Was Tom Hagen the First Operating Partner?

Chris Conti
June 9, 2024
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Like many of you, I’m a movie buff.  I’m a sucker for great storytelling and hold many of the Classics in a special place.  As a guy who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio in the 1980s, the mob movie genre has particularly held my attention.  No surprise then, The Godfather trilogy is a long term favorite of mine… they still hold up after all these years.

I was recently thinking about the many characters we meet in “The Godfather” and I spent some time dwelling on Tom Hagen.  Spectacularly portrayed by Robert Duvall in his prime, I always liked this level-headed outsider to the Corleone family.  He seemed like the voice of reason amidst hot tempers and long memories.  He was loyal and predisposed to finding solutions instead of simply scorching the Earth. He was a protective right-hand man. Then it struck me…

Was Tom Hagen essentially the family’s version of a talented Operating Partner? The more time you examine this question, the more analogous he seems to become.

Tom is the adoptive son and adoptive brother in the Corleone family.  I’ll bet that description might feel quite familiar to many of you inside the PE firm for whom you work.  He is the family’s Consigliere.  Per Merriam-Webster: The word consigliere comes from Italian and has been a part our language since the 17th century; it was originally used to describe someone who served on a council in Italy. It is often used generally to describe a political or financial adviser, or any other trusted adviser for that matter.

What made Tom successful?  Technical knowledge, very high intelligence, charisma, manipulation and strategy.  As a trusted advisor, Tom was expected to provide objective and unbiased advice, taking into consideration various factors such as market conditions, competition, and financial implications. As a consigliere, he was called upon to mediate disputes between members of the Corleone family or with rival gangs. He used his expertise in negotiation and conflict resolution to find mutually beneficial solutions that could help the organization achieve its goals.  He also understood the power dynamics of the world in which he operated. This was essential to his success. And he does all of this under a blanket of confidentiality and discretion.

I imagine that many of you reading this can see the similarities.  You often find yourself in precarious situations where you must delicately balance competing interests and drive various constituencies to an agreeable outcome. The finish line isn’t always crystal clear nor is the path to getting there.  Sometimes it requires influence, manipulation and charisma.  Transformations in Private Equity are not a comfortable stroll in the park. If they were, the business wouldn’t have been on the market in the first place. You are an expert with a very special set of skills – I’m blending movies now, my apologies!  But you get where I’m coming from with this.

Was Tom perfect for all occasions?  Clearly, no.  He didn’t exactly “kill it” in the conflict with the Hollywood mogul, Jack Woltz.  And his initial boss’ successor (i.e. his brother, Michael) didn’t believe he had the skills necessary to be a wartime consigliere.  But let’s be honest, things tended to get a little out of hand once Tom was removed from the inner circle.  Maybe that’s a good lesson for our friends on the Deal side of the house to keep in mind!

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Chris Conti