Goldberg brings competitive nature to treasurer role
Deborah Goldberg settles into a chair by the fireplace in the state treasurer’s office, the first woman to take residence there in a dozen years. She has rearranged the furniture, living-room-style, to be more inviting.
The daughter of a famous Boston grocery family, with a law degree and a Harvard MBA, Goldberg talks about her new role as treasurer with the competitive fervor of one who grew up battling for market share at Stop & Shop.
“At the end of the day, I tell everyone that I’m a grocer,” Goldberg said in her first wide-ranging interview since taking office last month. She was a fifth-generation employee at the company, which started as a shop on Salem Street in the North End and became the largest supermarket chain in Southern New England.
“It was a tough, mean fighting machine,” Goldberg said. “We were great competitors.”
This embrace of friendly rivalry — along with years of business operating experience — is a trait Goldberg says she’ll bring to her new job. It’s one with an unusual slate of responsibilities, from issuing bonds and chairing the $60 billion state pension fund to overseeing the state lottery.
“The treasurer’s office brings everything that I thrive on, in one job, and you’re serving the public,” Goldberg said.
The 60-year-old Brookline native is not shy about her views. Casinos as a competitive problem for the lottery? “I say, ‘OK, bring it on,’ ” Goldberg said. “Because we’re going to beat you.”
Within weeks of taking office, she replaced a longtime member of the pension board with her own appointee, Ruth Ellen Fitch, a lawyer and former health care executive in Roxbury. Governor Charlie Baker followed with his own designee to the board: Mike Heffernan, a Republican who ran against Goldberg for treasurer.
At her first investment committee meeting for the pension fund, Goldberg advocated for pulling some money out of a bond strategy that has paid off handsomely. Originally a hedge against a weaker stock market, the investment delivered a 46 percent return, or $1.3 billion, last year.
“I think we should be very pleased with that and begin to step back,” Goldberg said. “I don’t want to ride the downside.”
It’s bold for a new treasurer to weigh in strongly on investment policy developed by the staff of professionals who manage the fund. Goldberg’s vote was driven in part by her life experience.
In 2008, in the run-up to the financial crisis, Goldberg saw the near collapse of the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns Cos., where her husband, Michael Winter, was a longtime executive in Boston. (The firm was acquired at a deep discount by JPMorgan Chase & Co., where Winter now works.)
Later that year, Goldberg discovered that her family and their nonprofit foundations had lost millions in the Bernard Madoff swindle.
“You want to talk about my life that year?” Goldberg joked. The losses compounded her basic skepticism and anti-risk nature, she said. And she dove more deeply into hands-on oversight of the family investments.
“It actually gave me a lot of experience on how you recover,” she said. “I know how you pick yourself up and move forward again.”
Two decades earlier, Goldberg had her first unpleasant brush with Wall Street. It was 1988, shortly after Stop & Shop’s stock had plunged in the 1987 market crash. To fend off a hostile takeover by a corporate raider, the company went through a $1.23 billion leveraged buyout with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. By 1989, the Goldbergs were gone.
Goldberg doesn’t mince words as to why: “We were forced out because we wouldn’t fire our people. Very straightforward.”
It marked the end of a path for Goldberg, who had been the heir apparent to run the company. Still, she credits her parents, whom she refers to by their first names, Carol and Avram, as mentors. They set an example for how to treat workers, she said, paying 100 percent of employees’ health care.
The company allowed unions in, and Goldberg herself was once a member. As president of Stop & Shop, her mother was thrifty, driving herself to business meetings instead of indulging in limousines and other trappings of the go-go ’80s.
Now, Goldberg hopes to use her bully pulpit to press for issues around pay equity for women and minorities.
“I’ve been passionately committed to this for a long time,” she said. “I’ve been hearing about it since I understood words.”
Every treasurer comes into office with pet projects and messages, often aimed at gaining attention for higher office. The real job is managing 288 employees and overseeing numerous disparate operations, including the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission and the state’s School Building Authority.
Shannon O’Brien, the first woman to serve as treasurer in Massachusetts, from 1999 to 2003, said Goldberg’s business experience should help her with the details of running the office.
“The minutiae can kill you,” she said, as evidenced by treasurers who have ignored the lottery — or paid too much attention to it — at their peril.
“It’s not only paying attention and providing that big-picture leadership, but making sure you don’t get tripped up in the details,” O’Brien said. “Perhaps the most important job is providing fiscal leadership.”
Often, it’s more about influence than actual power, she said.
“The treasurer doesn’t have as much direct power to make some changes, but it’s the leadership you can exert,” O’Brien said, “looking independently at the numbers and being an independent fiscal voice.”
Goldberg interacted with the treasurer’s office — particularly on public school financing — as a member of the Brookline Board of Selectmen, where she served from 1998 to 2004, the last two years as chair. She went on to run for lieutenant governor in 2006 and lost in the primary.
Amy Schectman, a former economic development director for Brookline, said she worked closely with Goldberg to develop housing and recreational space on old reservoir properties. Goldberg brought energy and charisma to the project, she said, and took time to attend to people’s concerns.
“This took a lot of guts, a lot of listening and shaping a response,” said Schectman, now chief executive of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton. “A lot [of] people have great places to live now.”
In the role of treasurer, she said, “I expect she’s going to take it places no one else has.”