Classmate Kenneth Ehrlich ’77 says that post-Harvard, Mead could have “pretty much accomplished anything,” and in 2000, when Mead successfully negotiated the largest corporate takeover in history as a partner at Goldman Sachs, the business world agreed.
Sent to London 14 years ago to build Goldman Sachs’ European presence, Mead played a critical role in rooting the U.S.-based investment bank in the volatile and lucrative global telecommunications industry.
His work also dramatically re-engineered the structure of European business, bringing government-owned entities into the private sector.
College friend Louise Goodfell ’75, who took a photography class with Mead at Harvard, says she would have never predicted that he would work in investment banking.
Mead himself is quick to point out that he is not a typical banker.
“I’ve always had a creative and reflective side which was at first difficult to reconcile with the Darwinian, cutthroat atmosphere of an investment bank,” he says.
This type of introspection is common for Mead, who admits that he continuously thinks ahead to his future personal and professional goals.
Mead attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and then spent a semester at Princeton University before transferring to Harvard in 1974.
With his family in nearby Philadelphia, attending Princeton was “not the get-away-to-college type experience,” he says.
At Harvard, Mead, by his own account, was “passionate about everything.” College friends regularly describe him as having been “intense” and multi-talented.
“He was a Renaissance man,” says Jefferson Flanders ’77, who lived with Mead senior year.
Mead concentrated in History and Literature, and fondly remembers poring over books in the stacks of Widener Library while working on his senior thesis.
“The historical aspects became very real,” he says, “and I found them thoroughly fascinating.”
After Harvard, Mead continued to feed his intellectual interests at Cambridge University in England, where he studied on a fellowship.
Mead was also a nationally ranked squash player and an avid photographer. His multiple talents and “magnetic charm” earned him a wide social network, according to Flanders.
“He seemed to know everybody,” Flanders says.
Through squash, Mead met legendary Harvard squash and tennis coach Jack Barnaby ’32, whom Mead calls “foremost a psychologist and philosopher, then athlete.”
Mead says Barnaby’s guidance allowed him to play squash with a perseverance he applies to all areas of life.
Flanders says that during one match at Princeton, Mead’s hefty opponent intentionally hit him with the ball.
“He hit him right back and went on to win the match,” recalls Flanders. “He didn’t let the larger kid get him.”
Mead pursued his interest in photography starting his first semester at Harvard when he took an advanced course.
He says that he and friends would occasionally wake up at 4 a.m. to drive to New York City for art shows, and then return in the afternoon just in time for class or practice.
“He was phenomenally talented and was a very visual thinking person,” says Goodfell. “He continues to exercise that creativity as an investment banker.”
Mead arrived in London in 1988 to pioneer Goldman Sachs’ European banking business.
“I like doing things that have not been done before,” he says of his decision to go abroad. “There was a strong appeal in building something in a new environment as opposed to being part of an established franchise.”
Mead’s early deals focused on the privatization of government-owned businesses. This work shifted the composition of European economies, pushing previously government-regulated industries such as utilities into the open market.
He currently leads Goldman’s global telecom, media and technology group.
He also serves as chief strategic advisor to Vodafone Airtouch PLC, which he helped to build into the world’s largest mobile network telecommunications company through a series of aggressive acquisitions in the 1990s.
Most recently, Mead engineered Vodafone’s hostile takeover of rival Mannesman AG.
The acquisition, which began in 1999 and is valued at $180 billion, was the largest in history.
“The telecom industry developed a hunt or be hunted philosophy,” Mead says, referring to the pursuit of companies to acquire and control worldwide networks. “And there is a lot of creativity involved in helping companies figure out where they want to take their businesses first.”
When Mead discusses banking, he masks the introspection that characterizes his other thoughts.
“I’ve learned to compartmentalize that side of myself when working on a deal,” he says.
According to Bob Harrison, Goldman’s New York City-based global co-head of telecom, media and technology, Mead’s “extraordinary amount of background, good sense of humor and calm and unflappable demeanor” have enabled him to become a trusted industry advisor and strategist.
While he credits Goldman Sachs for presenting him with “new opportunities and challenges for personal and professional growth,” Mead says he is not content to merely reflect on past success.
He leaves the future open for a breadth of possibilities, hinting that he might become involved in politics.
Having been recently appointed a charter trustee at Andover, Mead also suggests future involvement in education and a renewed interest in photography.
Whatever his future pursuits, Mead says he will continue to seek challenges.
“A risky move,” he says, “is a much more interesting thing to try than something more conventional.”
—Staff writer K. Babi Das can be reached at email@example.com.