My Biggest Mistake

I MADE my biggest mistake not once but twice - leaving the consumer financial services industry.

The first time was in 1981 when I was based in London. I'd been with Citibank for 11 years, I'd just turned 40, and I was questioning what I was going to do with the rest of my life. After receiving a call from an executive recruiter, I made the decision to join a high-risk and potentially high-reward entrepreneurial effort back in the United States.

It was a real change, because I became president and chief operating officer of a group running small manufacturing companies, hotels and restaurants. We were based in Missouri, with operations in Chicago, New York and Washington.

But very early on it was clear that the risk factor was higher than I had anticipated, and the likelihood of the high reward was negligible. The business plan was much too optimistic and the cash-flow projections were off, by about 100 per cent.

We had nothing but problems for the first six months. To make matters worse, I and the chief executive officer (who was also the prime investor) had totally misjudged our ability to work together.

With intense effort I made notable progress, but after 15 months I realised it wasn't going to work. So I picked I up the phone, called contacts in the financial services industry and joined Bank of America in San Francisco. Within a year I was running its global consumer markets with 1,000 branches and 50,000 people. I thought I was sitting on top of the world.

But my family, having been moved halfway round the globe, decided they didn't like California, and at about the same time I received a call from a friend asking me to join The First Boston Corporation, an investment bank. The job was basically administration, controlling cost structures. I had no revenue-producing responsibilities and my marketing experience wasn't being used. After five years of that, I realised I missed providing services to the marketplace. I just wasn't happy.

I spent nine months trying to figure out - again - what I was going to do with the rest of my life. But this time I was facing the crisis at 50.

Over the years I had come to recognise my skills: the fact is, I'm good at marketing, I'm a good sales manager, and I understand how the consumer thinks. It was obvious that I had to get back to the financial services industry - so in 1991 1 joined Acuma and moved the family back to the square in London where we had lived 10 years earlier.

I don't regret my years outside the financial services industry because I learned a lot, particularly about the value of quality service. But it would have made both my corporate life and my family's life a lot easier had we not made all the moves.

At Acuma we have a real passion about what we are doing. We truly believe we are bringing a value-added service to the marketplace, and we're building long-term client relationships based on confidence and trust.

I may not have learned by my mistake when I stepped out of the industry the first time round, but after the second time I'm sure I'll never make the mistake again.

The primary reason was probably confidence. I still believe I can run almost anything in any industry.

But I have realised that enjoying what you are doing, and making a full contribution, is just as important as the position, the money, the title and all that goes with that.

Fenton (Pete) Talbott, 50, is president and chief executive of Acuma, the American Express subsidiary that offers fee-based personal financial planning. With an MBA from the University of Kansas, he became a controller with Ford Motors, then joined Citibank in 1971 where he became senior vice-president and head of the European consumer financial services division. In 1983 he was appointed executive vice-president and head of global consumer markets at Bank of America and in 1985 became managing director at First Boston Corporation, where he stayed until 1991.

(Photograph omitted)

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