My mother, a schoolteacher, was widowed when I was two. We lived in a modest home in Evanston, Ill., but I never thought we lacked for anything. My freshman year in high school I played football. My football coach was also the swimming coach and he suggested I try out for swimming. Spending six hours a day in a chlorine-filled pool teaches you discipline and instills a competitive spirit. It paid off. I was awarded a swimming scholarship to attend Northwestern University.

After graduating with a business degree, I enrolled in the business school at Washington University in St. Louis. Next, I was accepted into Merrill Lynch's junior executive training program. Soon after I started, Merrill gave us a report on General Motors. I took it seriously and I started calling GM dealers in my area. I didn't realize that when I asked for the manager, they put me through to the service manager. These were good guys, but not the high-net-worth prospects I was after.

The day I resigned from Merrill Lynch to move to Thompson McKinnon was one of the most difficult of my life. I had spent five years at Merrill and would miss the people. Subsequently, I held management positions at Thompson and at Drexel Burnham and stayed on when Paine Webber took over the Drexel office. I've joked that a company probably doesn't want to hire me because so many firms I've worked for ended up going out of business. I'm like a black cat crossing someone's path.

In 1992 I opened a private-client services branch office for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ) in Chicago. Then in 2001, I joined Credit Suisse First Boston, when the company merged with DLJ. The engine that pulls the train here is private banking, but we are one bank, with our private banking, investment banking and asset management businesses aligned to serve our clients. We have a rich referral network, and we recommend the other parts of Credit Suisse to clients of the private bank, and they do the same.

One lesson I've learned is that the best way to start the day is to make the toughest call first. Once you confront a problem, it sets up the rest of the day to be a good one. Admit any mistake and then say, "Let's move on."

People tease me about my pet saying — that I've never met anyone named "Firm." When someone wants to talk about the firm, I always ask who that is. I want to hear about people. Great people make the business.

Recently, I used a photo from a family trip to Florida to make a point in a meeting about the importance of communicating with clients. It shows my three grandchildren on separate pay phones at the airport. I displayed it on a screen and told my managers, "Hey, if my grandkids can pick up the phone, so can you."

As told to Pat Olsen