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Goldman's commodities queen

Does Isabelle Ealet have the toughest job on Wall Street?

By Telis Demos, writer reporter
September 25, 2008: 4:39 AM ET

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Isabelle Ealet, the 45-year-old French-born former oil trader now runs Goldman Sachs' commodities desk from London.

(Fortune Magazine) -- With some $3.4 billion in revenue, Goldman Sachs's commodities desk is not just a cash cow - it has also been a launchpad for CEO Lloyd Blankfein and president Gary Cohn.

These days, with commodities in free fall, it is also one of the most stressful jobs in banking. Just ask Isabelle Ealet (pronounced "ee-LAY"), the 45-year-old French-born former oil trader who now runs the business from London - and has bigger challenges than her predecessors.

If you haven't yet heard her name, you may soon. "She's probably the most influential woman at Goldman right now," says a former colleague.

While Goldman doesn't break out revenues, one broker who works with the firm estimates Ealet has personally generated revenues of $40 million to $80 million annually. But Ealet - "Izzy" to friends - likes the low profile she has kept since taking the job last year. "My main focus is to serve our clients in difficult and volatile market conditions," she said in an e-mail to Fortune.

Before the recent swoon, commodities prices were booming, of course, and competitors have tried to eat into Goldman's share, often by poaching traders from Ealet's staff - which headhunters say is made vulnerable by the competitive culture she runs.

"She won't be getting many Christmas cards from employees," says a manager at a rival bank of her management style. ("Trading desks in general aren't for the timid," Ealet said.) Goldman's commodity revenues peaked in 2006, and since then it has lost share in some of the products it trades.

The competition has forced Goldman to get more aggressive. Under Ealet, the bank has doubled the amount of its own money it has risked, from $24 million in the second quarter last year to $48 million this year - right before the massive plunge in commodity prices that began in July. Ealet described the moves as "driven by higher volatility and prices, as well as very active clients flows."

Ealet, who is married to a former commodities trader and has two children, got her start trading barrels of crude for France's Total. She jumped to Goldman (GS, Fortune 500) in 1991, where she ran the oil products group. She became head of European trading in 2002 and led a team that bought European energy plants once owned by Enron, which Goldman then turned around for profit.

Observers say it's early to judge her performance. Ealet has been investing in tradable renewable-energy electricity and emissions credits, both nascent markets. And she's unlikely to do anything rash; she sits on Goldman's firm-wide risk committee. "While others have overstaffed, she took a measured pace," says a former trader. If Ealet can survive this crisis, commodities could serve as a launchpad for her too.  To top of page

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