Maria Elena Lagomasino calls herself one of those "people from the Sixties who thought it was really bad to do anything commercial."
So she majored in French literature and got a master's degree in library science from Columbia University.
But she was drawn to business anyway. After putting her Columbia training to work as a librarian at the United Nations, Ms. Lagomasino set up informational interviews in private and corporate banking for Citibank. After nine straight hours of interviews at the private bank, she was offered a job. She never made it to the corporate bank.
"I walked into the private bank at Citibank and felt immediately at home," she said. A daughter of one of pre-revolutionary Cuba's wealthiest families, she arrived in the United States in 1960 after the cigar factory founded by her grandfather - which even today, she said, produces some of Cuba's most successful brands (Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey, and Belinda)- had been confiscated by the government of Fidel Castro. Her family was left with nothing.
"If my parents and grandfather had had someone like me to help them" with their finances during the revolution, things would have been different, she said.
But her family's experience helped fuel her passion to become the consummate private banker.
"When I started in this business in 1976 in Latin America, I worked with people who were terrified that a Fidel Castro would come along and take everything away from them," she said. "I worked with wealthy Latin American Jews who had emigrated to Buenos Aires or Santiago during the Second World War [and] who were afraid of losing everything all over again.
" 'This is like my family,' I said to myself. 'I have to be able to help them.' "
After seven years at Citibank, Ms. Lagomasino joined Chase Manhattan Corp., which gave her the opportunity to run all of the Latin America business for the private bank. Sixteen years later, the worldwide operation is her baby, and she reports to vice chairman James B. Lee, who, she says, is "a blast" to work for.
Having the private bank within the investment bank - most private banks are placed in the asset management area - means the opportunities for cross-selling and client referral are immense, she said. "I'm learning a lot about sports analogies, and Jimmy's learning a lot about private banking."
Ms. Lagomasino acknowledges that the price she has paid for her career has been high. She is not married; she travels 50% of the time, so much that she can never remember what she has left at the dry cleaners. As a managing director in Chase's investment banking division, she wears a beeper that is active from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
But when Ms. Lagomasino found her way into private banking, she also found her metier. "I'm a real dyed-in-the-wool private banker," she says. "I want to do this better than anybody else."