In September 2004, R. Martin Chavez, then 40, sold his tech startup and retired to a beach house on New York’s Fire Island. Things didn’t go as planned.
Not long into the retirement, Chavez, aka “Marty,” got a call from Gary Cohn, now president and COO of Goldman Sachs, where he’d worked for a few years until 1997.
Cohn congratulated Chavez on the sale of his company. Then he said, “I was just calling to share with you that you’re coming back.”
Chavez, now 51, recalled that conversation in an interview with Fortune last year.
He returned to Goldman in 2005, and a decade later, as the bank’s chief information officer, he is its most important executive you’ve probably never heard of.
Openly gay and with tattooed sleeves, he also may be the most unconventional.
From Silicon Valley to Wall Street
Chavez got his start on Wall Street in 1993. Goldman’s commodities and energy brokerage unit — then known as J. Aron — was hiring, and a headhunter put Chavez on a list of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Stanford Ph.D.’s.
When Chavez received the letter from the recruiter, he initially looked at the opportunity as a free trip to New York. He got the gig, joining the same division where now-CEO Lloyd Blankfein, now-CFO Harvey Schwartz, and Cohn all got their start at the firm.
During his early years at the bank, Chavez worked as a senior energy “strat.” A strat — similar to a quant — works on the trading floor creating models for pricing and risk management.
Four years later, Chavez quit Goldman to join Credit Suisse as the head of its energy-derivatives business. He told Fortune that he had made the move because he had just quit drinking and needed a change.
Cohn had told Chavez that if he ever changed his mind and wanted to come back to give him a call. Chavez admitted in an interview with GlobalCapital he regretted leaving, but that his pride prevented him from calling Cohn first.
Chavez spent three years at Credit Suisse, leaving the Swiss bank in 2000. He then founded Kiodex, a commodities risk-management software company. SunGard acquired Kiodex in 2004 for an undisclosed sum. Chavez headed for his house on Fire Island.
Then came the call from Cohn. After three months of retirement, Chavez returned to Goldman in January 2005 for his second stint. This time, he was a managing director in the equities business.
A year later he was made partner — one of the most coveted titles on Wall Street. After that, he became the co-chief operating officer of equities trading.
From strat to CIO
His move into the big leagues didn’t come until September 2013, however, when Chavez was tapped to become the bank’s chief information officer.
The promotion came at a critical time for the bank, which had experienced a technical glitch on August 20, 2013 that roiled the options markets. The SEC recently said the bank could have lost as much as $US500 million, but that the losses ultimately ended about $US38 million.
The promotion made Chavez one of the most important executives at Goldman. He’s the guy tasked with leading the firm’s technology efforts.
At its core, Goldman is a financial-services company, helping clients buy and sell assets and advising on company acquisitions and fundraisings. Many of those functions are becoming increasingly reliant on technology, especially the trading of shares and bonds and the compliance systems that check these tasks are being performed correctly.
As CIO, Chavez leads the firm’s strats team as well as a team of 9,000 engineers. To put it in perspective, Goldman employs 35,000 people globally, meaning Chavez is responsible for a team that makes up about a quarter of the firm.
What’s more telling is that Goldman’s team of engineers is bigger than the entire payrolls at Silicon Valley companies such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Goldman also has a multi-billion dollar budget dedicated to engineering.
It is no surprise company chief executive Lloyd Blankfein has referred to Goldman as “a technology company.”
Under Chavez’ s leadership, the firm has developed its own programming language for risk calculations. They have also written over a billion lines of code. A lot of that code is open source — anyone who wants to use it can. In Silicon Valley, that’s considered a legit move. It shows just how much Chavez and Goldman get the tech world.
Goldman and Chavez were unable to speak for this profile.
A mother’s dream come true
The legend in the Chavez family is that his mother made a promise when she was a teenager — either she would enter a convent or she would have 10 children and they would all go to Harvard.
Rose Chavez got halfway there. She had five children and all of them graduated from Harvard.
Growing up, Chavez’s parents placed a great deal of emphasis on their kids’ education. They could all read and write by the time they entered kindergarten.
The family made sacrifices to send all of their kids to private school and to piano lessons. Sometimes that meant not eating out or buying new clothes or going on family vacations.
Chavez excelled in school. By seventh grade, he started taking college courses at the University of New Mexico. He graduated from Albuquerque Academy in 1981. He started at Harvard with sophomore status.
He went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He earned a master’s degree in computer science before pursuing his Ph.D. in medical information sciences at Stanford.
“I didn’t know what I had been doing all that time was preparing for a career in finance,” Chavez, a computer scientist at heart, said on a recent podcast.
Breaking the mould
Chavez describes himself as a “maths and computer geek,” but he doesn’t look the stereotypical part with his tattoo sleeves.
He’s not just smart — people say he’s “impossible to dislike.”
People say that he’s someone who can interact with everybody. For example, he’ll come straight from a management committee meeting to have breakfast or coffee with an intern at the firm.
Chavez has been an integral part of Goldman’s culture.
With his help, Goldman now has a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Network. Chavez mentors and sponsors many in the LGBT community.
As a corporation, Goldman advocated for marriage equality. Blankfein was the first American CEO to publicly speak out about it as a business issue.
Blankfein, who worked as a lawyer, also filed a brief with the Supreme Court asking them to strike down the Defence of Marriage Act.
“For me, it was transformational. It means that my husband, who’s a British subject, can live together with our newborn baby boy,'” Chavez said in a YouTube video.
Chavez later added: “When I thanked Lloyd, in characteristic fashion, he said, ‘Marty, don’t thank me. It was the right thing to do. But it was also the smart thing to do.'”
For Chavez, he believes it’s smart for everyone “to bring all of themselves to work.“
In an internal “best advice” memo from 2011, he explained how being authentic is crucial for peace of mind.
“For me, being out is really about being who I am and being authentic. Pretending to be something that I’m not is inconsistent with my peace of mind. It’s not necessarily a lie, but it’s a type of pretending. It’s a lack of being straightforward and authentic with colleagues or with friends.”
He continued: “When that lack of authenticity happens, there are always reasons for it. It can be hard to be out — or one can imagine that it might be hard, which is more often the case. In truth, it’s often worse in the imagination than in the actuality.
“But if that imagination leads to holding back, manufacturing alternative stories of how you spent your weekend or where you spent your time off, that not only impacts your peace of mind, it also has negative consequences for your career. There are connections that you can build with colleagues and clients based on being candid and authentic.”
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