Maria Elena Lagomasino knows what it's like to be an ambitious outsider in a strange land, whether as a little Cuban girl in Connecticut or a woman in red on Wall Street.
As a child, she was the first Cuban many of her friends in West Hartford had ever met. And as a woman, she was the first female some of her co-workers had dealt with in a male-dominated banking world.
But Ms. Lagomasino refused to blend in. She adapted to new environments, climbed corporate ladders at Citigroup and JPMorgan, and now she sits atop Asset Management Advisors LLC as the company CEO, overseeing more than $10 billion in assets under management and 200 employees spread across 11 offices.
After helping the Bush administration in 2005 by leading an effort to secure funds for Central America disaster victims, she capped last year by accepting an appointment to serve on the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy.
And she's starting 2007 as Hispanic Business magazine's Woman of the Year. Ms. Lagomasino will be honored, along with four other finalists, at the 5th annual Hispanic Business WOY Awards Gala on April 26 at Caesar's Palace Las Vegas.
Ms. Lagomasino says she always dreamed of being an executive, but she didn't start out on Wall Street. In fact, Lagomasino's first real job after graduating from Manhattanville College in 1970, with a bachelor's degree in French literature, was at the United Nations. Even though the women's liberation movement was flourishing, women were still expected to become secretaries, she recalls.
Ms. Lagomasino refused to learn to type. Instead, she spent five years working in the U.N.'s library, handling government documents and earning a master's degree in library science from Columbia University. Every year, she would negotiate with the Library of Congress over what documents they needed to send to the U.N. During these negotiations she realized she liked dealing with people more than handling documents. So in 1977 she interviewed at Citigroup's private bank and earned a spot as a management trainee.
"From the first day on that [Citibank] job, I knew I was home," she says. "I realized I wasn't having fun in my U.N. job, so I went back to Columbia, visited the placement office, and took an aptitude test. It validated for me what I had believed all along, which was, 'I belong in the business world.'"
She reflects on her 30-year journey in financial services from her spot atop AMA, where she was named CEO in 2005. A quest to help families led Ms. Lagomasino, 57, to the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida-based company, which is 70 percent owned by Sun Trust Banks Inc. AMA provides independent advice to families – "multi-generational clients" -- with a minimum net worth of $25 million.
"It's really what I've wanted to do all along: Work for a company that serves families on their side of the table," she says. "After years of working in financial services, now I feel like I really get to help families."
Ms. Lagomasino takes pride in leading a company that shares her passion. And being a leader, she says, requires one key ingredient – vision.
"A leader needs a vision of what they want to have, then they need to have the courage to make it happen," she says. "It's most important to have courage because you need to be able to communicate that vision to the people in your company. As you add others to your company and they see your vision, they will want do what needs to get done to realize that vision.
"At AMA, we're practically zealots when it comes to serving families," she adds. "We turn down opportunities that may be a little more lucrative or more profitable so that we can focus on families. When we find others who believe in that vision, they join [AMA] and we're able to make things happen."
Her aptitude test and her job at Citigroup in 1997 ignited Ms. Lagomasino's passion for helping families. She helped Citigroup clients from countries such as Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia execute transactions, such as setting up wills or trusts. She also earned her MBA by attending Fordham University at night.
In 1983, she was hired to run Chase Manhattan Corp.'s Latin America private banking practice in New York. She advised high-net-worth families living in South America who had assets in the United States. It was her job to help these families prepare for situations – up to such traumas as a coup or a revolution – that might require them to start over in the United States.
Ms. Lagomasino saw the job as her mandate to help families avoid the pitfalls that her own family encountered. "My parents didn't have any money when we came and we took a huge drop in the quality of life," she says. Those memories helped Ms. Lagomasino work 18-hour days, six days a week, for several years.
She understood that families would need a certain amount of capital if they were ever forced to migrate. With such capital, the families could send their children to school, start a business, or buy a house in the United States.
In 1997, she became head of Chase's private bank, where she oversaw 1,500 people, a workforce that doubled to about 3,000 people once Chase merged with J.P. Morgan & Co. in 2001.
"She is the consummate relationship manager," says Art Ryan, the current CEO of Prudential Financial Inc., who ran Chase's International bank at the time. "She was a role model for her people in the sales and marketing side because of her dedication."
With all she has achieved, Ms. Lagomasino never viewed being Hispanic as an obstacle. She believes it has helped. Many people, she says, grow up in a one-dimensional world and view things from a narrow perspective. "We already understand two cultures," she says. "We know there is more than one way to do things. It's this ability to bridge, by just being Latina, that is much greater."
Starting out on Wall Street in the late 1970s, Ms. Lagomasino said she played her "Latina-ness" to her advantage. Then a 20-something female, she would travel overseas to meet with clients – often men in their 50s. Her co-workers, also men, would appear at these meetings in navy blue pinstriped suits. "Then I would show up," she says with a laugh. "I was totally memorable."
