Elaine Nelson may be a newcomer to the top job at Sallie Mae's loan servicing center in Lawrence, but she's in familiar surroundings.
Indeed, when Nelson leads tours of the 52,000-square-foot facility at 2000 Bluffs Dr., she's retracing her own career with the Student Loan Marketing Assn., informally known as Sallie Mae.
In May, Nelson took the latest step in the seven-year journey that led her from the position of data analyst through supervisory jobs in several departments to the controller's office and, finally, to the position of assistant vice president in charge of the Lawrence operations.
The most recent promotion put Nelson in charge of 450 employees at the largest of six loan servicing centers operated by the Fortune 100 company.
As one of the first employees when the center opened, Nelson says she has a different perspective than an executive imported from the outside might bring to the job. She also had the opportunity to work under her predecessors, Barry Brotman, who opened the center and stayed until 1989, and Phillip Nowak, who left to take a banking job in Sacramento, Calif.
"It's been a big advantage," Nelson said of her tenure at the center, "because I know not just the work history here but I know the people."
Nowak says Nelson's breadth of experience at the center will serve her and Sallie Mae well.
"I think she has an excellent command of the underlying business, so she'll be very able to support each of the management areas," he said in a telephone interview last week.
WALKING through the various departments at the center, Nelson addresses employees she meets by name, and they respond with a casual "Hi, Elaine." Being on a first-name basis with the people who work under her is typical of Nelson's management style.
Perhaps paradoxically, Nelson expects that bringing a more laid-back attitude to high-pressure corporate surroundings will increase employee efficiency and productivity. By putting her slogan "quiet competence" into practice, Nelson says she hopes to achieve her ultimate goal: to solidify a stable workforce in a center that has been dogged by high turnover and suffered from slim pickings in Lawrence's low-unemployment labor market.
Nowak says Nelson's approach worked in the supervisory jobs she held before her most recent promotion.
"She brings out the best in people from the standpoint of wanting people to succeed. She's a good motivator," he said.
"She had a really, really good record of having employees stay with her, of having very loyal employees."
Nelson sums her philosophy up this way: "There's two ways to skin a cat. You can try to hire new people or you can keep people."
NELSON declines to quantify the past turnover and vacancy problems at Sallie Mae but said departures started to taper off two or three years ago, after the center had emerged from its initial growth phase.
"I think we've found a good balance for this center," Nelson said. She adds that the emphasis now is on refining operations and making them more efficient.
The center achieved that balance with about 450 employees, the workforce level the facility has maintained since about 1988, and with about 700,000 student loan accounts in its servicing portfolio, a number that has remained fairly constant for about two years.
Still, the volume of activity processed by those employees, who must work quickly and efficiently, is staggering.
The center's customer service center receives 60,000 pieces of mail and handles 10,000 address changes each month. During the same period, that group receives 50,000 phone calls.
The collections area of the center logs incoming 100,000 phone calls and places 200,000 outgoing calls a month.
The finance area processes $50 million to $60 million in monthly student loan payments.
Employees microfilm half a million documents each month.
ALL THIS activity serves $2 billion of the $45 billion in assets owned by the Herndon, Va.-based company.
High-pressure tactics won't work in this setting, Nelson said. "The most important thing is to create an environment where people are satisfied with their jobs and care about doing things right."
That's a tall order, considering that the majority of Sallie Mae's Lawrence employees are young the early 20s segment of the population is well represented there and hold entry-level positions that place most of them at computer terminals performing repetitive, mechanized tasks.
Nelson's strategy is to make the people working at the Lawrence center feel valued, so they'll stay and learn more about the business and ultimately develop more rewarding careers for themselves.
"The longer term workforce is going to create the opportunities to expand their job responsibilities," she said.
When vacancies do occur, Nelson wants the center to have a good reputation in the labor market.
"If this is a contented workplace, we'll attract more highly trained workers," she said.
NELSON HAS planned her attack on at least four fronts. One is to recognize that an employee's life does not necessarily revolve around the workplace. She believes it's important to acknowledge employees' families, their hobbies and involvement in church and community. She likes the idea that the center displays an employee's artwork on a high-traffic stairway.
The second component in her strategy is to acknowledge employees for achievements on the job. That includes not only recognizing them for the big things, such as achieving five years' tenure, but also by letting them know they're important in inconspicuous ways.
"The thing that motivates people the most is having their supervisor speak to them every day," she said.
Third, Nelson wants the work place to have a fun side to it. She's continuing a tradition started by Nowak of having Fridays be Dress-Down Day, when employees are allowed to wear jeans. That idea, she said, was "a huge hit."
SHE'S ALSO supported the idea of contests, such as one that allows the winners to toss a whipped cream pie in the face of their "favorite" supervisor.
Such contests are likely to pit departments against each other in competitions such as one going on at the center last week. Employees were donating cans of soup to stock the shelves of local food banks. That kind of volunteer activity is another of Nelson's emphases. She believes that by becoming involved in the community, Sallie Mae employees will be more contented and more likely to stick around.
Nelson also says she plans to lead by example in her campaign for a long-term workforce. Despite her string of promotions, Nelson says she intends to stay put. No one could ask for more than to work for a Fortune 100 company in Lawrence, Kan., she says.
"This is heaven. This is what anybody is looking for who leaves business school."