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Man of the World

June 1, 2006

On an unnaturally warm day in March, the legendary workaholics of our nation’s capital enjoy an extended lunch hour amid the first lemony sunshine of spring. Today Washington is infused with a vibrancy and hopefulness that have eluded it for months.

In the posh West End stands a sentinel of unremarkable office buildings where security measures more common to government buildings remain in place. (Nearly five years ago, activists protesting the World Bank threatened a tenant here.) The elevator operator programs the box to open on the intended floor only.

The office décor is simple. A few pieces of reproduction Federal furniture contrast with the office’s frosted glass walls. A dark mahogany secretary is filled with leather-bound editions of The Magna Carta, The Code Napoleon, and The Common Law. A rendering of the Capitol dome in Waterford crystal—ubiquitous in Washington legal and legislative offices—is decked by a dozen empty Dom Perignon bottles of varying vintages.

It’s possible to overhear, from the next room, a phone call, conducted in rapid French, by the enormously successful lawyer and entrepreneur Sam Goekjian. The phone call ends and out comes a smiling gentleman in his senior years, dapper in a dark suit and white shirt. A man of impeccable manners who, when his cell phone rings to the tune of “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?,” discreetly checks the number but refuses to answer. A man humble enough that he blushes slightly when compelled to admit his accomplishments.

Goekjian is managing partner of Kile, Goekjian, Reed & McManus, a law firm specializing in intellectual property, internet technology, and international trade. (One day he may focus on an infringement case; the next, a patent for a no-iron shirt. “It’s a small firm,” he says with a wave, “so it’s easy to do.”)

Goekjian is also chairman and CEO of Intracon Associates LLC, an international business consulting and venture capital company. He is involved in six companies, all of which he has helped finance. (The companies range from digital printing, to medical devices, to water pipe fixtures, and a Scottish roofing product.) In addition, he is spearheading a vacation/ retirement-home project in France where residents will hold interests in neighboring vineyards and wineries.

Sam Goekjian—the proud, naturalized American—is very much a citizen of the world. His early life carried him again and again across borders; he speaks seven languages and has lived on four continents. He has advised agencies of the United Nations on policies of international law and finance, and served on an array of councils and committees on such matters as U.S.-Egypt business, African law, and international

“I have always considered myself a Maxwell man.”

Sam Goekjian '52 B.A. (Hist)

Honorary Maxwell Advisory Board Member

Today, though, he’s thinking about Syracuse. He fingers a lapel medallion given to him by the University’s trustees (of which he is one); he alternates this pin with one recognizing his membership on the Maxwell School’s Advisory Board, of which he is the longest-serving member. Sam Goekjian, international citizen, lawyer, and businessman, has become one of the School’s greatest friends. He speaks of “the deep feeling of gratitude that I have always felt to Syracuse as a university and to the Maxwell School, where I learned not only about the rights of citizenship, but also of the obligations that accompany that citizenship.”

There is no table available at Shula’s, Goekjian’s favorite steakhouse. Squinting down the street, he points to the canopy of an unknown bistro and suggests giving it a try. Potholes and construction barriers scarcely slow his brisk pace.

Goekjian looks at the menu and frowns. The only beef offered is a hamburger. Without much enthusiasm, he orders it, medium.

“What I became,” he explains animatedly, “is all due to my father. He had terrible luck, and yet he never let it get him down. He kept coming back. Never gave up, never was negative. He was my example. My role model for life.”

Vahram Goekjian, a young Armenian journalist, narrowly escaped the Turkish massacres at the end of World War I; he jumped into the harbor at Smyrna and was rescued by French sailors. Vahram met and married another Armenian refugee in Greece, named Aznive. They had twins—Sam and Krikor—and for a few years led an itinerant lifestyle until finally settling in Ethiopia, where Goekjian watched his father recover from repeated setbacks in his textile business. By 1938, finances were stable enough to send Goekjian and his brother to an American boarding school on the island of Cyprus.

“I learned about the United States,” Goekjian remembers, “and came to appreciate and love the country and its people. I knew I was beginning what I call ‘the Americanization of Goekjian’ when I not only thought and spoke fluently in English, but dreamt in English, too.”

After World War II, Goekjian returned to Ethiopia, where his facility in English qualified him for a job in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education, acting as a translator between his American boss and Emperor Haile Selassie. Other responsibilities entailed placing students in British and American universities. When Syracuse offered a slot, Goekjian’s boss suggested he apply for it. Goekjian did, and was awarded a four-year scholarship.

Goekjian had three main objectives in coming to America: obtain a first-class education; become a lawyer (a desire engendered by reading Perry Mason stories); and become a U.S. citizen. “This last thing was almost an obsession,” he says.

At Syracuse Goekjian flourished. His only difficulties were in convincing his academic advisor he did not need English as a Second Language and could handle seven courses per semester. He also lettered in soccer, track, and tennis; and was president of Men’s Student Government and an ex officio member of nearly a dozen University committees.

Goekjian experienced great personal growth at SU, which he attributes to “the encouragement and friendliness that was the trademark of the University in those years. And, to a much lesser degree, my own willingness to participate in this strange aspect of university life—extracurricular activities—and particularly campus politics.” For him, politics and education are inexorably linked.

“You have to be educated to be a democrat,” he says. “You have to understand what democracy is, how it operates, and why it’s so difficult to implement without education.”

In 1952, Goekjian graduated from Syracuse magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with an undergraduate degree in history. “Although Maxwell is usually known as a graduate school,” he says today, "I have always considered myself a Maxwell man." A year later, his brother Krikor, who’d followed him to SU, received a degree in American studies.

