Fontaine Lee | Crain's Atlanta

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Fontaine Lee

Background:  

Fontaine Lee has worked for Cumberland Trust, a wealth management company, since 2010. Before that, she worked in development with Atlanta-based Reliance Trust, an investment manager. Lee is a native of Atlanta and a board member of Agape Youth and Family Center, which runs programs for children from underserved families. She received her MBA from Emory University.

The Mistake:

A lot of young professionals fall into the trap of thinking that bigger is better. When I was early in my career, I also made that mistake. What I know now is, bigger is not better.

I grew up here in Atlanta, which is a city dominated by companies with big brand recognition. You’ve got Coca-Cola, UPS and Delta Air Lines. After college, I worked in New York City at Citigroup, a great company with big brand recognition. My friends were envious.

I had an entry-level job at Citigroup, and it was hard to move out of that because of all the red tape. I started as a sales assistant working on the trading desk, but I didn’t have my own clients. And you simply couldn’t get into the training program to become a sales trader and get your own clients. It wasn’t allowed, and there were strict rules about it.

I eventually decided I wanted a graduate degree. What people didn’t realize was just because I was in this role in a great, big brand company didn’t mean I had broad experience. Small companies force you to take on more. When I got to Emory University’s business school in 2002, I realized that my classmates who had worked at smaller firms had more exposure to finance, marketing and management. They had also worked with higher members of their firm.

When I came to Cumberland Trust in 2002, I quickly saw the value of a small firm. It was amazing. I didn’t really know Cumberland when I interviewed, but I liked the business model and I liked the people. It was a great decision. I’ve had so many opportunities here that I wouldn’t have had at jobs where there are so many more layers.

What I know now is, bigger is not better.

The Lesson:

I don’t think a lot of people think about the smaller firms. When my friends and I graduated, we were focused on the name of the firm, the salary and where we were going to be living. It was easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of that. But there wasn’t a lot of thought to what the company does, how am I going to get from point A to point B, where will I be in five years, do I want to go to graduate school and will this job give me good experience to get there.

That reality doesn’t always match the perception. Big companies have a lot of resources, but they’re big, so it can be hard to switch over to another department.

When it came to those hard skills, I didn’t have what my Emory University classmates did. They had more opportunities because they were working with firms that had to do as much as a big firm with fewer resources.

I’ve learned that bigger is not better. It’s important to think about the reality, not the perception. Don’t think that a big name is what you need to strive for. In reality, you’ve got to find the right firm for your skills. You need to find people you like because you spend more time with them than your family. Culture is king.

Photo courtesy of Cumberland Trust

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