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by Jon Hurdle

Ken Willman Ken Willman L’86 recalls his role brokering a difficult negotiation between a Japanese client and a British company in which cultural differences were hindering progress.

The agreement was being blocked, in part, by the Japanese executives’ reluctance to make decisions during plenary sessions of the negotiating teams because of their fear of losing face in response to what they saw as aggressive British tactics.

“We tried to help the Japanese understand the British company’s approach even though, in their eyes, it seemed very pushy,” says Willman, a graduate of Penn Law School who is now a managing director of Goldman Sachs. Willman and his colleagues overcame the impasse by dividing the talks into smaller “break-out” sessions that were seen as less of a threat by the Japanese bosses.

“It was a situation where we were trying to become cultural translators,” he said in an interview from his office in London.

In the end, agreement was reached, thanks partly to cultural sensitivities nurtured by Willman’s years of international deal-making experience – he has worked in the United States for only four years of his 17-year career — and underpinned by the diverse environment of Penn Law which exposed him to a wide variety of cultural influences.

Moving from his native Seattle after attending the University of Puget Sound, a small liberal arts college in Tacoma, and coming to Philadelphia in 1983, was an enlightening experience, Willman says. “I underestimated the culture shock of moving from the west to the east of the United States. The experience of going to Penn and being with people from so many different backgrounds really broadened my perspective.”

Willman earned his J.D. from Penn Law in 1986 and went to work for the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell where he began his international career. Within his first year, he worked for a British brokerage, a French publisher and a New Zealand utility, and from 1989 to 1991 was based in the firm’s Tokyo office where he worked on a variety of assignments for Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese clients.

He has worked on a range of capital markets and corporate finance matters including privatizations, mergers and acquisitions, corporate IPOs, and debt offerings in Europe, Asia and the United States.

In 1992, Willman joined Goldman Sachs in London and since 1999 has been general counsel of Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division, and global head of the bank’s Special Execution Group which handles new equity and fixed-income offerings, and advises on some aspects of M&A transactions.

Facilitating the free flow of capital and strengthening capital markets has been a major source of satisfaction for Willman. He highlights the Deutsche Telekom initial public offering in 1996 as a breakthrough because it involved generating unprecedented demand from individual German investors

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