Retiring Sallie Mae chief revisits his Philadelphia roots

Posted: March 30, 2013

Albert Lord Jr., at age 67, is planning to retire as chief executive officer of student loan giant SLM Corp., better known as Sallie Mae, where he has battled presidents and barons of Congress, college heads and student protesters, rival bankers. and other ferocious foes since 1981.

He's left Sallie Mae twice before - once voluntarily, once not.

Tough job? Even for a guy paid $7 million in cash and stock in 2011, the last year Sallie reported his income?

Albert Lord knows tough.

It's a cold morning on Fox Street in Philadelphia's East Falls section, at the Abbotsford Homes housing project, where Lord lived as a child. His sky-blue eyes offset his silver hair, his face is pink from the biting wind, and he cheerfully recalls earlier battles: "There were zillions of kids. And we were always fighting."

There were fights between his gang of Catholic school students and the enemy "publics." There was the time he pummeled the boy upstairs - until Lord's dad, awakened by the racket, flattened the other boy's father. And the time five youths jumped Lord for his wagon. "It's a good thing the hospital was very close," he said.

From Abbotsford, Lord would head down Midvale Avenue to first and second grade at St. Bridget's, where a piano-playing nun supervised his detentions. He never met parishioner Grace Kelly, future princess. He cared more about Cornelius A. McGillicuddy, Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics manager who stalked past Abbotsford when the A's played at shabby Shibe Park.

"We'd wave. He didn't wave back," Lord recalled. Lord shared his Mack memories - except the snub - with Mack's grandson Sen. Connie Mack (R., Fla.) when lobbying Congress years later.

Lord wasn't sorry when his father, an Inquirer typesetter, moved Al, with his mother and two brothers, out of the projects to a ramshackle home in Kulpsville, Montgomery County. The Lord brothers moved on to Lansdale's St. Stanislaus School - now Mater Dei - and transferred to North Penn public schools after their parents divorced.

With the split, the sudden tribal shift to the public school was "really wrenching, a massive shock, I can see now," Lord says. He'd been an altar boy, knew the Latin. Now his friend, retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, tells him, " 'Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,' I'm welcome back, I don't need to make a 50-year confession."

He delivered the Evening Bulletin, paved parking lots at Leeds & Northrup, stocked shelves for Acme and A&P, hauled blocks for Rosanelli's masonry. Lord's brother, Greg, a carpenter, still lives in North Wales. Eric, his other brother, died in the Vietnam War.

"Neither of my parents went to college. Neither of my brothers went to college. My mom and my dad told me, 'You are going to college,' " Lord says. At Penn State - first at the Ogontz campus, where he met his wife, Suzanne, and later at State College - he made dean's list twice and was on probation twice.

How did the future student-loan magnate pay for college? Besides his summer wages, he relied on Suzanne's office-job earnings - they married his senior year. "And my father borrowed money for me," he recalled. "It wasn't a lot."

Lord and Suzanne raised a son and daughter. Lord commutes to Wilmington now, in bank-friendly Delaware, where he moved Sallie Mae in 2010, from near Annapolis, Md. The family summers at Strathmere, the relaxed Shore village on stilts.

Suzanne "is not looking forward to my retirement that much," Lord says, laughing.

Tough, resilient

When Lord agreed to visit the places he grew up for this story, he had to call his aged mother for help, because he didn't remember all the names or addresses.

But his quick tour of those locations - the bulldozed North Philly lots, the ex-countryside where he sweated for a buck, the worn homes of the family that broke up and the brother he lost in a war, the cross-topped school he had to leave - hinted at how Lord developed toughness and resiliency, traits useful to today's polished, positive CEO.

Lord might be smooth, but he knows what real conflict is. After the brawls of Fox Street, the lobbying wars of Washington's K Street, the financing schemes of Wall Street, the sign-waving protests against galloping student debt, weren't going to keep Lord from personal and professional goals.

Lord's first job out of school was at the accounting firm Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co. He bolted in 1973 to a client, First Pennsylvania Bank, led by the aggressive John R. Bunting, who made Lord treasurer five years later, at age 32.

Lord left Philadelphia for the Washington area, where Sallie Mae was hiring. In those days it was the student-loan equivalent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a government-created bank-and-college cooperative that bought loans from lenders and sold them to investors. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan urged these loan-buyers to become more like private companies. Lord smelled opportunity and signed up. Three years later, he was chief financial officer, preparing Sallie Mae for a public-share sale.

After challenging chief executive Lawrence Huff over how to fight Democratic efforts to reverse Reagan's reforms, Lord was forced out of Sallie Mae in 1994. He set up as a consultant, and was soon fielding queries from investors seeking to boost Sallie Mae's sagging share price. Lord and the dissidents organized and in 1997 took control of the Sallie Mae board. Tables turned, Lord took Huff's job.

President Bill Clinton compromised by targeting 40 percent of the student-loan market to privately run companies like Sallie Mae. Under President George W. Bush, "we got the government's share down to 15 percent, before Obama snatched it back," Lord says.

Lord retired in 2005. He helped negotiate Sallie Mae's sale to a group of banks, which would have netted him more than $200 million. Then the Sallie Mae sale unraveled, and its share price collapsed. Lord's successor quit. Directors asked Lord back, just in time for the financial crisis.

President Obama has made good on his pledge to put the government in charge of making new student loans. That leaves Sallie Mae to collect those government loans, and to focus on borrowers who needed extra funds. Lord cut Sallie Mae to 6,500 employees from a peak of 10,000.

The share price has stabilized around $20, up from a low of $3 during the financial crisis but still below its 2005 peak of $50.

Does it weigh on Lord that easy money for college students has left graduates in debt and fed to tuition inflation?

"The price of education goes up for one main reason: its value," said Lord. "I'm not suggesting there aren't excesses."


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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