Who Will Be Next CEO at Goldman Sachs?

Will he or won’t he? Or rather, when will he?

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein
Getty Images
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein

Those are the questions being posed by an array of Goldman Sachs watchers these days, as speculation swirls on the length of Lloyd Blankfein’s tenure as chief executive.

Blankfein, 56, assumed the post in June 2006—meaning that in about a month’s time, he will have hit the five-year mark as CEO. Recent Goldman heads have lasted anywhere from a decade to two years, but at least five years seems to be a safe bet.

(Video: Kate Kelly's report on who may be Blankfein's successor.)

And for much of those five years, it’s been pretty rough going. Less than two years after his ascension, Blankfein was thrust into the worst financial crisis in recent memory—and had to hastily alter the firm’s corporate structure and accept bailout money from both Warren Buffett and the U.S. Treasury in order to stay afloat amid investor panic. But steer Goldman through that crisis Blankfein did, and the firm is again regarded as the franchise to beat on Wall Street.

If and when he leaves the firm, doing so on his own terms will be crucial to Blankfein, agree people familiar with his thinking, and the first possible moment for that might be around now.

Goldman settled an embarrassing lawsuit last year with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which accused it of misleading some of its clients, and it has returned most of the emergency funds it received during the crisis. Sales and trading are humming along despite potentially onerous new regulations, and on the banking side, Goldman continues to land major mandates like a private financing deal with Facebook completed early this year.

A firm spokesman has repeatedly denied any plans for a Blankfein retirement.

Gary D. Cohn, President and Chief Operating Officer, Goldman Sachs
Source: goldmansachs.com
Gary D. Cohn, President and Chief Operating Officer, Goldman Sachs

Nonetheless, Wall Street executives, analysts, and investors are muttering about it, and some are already assessing the short list of potential successors.

Chief among them, say firm insiders, is Gary Cohn, the Goldman president who has been Blankfein’s top lieutenant in recent years. A former head of the firm’s fixed income and commodities divisions, Cohn has a sharp wit and at-times tough personality that befit a trader.

Although he’s closely associated with the parts of Goldman’s business that have prompted criticism in recent years, he’s also helped steer the firm through one of its most difficult periods.

Most recently, Cohn has also become an important front man with clients—for instance, showing up to the American International Group bakeoff in January to pitch Goldman as an underwriter for the insurer’s expected $10 billion plus secondary offering.

J. Michael Evans, Vice Chairman and Global Head of Growth Markets, Goldman Sachs
Source: goldmansachs.com
J. Michael Evans, Vice Chairman and Global Head of Growth Markets, Goldman Sachs

Another key player is J. Michael Evans, the insiders say, a former Olympic rower who now runs Goldman’s global growth business as well as its Asia unit.

A vice chair of the firm, Evans co-chaired the firm’s business standards committee, the panel charged last year with helping assess and burnish Goldman’s image with clients and the public by establishing good practices.

Evans recently relocated from Asia to New York, fueling chatter about his increasingly crucial role in the executive suite.

Two less-well known but respected internal figures, co-head of securities David Heller and Ed Forst, co-head of the investment management division, could both be potential candidates as well, say firm insiders.

Watch CNBC all day Friday, April 29 for special "Heir To The Throne" reports about CEO succession plans at five companies: Kate Kelly reports about Goldman Sachs on "Squawk On The Street," 10am ET; Jon Fortt reports about Apple on "The Call," 11am ET; Julia Boorstin reports about News Corp. on "Power Lunch," 1pm ET; Phil Lebeau reports about Ford on "Street Signs," 2pm ET; and Mary Thompson reports about AIG on "Closing Bell," 3-5pm ET.