Feinberg's new challenge started to take shape around six weeks ago when Geithner's deputy approached him about coming on board. Neal Wolin and Feinberg have known each other for three decades. The two men discussed the job, prompting a second meeting, this time with the Treasury chief himself, and then a job offer.
"When the Secretary of the Treasury asks you to do something, you do it," Feinberg said. "I think millions of Americans would have done what I did. It's a patriotic undertaking. And it's an important one."
The Department clearly holds Feinberg in high regard, in part for his role in another patriotic – and also high-profile and contentious - undertaking: he was chair of the compensation fund for the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks. A senior Treasury official noted Wednesday that Feinberg was "highly respected" and "widely praised" for his work with the fund.
"We were involved there with horrible unprecedented tragedy – the deaths of 3,000 people is no comparison," recalled Feinberg. "On the other hand where there is a comparison is the fact…that we did develop a compensation methodology to value claims of over 5,000 people. I think our success in developing that compensation methodology, factors, and variables that we considered in adjusting compensation levels – I think that had a lot to do with the view of the administration that I might be able to bring some substantive skill to this assignment."
As part of this assignment, he knows that many business groups oppose the administration's steps to curb executive pay.
"This is a huge watershed step towards government involvement in the private sector," warned Scott Talbott, senior vice president at the Financial Services Roundtable.
"On the surface it's a watershed step," said Feinberg. "But I'm hoping that in practice it turns out to be a very successful government/private partnership -- that's certainly my objective."
The industry also argues that government-imposed compensation limits could impede companies' ability to attract and retain top talent.
"One of the challenges here is to set compensation at levels where you won't drain that talent," acknowledged Feinberg.
The special master plans to reach out to the seven companies in the coming days. In the long term, Feinberg knows that the government needs to exit the private sector.
"We must slowly but surely extricate the government from a role in the private marketplace," he said, noting that the administration shares the same view.
Untangling the government's involvement will not be easy, he admitted, but when it comes to his own "exit strategy," Feinberg has no doubts about what lies ahead.
"My exit strategy is to work out acceptable levels of compensation for those who I'm required to do so and then to leave the field to others. I have no interest in making this a lifetime job."