In 2012, after 27 years at Credit Suisse, where he became vice chairman and headed its global mergers and acquisitions business, Steven Koch, JD/MBA ’82, accepted the position of deputy mayor of Chicago, with a portfolio that included strengthening the city’s economic and social infrastructure.
“Serendipity has been a huge factor in my career,” he said. “I stumbled into investment banking at the right time with some applicable skills, and it worked out well. Then when Mayor Emanuel called, even though I was very happy where I was, I was ready for a new challenge and a chance to perhaps do something for the city I love, and that just plugged me into a whole new world.”
His path into banking began with a summer job during law school, when he worked with clients doing a bond transaction. He found the assignment interesting, and he was drawn to the financial firm’s robust energy. After a Court of Appeals clerkship, he joined Lehman Brothers. “M&A didn’t even exist as a field then, so I was in on the ground floor of the massive boom that was coming,” he said.
“Right place, right time; it’s pretty much that simple—except that I might not have succeeded if it hadn’t been for my time at the Law School,” he said. “That’s where I got the core skills that I was able to apply; where I learned how to think, how to analyze issues, how to separate what matters in a situation from what doesn’t. By the time I graduated it was like someone had opened up my head, removed my old brain, and replaced it with a newer version that worked much better.”
He continued using those skills during his nearly five years as Chicago’s deputy mayor, leading the contentious process of addressing the city’s substantial financial challenges. He is credited as a major factor in putting the budget on a more sound footing; attracting hundreds of new businesses and more than 50,000 new jobs; revamping rules regarding real estate development and affordable housing; and rebuilding infrastructure, including substantial upgrades to O’Hare Airport and the city’s public transit system.
“The real challenge for Chicago going forward is how to remain a livable city, for everyone,” he said, citing income inequality as a particular concern that requires sustained long-term attention.
In the next phase of his life, he intends to make a dent in that issue and many others, but he first took some time to reflect and decompress. On the day after he left his city hall office for the last time, he was at the US-Canada border, about to begin a bicycle ride that would take him along the length of the Mississippi River, a journey of 2,320 miles that he accomplished in 44 days. In 2010, he and his son Jacob biked 3,100 miles together, from California to Florida. He had taken up bicycle riding as an adult as a way to purge some of the distress and anxiety during the time that his wife, Ellen Liebman, was suffering from ovarian cancer, from which she died in 2005. Koch and Liebman met at the Law School when he was a student and she was a Bigelow Teaching Fellow. “Meeting Ellen is another thing I’m thankful to the Law School for,” he said. “Every day I had with her was a blessing.”
His 2010 cross-country bicycle ride became a fundraiser for the Sinai Health System, where he had been chairman of the board; the most recent ride raised funds for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, on whose board he also serves. He is presently active on nine nonprofit boards, and he will chair the board of City Tech Collaborative, which incorporates grassroots engagement into technology strategies to upgrade city life. He’s also investing in a variety of small companies, and he’s considering opportunities to serve on public-company boards. “I’m only going to do things whose purposes feel deeply important to me,” he said. “I’m very mindful of using my time as well as I can.”