Small finance firms can give you the chance to shine early in your career, writes Kate Hilpern
So you know you want to enter the world of finance, but you don't know whether to go for the security of investment banks and multi-nationals, or the smaller financial corporations with which you can grow. Sounds familiar? According to careers advisor Rachel Pool, it's a dilemma faced by an increasing number of graduates: "Ten years ago, the message was, `the more renowned, the better'. But now it's become recognised that smaller firms can be a better bet."

Indeed, Capital One - a little-known company specialising in credit cards, which was set up in 1985 in the US and 1996 in the UK - promises graduate recruits a level of responsibility surpassing most blue-chip organisations.

"Like many of the smaller companies, we work from the bottom up rather than top down," explains Keridwen Cheetham, college recruitment manager at Capital One, which takes on around 25 graduates a year. "We believe that the people who really know the data are the people who are analysing it - that is, the graduates. Therefore, we feel it is they who should be making the recommendations and decisions. The more senior members of staff then bring their expertise to bear."

One employee of Capital One became senior vice president by the age of 27; another 26-year-old generates $3.5bn (pounds 2.1bn) in assets. Business analyst Pippa Smith, 23, who joined the UK site at its new base in Nottingham this year, explains: "I'd only been in the company six weeks before I was launching a new product that had been all my idea. It was on the market three months later. It was a pretty big project at that - a co-brand card, a normal credit card with special benefits such as a points scheme: the points can be redeemed on next year's Thomson holiday."

But it isn't just the opportunity to show capabilities early on that attracts graduates to smaller financial companies. The "no-blame", supportive culture is also influential.

"If you are pushing people to take on roles beyond their expectations, you've got to be prepared for them to mess up from time to time - whether they're an analyst, statistician or business manager. Consequently, the message has to be, `if things go wrong, that's OK', while in bigger organisations, most graduate recruits avoid accountability and don't go out on a limb because they fear the repercussions," says Cheetham.

Pool concludes that such firms give graduates the feeling of "making a difference" and tend to be particularly dynamic, sociable places, where people can have fun - "not usually a word connected with the financial world". These firms also tend not to mind which discipline your degree is in, thereby providing opportunities for people whose interest in finance comes during or after they've graduated.

But it isn't for everyone. "This is a chaotic place to work," admits Cheetham. "It won't suit anyone who is after a structured career. You might be getting stuck into one project, and three weeks later you'll have to stop it for another. Change is the watchword."

A Bank of England spokesperson - the bank recruits about 30 graduates a year - claims this is significant, as graduates entering finance have a reputation for favouring clear career paths. "It's true that a graduate working for the bank can't make huge decisions the moment they're recruited, but what we can offer them is what most of them want - a career development plan. Once they have worked their way up to a higher level, the responsibility is likely to be far higher than in any small company. After all, here you are helping set interest rates and influencing policy."

Salaries and joining bonuses also tend to be higher at more established firms. Laura Margolis, graduate recruitment manager at Anderson Consulting, which recruits 300-400 graduates a year, adds: "The training at a large firm is invaluable and cannot be matched by new firms. Here we put 10- 15 per cent of revenue back into training. New companies simply couldn't afford that."

Being at the core of the financial market is also important to many graduates, and smaller firms may not be able to offer a City base. Capital One's Trent House, for example, is located in Nottingham. "It's a gamble which type of company to go for," admits Pool. "But a good way to begin making your decision is to consider your priorities and compare them to the company's. If you wind up somewhere that doesn't meet your needs, you won't be productive - and the one thing all financial companies are after is very, very high productivity."