Wells Fargo’s new head of Eastern U.S. community banking had planned to have a career as an opera singer – not a banker.
But after taking a teller job following her completion of a music degree, Michelle Lee never left the financial sector, she says in a YouTube video of a 2012 speech she gave in New York.
On Thursday, Wells Fargo announced that Lee, 53, will replace Laura Schulte, 55, who is based in Charlotte and will retire by the end of the year. Lee, who has been president of community banking operations for the Northeast, will move to Charlotte from New Jersey.
Wells Fargo said it could not make Lee or Schulte available for interviews this week.
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In the YouTube video, Lee, speaking at an event held by publication DiversityInc, described what led to her switch in career paths.
Lee said she grew up in Newark, N.J., and was interested in music and singing from an early age. With plans to become an opera singer, she studied at the Boston Conservatory.
After she graduated, the soprano returned to New Jersey, where her plans hit a speed bump.
Newark was “not exactly the best venue to pursue a career in opera,” she said. “There were no opera houses in Newark, at least none that I knew of at the time.”
She took a teller job with First National State Bank, a predecessor to Wachovia. At the time, she had no intention to stay in banking, she said.
She described herself as not a very good teller, because she had a habit of mistakenly giving customers the wrong amount of money – sometimes more than she should have. “Which made my customers love me,” she joked.
As she stayed in banking, she grew more interested in it, she said. She took banking courses and became a branch manager in north Newark. Eventually, she became Wachovia’s retail banking executive for the East Coast.
In 2008, Wells Fargo agreed to buy Wachovia as it floundered in the financial crisis. As a Wachovia employee, Lee said she was skeptical as she listened to Wells Fargo executives tell her about the vision and values of her new employer.
“I was comforted, but I was not convinced,” she said. “In the back of my mind I was wondering, ‘Is this just all theater?’ ”
She said she has come to learn that Wells Fargo lives by the vision and values it preaches.
In her new role, Lee will oversee about 2,700 Wells Fargo branches and roughly 32,000 employees in 14 states and Washington, D.C. She has been with Wells Fargo and predecessor companies for a combined 31 years.