.
    Nice idea of dedicating the article( really liked the words of advice from your former CEO and your and how it resonated with you ) to Mary Jo O’Sullivan as I remember both her and Edel Douris taking the parades in the barrack square
    while I was on gate duty in Renmore. Mary Jo would have being proud that there is now a female CO in Renmore Barracks!

    See you next week and hopefully we will have time to have a chat

    Best Regards,

    Dermot O’Neill
    AMBA class 2014-2016

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