Many of her clients connected with her because she spoke their language and grasped their cultural differences. Her savviness became apparent during a dinner in Santiago. Ms. Lagomasino and a co-worker were dining with a client and about 10 members of the client's family. "They were all talking at the same time," Ms. Lagomasino says. Throughout the dinner, the family members would often raise their voices, argue, laugh, and shout. Ms. Lagomasino's colleague didn't know what to do, she says. He didn't understand the dynamics of a Hispanic family and how loud conversations can get.
"Cada loca con su tema [each crazy person with their topic]," she says. "I thought he was going to die."
There were a couple times when her co-workers would not include her in activities, such as a "guys dinner" where they would discuss important issues, but Ms. Lagomasino said she never let that get in her way. Prudential's Mr. Ryan regrets such incidents. "It was not fair, but it was the nature of the business," he says.
ONE OF THE GANG
But Ms. Lagomasino did find an ally in Chase's then-chairman and CEO, David Rockefeller. She remembers one ground-breaking incident, a Chase trip to Monterrey, Mexico. She was traveling with Mr. Rockefeller and various Chase co-workers to attend a dinner featuring the top 15 business people in that city. Her colleagues didn't know how to include Ms. Lagomasino in the gathering, since she would be the only woman. "The guys in the bank were really uncomfortable," she recalls. But Mr. Rockefeller took charge and phoned the wife of the man hosting the dinner, asking, "Would you co-host the dinner with your husband tonight?" She did and the dinner turned out to be a success.
Ms. Lagomasino's colleagues never failed to include her again. "But it took Mr. Rockefeller to figure out a way to get this dinner to work," she says now.
"She is a fine person and excellent banker. She just happens to be a woman," adds Alice Victor, David Rockefeller's chief of staff.
While Ms. Lagomasino is a role model for Hispanic women, Mr. Ryan credits her with breaking down barriers for all women. When she became head of JPMorgan's combined private banking operations, Ms. Lagomasino had to grow in her new position. She needed to pick subordinates who could manage their work without constant supervision, while expanding her knowledge to include technology and finance. She also had to form a game plan to motivate the organization.
Not every person can accomplish such a transition, Mr. Ryan says. "You might be the best accountant but that doesn't mean you can translate these skills to being a corporate executive who runs thousands of people."
Ms. Lagomasino did, and with her typical zeal. "She worked very hard to become a broader executive and be successful at it," he says.
The future CEO learned the value of hard work, and the delayed gratification that comes from sacrifice, at a very young age.
Both sides of Ms. Lagomasino's family fled Cuba, the land of her birth, when she was 11. She and her father, a civil engineer, were the first to leave. In Miami, they were joined later by her mother and three brothers (two more siblings were born in the United States). The family eventually resettled in West Hartford, Connecticut.
"Talk about culture shock," she says. "No one in West Hartford had ever known anyone from Cuba ... I could never get over the cold."
The Lagomasino family had been middle class in Cuba but suffered a major economic decline with the move. While they weren't poor – her father, Hector, was employed by Dunham-Bush Inc., which produced air conditioner and refrigerator parts – they had little money, she says. The servants they enjoyed in Cuba were now just a memory. It fell to her mother, with Ms. Lagomasino's help, to cook, care for the children, and run the household.
In West Hartford the little girl began grasping the societal differences of her peers. In Cuba, all of her school friends were middle class and Catholic. But her West Hartford classmates were a mix of upper-crust and blue-collar kids. Different religions, like Jewish and Protestant, were also the norm.
She learned to accept being viewed as unique. For many in Connecticut, Ms. Lagomasino was their first Cuban acquaintance. Friends and neighbors would ask her if they had refrigerators in Cuba or even elevators. But Ms. Lagomasino wasn't ostracized. "The kids went out of their way to adopt us, to teach us expression ... The people of West Hartford were really unbelievable," she says.
Among her role models, Ms. Lagomasino credits her mother, also named Maria Elena, with giving her the drive to succeed. Her mom fought her husband's and family's opposition to her working and became chief operating officer of the family company in Cuba. Once in the United States, the elder Maria Elena raised six children and worked as a high school Spanish teacher to help make ends meet. She also gave speeches about the plight of Cubans, worked as a social worker for the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program, and, at one point, hosted a radio show. Now 83, the elder Maria Elena finally canceled her real estate license although she is still president of her condo association in Miami.
"My mother was my inspiration. She had a good business head and was a great mom. She was super woman," Ms. Lagomasino says.
With all this success, she advises other Hispanic women to take a page from her book and not blend in. She remembers the uniform she adopted at Citi during the 1980s – a neutral navy suit matched with a simple blouse and bow around the neck – that was meant to help her be taken seriously. A petite woman – she stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall – Ms. Lagomasino chucked the bland "power suit" as women became more common on Wall Street. Now, she thinks it's good to flaunt a feminine side, in a respectful way.
Don't be invisible, she says. "If people think about me, they think of me in a bright color. I wear red and yellow and orange."
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