Senior vice president Fleet Mortgage Group, Columbia, S.C.

Linda Carman Hitchcock had a front-row seat for last year's mortgage refinancing boom.

Just as low interest rates ignited the historic surge, she took over a division of Fleet Mortgage Group that buys loans from some 800 banks, thrifts, and mortgage companies nationwide.

Ms. Hitchcock and her team performed with aplomb, boosting annual purchases by about 40%, to $11 billion. That preserved Fleet's stature as one of the leaders in wholesale mortgage banking.

At South Carolina-based Fleet Mortgage, the praise for Ms. Hitchcock borders on adoration.

"She's a superstar," exults Andrew D. Woodward Jr., president of the unit of Fleet Financial Group Inc.

Ms. Hitchcock, 35, grew up on a dude ranch in Dubois, Wyo., and then headed for the University of Kentucky on a debating scholarship. in between classes and tournaments, she picked up a real estate broker's license and began selling homes.

She arrived at Fleet Mortgage in 1984 as a retail originator in Columbia, S.C. The company quickly brought her into its crucial secondary-market operations to help sell off new loans.

Next she moved to the wholesale division, rising to her current post of senior vice president last january. The division accounts for about 60% of all new loans at the company, with 92 retail offices handling the rest.

Lately, Ms. Hitchcock has been thriving on some big changes at Fleet Mortgage and in the mortgage market at large. The company, which last year went public, has been coming on strong as hundreds of weak thrifts have retreated from the market.

All in all, Ms. Hitchcock says she couldn't imagine leaving either the mortgage field or Fleet.

"It would be like walking out of a really good movie in the middle of the best part," she says. "You'd walk away without knowing what happened."

To cap off her big year, she was married in December to Harry Hitchcock, a designer of security systems for airports. Appropriately enough, they met in an airplane.

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