Lunch arrives, and Goekjian vigorously cuts into his hamburger with a knife and fork. After one bite, he removes the roll. “Too much bread,” he mutters. He makes sure his guest is happy with her shrimp remoulade, then continues his story.

After SU, Goekjian entered Harvard Law School—a gutsy move, since law students who weren’t citizens could not join the bar. The Army, though, would fix that. Having replaced his student visa with an immigrant visa—thanks to SU Chancellor William Tolley’s personal lobbying of a U.S. Senator—Goekjian then registered for the draft, knowing that to claim an exemption would sacrifice any future chance of becoming a citizen. Nine months after his induction, PFC Goekjian was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.

“The first thing I did was bring over my parents,” Goekjian remembers proudly. “They loved America as much as I did.” Eventually, Vahram and Aznive moved into an apartment in Manhattan near the George Washington Bridge.

At the height of the Korean conflict, the Army made Goekjian a mortar gunner, “because I was slightly better at math than many of the others.” The French-speaking Goekjian was sent to Casablanca for another international adventure. Once honorably discharged from the Army, he returned to Cambridge, where, 30 days after receiving a J.D., Goekjian married Alison McLeod, a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies. In 2007, they’ll celebrate 50 years of marriage.

Goekjian left Harvard planning to become an international attorney; in hindsight, he says that was unrealistic. “It was not a real specialty,” he recalls. “Even the large law firms didn’t have it. The individual partners had international clients.”

So he pursued his own training in international banking, legal drafting, and international finance. His first stop was Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, where he learned the art of drafting contracts and the intricacies of documentation. Two years later, he joined the Development Loan Fund, a new U.S. foreign aid agency in Washington, D.C. It was an experience he remembers as “hot house training. In 20 months, I was assigned to more than 60 projects.”

He switched to the private sector, joining Surrey and Morse, a boutique D.C. law firm exclusively engaged in international transactions. Two years later to the day, he made partner. Three months later, he became managing partner. Within a few years, he established offices for the firm in Beirut, Paris and New York; then returned to Washington, where, in 1983, Goekjian took a leave of absence from his firm to become chairman of the board and CEO of Consolidated Westway Group, a New Jersey-based holding company for an international trading and manufacturing group in Paris.

By the early 1990s, decades of stress caught up with Goekjian. After some health problems, he decided to retire and commit more time to his personal life. But it couldn’t last. Partnering with two friends, he set up his present consulting firm to assist foreign companies wishing to enter the U.S. market, and U.S. companies wishing to acquire or joint venture with companies in developing countries, particularly in Eastern Europe.

It is now late afternoon, and Sam Goekjian, waiting for the streetlight to change, is asked what changes he’s seen in the day-to-day operations of international business. His countenance noticeably dims.

“When I started out in business, it was assumed that corruption would always have some sort of a place in dealing with developing or third-world nations. Today,” he shakes his head almost sorrowfully, “that is just as true in many places in our own country. In the past—whether you want to call it religion or morals or ethics—you could depend on Americans, by and large, to operate with honorable intent. An American could walk into any place in the world and receive respect. That’s not the case anymore.”

In a later conversation, Goekjian revisits the subject of world trade and how globalization will affect his America. He is surprisingly hopeful, yet realistic. “To think about restricted trade makes no sense,” he states pointedly. “The problem is in the short-term kind of shift in trade, manufacturing and services.” Though globalization is causing tremendous strain at present, Goekjian remains optimistic. While some work moves overseas, he says, “we put a lot of emphasis on expanding those areas in which we have strength.”

Goekjian defines America’s strengths without equivocation: entrepreneurship, research and development of technology, management services, and, “of course, legal services.” Goekjian believes the United Kingdom is the only country where legal services are near the level of U.S. law firms. With almost every major company “going global,” they will require lawyers who can handle deals, negotiations, and litigation in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and both Eastern and Western Europe.

With this in mind, Goekjian issues a caveat to the legal industry, which he feels is becoming a business practice, rather than an esteemed profession. Gone are the days, he believes, in which the attorney-client relationship is built on trust, and where the lawyer’s primary responsibility is to look after the client’s best interests. Now, Goekjian says, “people are looking out for themselves. It’s a deterioration of the fiduciary relationship, as the lawyer becomes the supplier, where the emphasis is on selling time. The more time you sell, the more money you make.”

Asked to predict the future of international business, Goekjian answers without hesitating. “Clearly, India and China are going to supplant Japan as the major world economic force in the next 50 years. The U.S. will end up, essentially, becoming a service economy. Even though we have the kind of creative entrepreneurship that has kept us in the vanguard, some other country could catch up to us.

“The only general advice I have,” he says, “is to keep an open mind. Analyze alternatives without discarding them because of some preconceived notion of what is viable. But do that analysis while applying the kind of values that will make your life—when you look back at it—one that makes you proud.”

Back in his office, Goekjian points out the family photos that balance between books and plants and stacks of files. Only one is a formal professional portrait—somewhat curious for the family of a multi-millionaire. The others are snapshots, smiling faces that could belong to any traditional American clan.

Goekjian has three sons—each living in a different country—and a daughter, based in Washington, who is the only lawyer in the group.

Goekjian sighs. They have made him happy in every way except one. They haven’t given him enough grandchildren. Despite his many extraordinary accomplishments, there’s only so much Sam Goekjian can do about that.

By Wendy Wilson

This article appeared in the Spring 2006 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2006 Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

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