Senior vice president Universal Card Services, Jacksonville

Mary Kay Gilbert had been at First Chicago Corp. for five months when her boss, Paul G. Kahn, asked her to go with him to American Telephone and Telegraph Co.

Mr. Kahn, who had just been hired by the telecommunications giant to usher it into the bank credit card business, wanted Ms. Gilbert to run his customer service operation.

While not too keen on leaving her native Chicago for Basking Ridge, N.J., Ms. Gilbert jumped at the chance. "I knew that anything AT&T would do would be done well," she recalls.

Three years later, her hunch was rewarded when AT&T Universal Card Services won a 1992 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Ms. Gilbert, who will turn 35 in February, had a lot to do with that achievement. She oversees about 1,600 employees, many of them involved in some aspect of customer service.

Ms. Gilbert sees herself as a kind of role model for AT&T Universal's operators -- associates," in company parlance. She says that if the organization treats its employees right, they, in turn, will treat cardholders right.

"I try to lead by example," she says. "I'm trying to create an environment that people can feel good about. My managers work for their people. It's an upside-down pyramid."

After joining AT&T in May 1989, Ms. Gilbert volunteered to go to Jacksonville, Fla., to set up a customer service operation for the company's planned card. She arrived in Florida in january 1990, two months before the card was launched.

"I wanted to see the business come to life," she says. "I didn't want to sit on the sidelines."

Ms. Gilbert got her start in banking when she landed a job at Continental Bank straight out of Northern Illinois University. She spent one year in the auditing department, then was transferred to bank cards as a business systems analyst.

When Continental Bank sold its card portfolio to Chemical Bank in 1984, Ms. Gilbert worked for Chemical in Chicago. She then moved to First Chicago as Mr. Kahn's chief of staff.

As an AT&T Universal senior vice president, she is responsible for customer service, risk management, credit policy, and fraud prevention. One of the most satisfying aspects of her job, she says, is the feedback she receives from employees -- including cards saying how much they love to come to work.

"I didn't expect it to be like this." she says. "People really look up to you."

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