What could've been a step backwards for Margaret Keane 13 years ago turned out to be a savvy career move.

"I went from a big job at Citi to a much smaller job at GE and I kind of reset my career," says Keane, the president and chief executive of GE Money's $29 billion-asset Retail Consumer Finance business. "I think that was really a pivotal decision, and I never really looked back."

Though admittedly a risk, going from head of branch operations for Citibank in New York to Six Sigma leader for GE Commercial Finance in 1996 gave Keane more time with her son and daughter. It also got her started in a company with a culture of work-life balance where she could thrive.

Keane's inclusive management style and ability to connect with people, from young call center reps to CEOs of large corporate partners, help make her an effective leader who gets noticed. "I said to myself when I met her, 'Boy, this is someone who I want to get on my team inside of GE.' And I worked very hard to do that," says her current boss Mark Begor, president and CEO of GE Money Americas.

The business Keane oversees provides private-label credit cards to the likes of Gap, Lowe's and Wal-Mart. It has more than 40 million cardholders.

At June 30, assets were down 4 percent from a year earlier, but raising fees, adding debt collectors and cutting expenses by 17 percent helped increase revenue 9 percent.

The economic downturn has brought some changes in business practices. After listening in on calls where non-delinquent cardholders were seeking help, Keane and her team created a special "hardship unit" to offer them payment plans. "Our normal practice would be, 'Well, call us back when you're late.'" Keane says.

Sixty to 65 percent of customers referred to the program - which is part of customer service, not collections - take a payment plan; more than 50 percent of those stick to it. "I feel if we can help these customers through this cycle, they're going to be much more loyal customers when they get on their feet," Keane says.

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